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A Tour of Brownsville, Brooklyn’s Jewish Past

September 26th, 2010 by DavidFreeland

Yesterday afternoon, a hot one here in the city, I was inspired to take a trip out to Brownsville, Brooklyn, once a hub of Jewish cultural life and now considered one of the most dangerous sections of New York.

Former Synagogue in Brownsville (note Star of David at top)

I was thinking of my late friend, George Sandler (father of my friend Rita), who was born in Brownsville in 1916 and grew up in the neighborhood.  While aware that many of Brownsville’s storied tenements were razed for public housing projects beginning in the 1950s, I was curious to see what might be left, in a physical sense, of Brownsville’s Jewish history.  Urban renewal seems to have impacted New York in a less overarching way than it did other U.S. cities, and, as it turns out, Brownsville still bears traces of its past.

I started with the old Loew’s Pitkin Theater on eponymous Pitkin Avenue, Brownsville’s commercial artery.  Opened in 1929, the Pitkin bears a remarkable similarity to the slightly later Loew’s 175th Street Theater in Manhattan’s Washington Heights.  George remembered coming to the Pitkin as a teenager, and, according to a 1932 New York Times account, the great Yiddish composer, Rumshinsky,  appeared here for a week’s engagement.  Outside the theater, a sign hints at plans for some sort of revitalization.

According to a 1951 book in my library on Murder, Inc., the infamous crime syndicate which grew in part out of Brownsville, “neighbors firmly believe Pitkin Avenue compares with Fifth Avenue…or any other promenade famed for its shops and shopping.”  Today, there is still much to be seen on Pitkin, including this terra cotta beauty.  It was once the Simon Ackerman department store.

And while we’re on the subject of gangsters, here’s a shot of Amboy Street, after which the notorious “Amboy Dukes” were named.

Amboy Street, home of the “Amboy Dukes”

While often cited as being a “fictitious” gang, George Sandler and others have claimed the Amboy Dukes were real.  In fact, as children George and some friends once got stuck in the Amboys’ clubhouse.  To frighten him into keeping quiet about what he might have heard, the Amboys smeared rotten eggs over his head!

Lovers of old signs will find much to savor in this remnant of what was probably a Chinese restaurant, on Pitkin.

Neon Survivor

Meanwhile, those interested in 1930s Deco will appreciate this Art Moderne-styled bank building, with Federalist touches.

Art Moderne Bank on Pitkin

I ended my tour beside the Pitkin Theater at “Zion Triangle,” a small park dedicated to Jewish veterans of the First World War.

Zion Triangle

“There were no subways at that particular time,” George once told me.  “If there were, our part of the area didn’t use them”  Instead, George explained, trolley cars supplied Brownsville residents with their primary form of transportation.  Visiting Brownsville yesterday, I came to understand George’s assertion.  Even now, the neighborhood feels removed from the rest of the city, and I needed to walk many blocks before coming to an A train.  And, of course, the A was not completed until the early 1930s, well past George’s childhood.

With its capacity for outliving the humans who create it, architecture can bring back the verve and spirit of a place in ways a mere historical plaque cannot.  After yesterday I feel more in touch with George’s personal history, and, as a New Yorker, a piece of my own.

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  • I had my wedding shower at the Chinese Restaurant in the picture, Wuhan, in 1966.

  • I lived @ 1685 St. Johns Pl between Ralph Ave and Howard, back in the late 1930′s and up to the early 1950′s. The “A” train was part of the IND, and ran on Fulton Street the IRT was up on Eastern Pkway and went into new Lots .

  • I was wondering if the fellow Stanley Maron is the classmate I had who came from Asbury Park NJ? If so I spent a number of years with him as a classmate mainly in JHS66. The teachers I remember were Mr. Butler, Mr. Sulman, Mr. Gustave Rappaport, Mr. Ben Roberts, M r. Adolph Dembo, Miss Florence Zakin

  • Yes Stuart, I think you were in several of the classes I attended. If you want to talk I am at 413 253 0503 in Amherst MA

  • Hope everything is okay with my good friends from this column. Hymie, hope you are keeping Manhattan in line. I read the New York Post daily and it seems I have never left Brownsville at all. have been in South Florida for thirty years. My good friend Stanley Maron from Asbury Park and Brownsville will be receiving as phone call from me very shortly. We also went to Lew Wallace Junior high and it was not a picnic. It had the likings of a war zone. Still hanging around recuperating from my car accident in addition to the older age problems. Those punch ball and stick ball games years ago are beautiful memories. We really did many things growing up in addition to military service. I think of the past lots of times and the best part was living in Brownsville where everyone was original. My best to all you good folks. Good health should always be with you and the wind should always be at your back. Sincerely Stuart Portnoy 172 Amboy Street.

  • Stan Maron,
    The last time we met you were selling from a cart at curbside.Yes,the Cinema,the Ambassador,Pop’s Inn and the Dumont Avenue Poolroom were what life was about.As to Billiards,there was never a day that you could beat me.
    Regards,

  • I am taking the opportunity to write to all my Brownsville brothers and sisters to have a wonderful and happy Thanksgiving. No matter where you are throughout our wonderful nation our thoughts of growing up and residing in Brownsville is a revelation to all of us. Wishing you all the best of health and happiness. Stuart Portnoy

  • Does anyone remember my father’s store on Pitkin Ave: Gyer’s Pipe Shop in the 1940′s, 50′s, and 60′s?

  • Hi David
    Love your website got on by accident.
    Just a few added tidbits.
    The Chinese restaurant on the same side is the Pitkin theatre but across the street was WUHANS, the best shrimp chow mein.
    On Rutland road the guy selling pickles from the barrel was a big guy who would put his hand in the barrel and come up with a wonderful tasting pickle. I always thought that the pink brine was the secret. Found out years later that the pink brine was caused by his red long john sleeve top that “ran” into the brine. The old knish guys with the silver colored wagon was selling “moms” knishes.
    If a Brooklyn Dodger player hit the Abe Stark sign in Ebbets field they received a free suit. Where Sutter ave intersected with Rutland road was Dave’s blue room who served a great mush steak.Upstairs on same the level as the New lots ave train.
    Loved growing up in Brooklyn, too bad my kids did not have that luxury.

  • I remember going to a small shul on chester st.There was also a bigger shul on that st. I lived on Hopkinson ave and attended ps 175.I remember the HES. Does anyone remember the candy store on corner of Hokinson and sutter ave?on Hoskinson I remember some sort of jewish center and a small store where i would buy comic books.Every sat. we would go walking on pitkin ave and also go to Lincoln Terrace park to play.I wish i could walk again there just to relive some moments of my childhood.I remember Loews theatre and what a magical place it was. We moved.

  • I lived at 640 Hopkinson Ave diagonally across from P.S175.
    the principal was a battle ax named Kerrikeddy.

  • PS 175 did have a battleax named Lena Chericetti. She were dresses from the civil war era. Her boss Principal miss Anderson was also a winner. The teachers were Mrs. Lichtman, Mrs. Gold, Mrs. Kuller and the best one in the school was Miss Mary the custodian.

  • I lived at 199 Amboy Street from ’48, (when I was born), till ’57. My cousins and I played baseball in Betsy Head Park, then at night we would climb over the fence and go swimming in an officially closed Betsy Head Pool. We went to the Pitkin movie theater, and the Ambassador theater on Saratoga and Livonia, where I saw “THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON”, and countless other flicks at the Saturday Matinee. I went to P.S. 175 and had the pleasure of seeing and hearing Mrs. Karaketti (spelling optional), ring a cowbell to “herd” the kids back into the school after lunch break was over. I was a cub scout memmber at the HES and I played with my friends at the BROWNSVILLE BOYS CLUB, aka THE BROWNSVILLE RECREATION CENTER on Linden Blvd. It was the BEST OF TIMES…..

  • I lived at 603 Bristol St., corner of Hegeman Ave The trolley car barns were across Hegeman, to Linden Blvd and bordered on the east by Rockaway Ave. When buses replaced the trolleys in the early 1950′s, I had trouble sleeping for about 2 years because it was too quiet. I missed the clanking trolleys. I went to PS 165 on Hopkinson Ave, just aroumd the corner, then Somers JHS 252, Thomas Jefferson HS, Brooklyn College. I’d love to hear from any contemporaries from those days.

  • The Amboy Dukes was followed by The Black Hats

  • The Amboy Dukes was followed by The Black Hats. I lived @ 1875 & 1838 Pitkin Ave. ps84, ps150, ps66. I was in the Belmont Ave
    Scene of Look Back In Anger. Sold papers in front of the Stone and Reo theaters for Balzy. Much more!!! Dopey Louie’s poolroom. If anyone has interest we can write THE BOOK!!! Lenny Roth

  • Yes Martin, I did sell general merchandise in the streets of lower Manhattan for 12 years 1968-1980. After that I used my G I bill to go to collegeand went into teaching special Ed. I lasted for 3 years and then took a job with the department of social services where I worked for 12 years. After retiring I worked as an adjunct professor and taught psychology and sociology for 10 years. This is a thumbnail sketch of my book which comes out this year. Best to all Shettle Pepes!

  • Stewart Portnoy, I also worked in the 180th street subway Barn for a short time. Frank Uchansky the Barbers son also worked at the big Coney Island barn. I think his title was car inspector. Do you remember the guy who checked when you called in sick. Bekes :)
    Best wishes,
    Stan
    Amherst
    Ma

  • Lived at 115 Herzl St. 1940′s & 1950′s part of the Herzl st. gang.Went to PS 175 & JHS 66. Friends of mine were Babe, Maish, Junior.Wambi, and many many more.

    Stu Portnoy I sort of remember We use to gamble together. If so lets hear from You.

  • Joe George Felner, I used to hang out on Herzl and Blake. I do not6 recall you but thank you for writing. I never gambled even though I frequented Moes pool room on Dumont and Legion. The reason I did not gamble is the fact that I was always working here and there always trying to make a buck and I worked too hard to lose my earnings. My guys on Herzl and Blake all went to Lew Wallace JHS on Osborn Street which was like a war zone. Stanley Maron could attest to that. Retired from NYC Transit as a supervisor of buses. My best to you always Stuart Portnoy

  • Wonderful, memories of childhood. We, lived at, 138 Hopkinson Avenue. Across, the street from an, Italian deli, and a, Chinese, laundry. Across, the street from, McDougal St. was, Izzy’s,, candy store. My, favorite memory, is watching the parade down, Altlantic Avenue, when the, Brooklyn Dodgers, won the pennant. I was eight years old.

    Big, question is, George Sandler, related to my, grandfather, David Sandler, who lived in Woodbury, Ct. ?

  • Wow – nice walk down memory lane – my niece sent this site to me via Facebook. Does anyone remember Grabstein’s Kosher Restaurant on Sutter and Sackman? Attended PS 150 down the street and the dreadful PS 84 before TJHS. In one of the comments the name Harriet Furman sounds familiar from TJHS. My mother had a beauty salon first on Stone Avenue and then on Sutter Ave near Sackman St -

  • Hi Natalie, I remember Grabsteins kosher deli on Rockaway Parkway and AveL. That is where they moved to after Sackman Street.A meal there was magnificent especial their cucumber salad which was placed on every table. They did very well in Canarsie who had already taken the name of Seaview Village. Now getting around to Harriet Furman. She resided in an apartment house at 219 Herzl St, corner of Blake Ave.. A real wonderful young lady and pretty besides. She had a friend by the name of Loretta katz who moved from Brownsville to Detroit. Now I picked up an appetite for a corned beef on club with all the fixings since I mentioned Grabsteins. My best to you and yours Stuart Portnoy Coconut Creek, Florida

  • Someone here mentioned Betsy Head Park – that brought back many memories too – we would walk there from Sutter and Powell – great fun -

  • Betsy Head Park had base ball, swimming, basketball and more. I think Stuart Portnoy was on a team called the Flipsters. I would have been on a team called the Stud-sters but they had no such basketball team.

  • “Former Synagogue in Brownsville (note Star of David at top)” – Could that building have been the HES? (Hebrew Educational Society) and “Art Moderne Bank on Pitkin” – I think that was The East New York Savings Bank – Have since relocated to SF Bay Area – so I can still ride a Trolley.

  • Natalie,
    The Synagogue with the star on Eastern Parkway was Chaim Berlin.The HES was on Hopkinson and Sutter until it moved to Canarsie.

  • Martin – that’s right – Hopkinson Avenue does sound familiar.

  • It is amazing that StanleyMaron remembers me playing basketball for the Flipsters. There was another team called the Chariots with Bernard Goldstein and Lefty Guberman on their team. Our basketball courts were mainly the HES and Betsy Head pool area. All our guys attended JHS66. I guess Stanley Maron remembers Mr. Gustave Rappaport who was a teacher in JHS 66. He was quite an older gentlemen who on hi free time would read comic books . He had a suit and vest that must have been his bar mitzvah outfit. My best to Hymie from Sutter and Hopkinson. Stuart Portnoy

  • Does anyone here have any relatives that attended PS84? My grandfather graduated in 1903. It was a very interesting class. Would be interested in hearing from any descendants of this group!

  • I am writing a mystery that is set in the present but goes back to Brownsville in the ’30′s. (See my website for further info on me as a writer) Loved finding this site and would love to talk to anyone who remembers that period, or even Brownsville later (up to early 60′s). I’ve done a lot of research and worked there in the 70′s but know it had changed a lot. Contact me at my e-mail if you are interested. Thanks!

  • I lived at 500 Hopkinson Ave a few doors down from the Hopkinson Theater. I attended PS 175 & then JHS 84. I graduated JHS 84 in 1953. I think I remember someone in my class named Melvin Wilk. could that be a brother of Steven Wilk? I also remember the Stadium Theater on Herzl St. I also remeber the HES. I attended Brownies and Girl Scouts there. I frequented a candy store on Hopkinson Ave near Pitkin owned by the Rabitz family. Great malteds.

  • I also remember Miss Kerikeddy and Miss Andersom. Assembly days we girls wore middy blouses and I believe red ties. And of course no pants only skirts. What a flood of memories this page has brought to mind. It was a good time in my life.

  • I remember P.S. 84 – went there in 1950 – in later years I wanted to sue the Board of Education (just kidding) for providing the worst possible education in that facility,. Looked and felt like a jail and of course the uniforms and ties – jeez! School teachers I remember very clearly are the McQuade sisters – worst educational experience of my life – although I still can recite the prepositions.

  • Responding to Diane the correct location of the Stadium theater won not on Herzl St. It was located on Chester St right off Pitkin Ave. Right across the street from the Stadium was the telephone company office. One block away at Pitkin and Bristol was the Con Edison office. The correct spelling of that monster of a assistant principal is Cherichetti. Great years, tough but good Stuart Portnoy Coconut Creek Fl.

  • I stand corrected, Stuart on both counts. I find this site most fascinating and it has brought back a lot of memories that I thought I had forgotten. I am now in Levittown NY and have been for almost 49 years. My most vivid memories of the years from kindergarten to 9th grade and those years were in Brownsville..

  • Brownsville had a slew of independent pharmacists. Outside the sign said drug store. Now it says pharmacy. There was Harry Josephson, Victor Schutzbank, Sidney Siskind, Harry Margolis, Ruben Belfus amongst others. Goldsteins kosher deli on Sutter and Amboy. Across the street was Schechters fruit store and Qjuenzels appetizing where after buying soup greens on Friday you bought soup greens from Schecter and a quarter of a pound nova lox from Quenzel for seventeen cents. They were n ext door to Rosens dairy. Other establishments were Eppy and Eppy shoes, Murray and Nat barber shop,Dr. George Lieberman the DDS with his assistant Greta. Those were the days Stuart Portnoy

  • It is hard to believe but Betsy Head Park named after a British immigrant by the name of Betsy head who donated $190,000 to start construction will celebrate its 100th anniversary very shortly in the year 2014. Can you imagine how many millions of Brownsville folks frequented that .location in addition to many from outside areas. Believe me there will never be another place like3 Brownsville where we grew up and learned a lot in the streets. The streets were a separate college and we will never forget good old Brownsville. My best to all of you who are scattered throughout and always will remember our upbringing in that great town. Good health Stuart Portnoy Coconut Creek, Florida

  • Yes Stuart, There was Rappaport aka Rappy the runt and Connor printing, Epstien music, Harrison english, Epstien music, OE Allen g;uidence, Robeerts ?, Levine art, Tastra library, Lubell and Tobias shop, Latoure history, Mirsky and Herring gym, and once a Hollywood beauty came in to teach math but she only lasted about 2 days. My book will be out in June and all of these characters will be highly developed and very funny. Stan

  • Stuart, Wonderful memories, I lived at Herzl and Sutter. Remember Sidney Siskind’s Drug store, ordered a 6×4 at Goldstein’s Deli ( 6 cents salami on 4 cents club with mustard ) .Bought shoes at Eppy and Eppy, haircuts at Nats Barber shop and Patient of Dr Lieberman ( now have full set of dentures) Thoes really were the days. Thanks for the memories.

  • I remember Sidney Siskind and his wife Lillian well. As a kid I sat in their pharmacy waiting for the public telephones to ring so I would run to the apartment houses to call residents to the phone which rewarded me a nickel. I also sat at Oleshs candy store on Amboy St. One evening I summoned a Mr. Sontag to the phone and he gave me a dime tip. I felt like a millionaire. Another great memory is Victor Schutzbank and his pharmacy on Amboy and Blake. Victor had a son by the name of Barry. His store was across the street from Romms kosher deli which at one time belonged to Jack Katzman. I wonder how these deli owners made up these little rolled up mustard packages. IExcellent memories Stuart Portnoy

  • growing up in Brownsville 140 Amboy Street … our windows faced the Amboy St Schul .. life was so vibrant lives spilled into the street where we as children played till the wee hours of the night … Grandparents sat on chairs watching ..sharing stories … the gutter with water gushing from the fire hydrant became our river we all became part of the debris and magnificence … our stoop ..stoop like steps viewing our own Greek like Yiddish tragedy … my Mom went dancing her high heels clapping on the diamond like mica encased concrete pavement … i spied a female artist carrying a portfolio walking to her railroad flat across the street she wore a green coat … years later i bought a vintage green thrift store coat … I felt like the mysterious artist walking across the street all played out on Amboy St between Pitkin & Sutter Ave … it still gnaws at me knowing that all of this history was razed… our precious Bklyn memories discarded into the rubble of being that of the American experiment .. I am compelled to tell our story my way

  • Stuart, I lived at 178 and knew your family well. I remember your mother Grace and you two sisters Myrna and Caroline. I had the pleasure of Meeting Myrna when I was working at a hotel in the Catskills(The New Edgewood Hotel) about 1961. She was a guest
    I am still in touch with several Brownsvillites. Harvey Abikoff, Arlene Parker, her older brother Wally dies about thirty years ago, one of the few people from Brownsville to ever become an addict.. I am also in contact with David and Robert Newmark, Their middle brother Stuart was my best friend and lawyer. He died in the 90′s. They lived at 186 Amboy and their father Murray had some mental problems, sometimes very loudly.
    I remember Cherichetti who I remember as Carachetti, but I will defer to you. She was famous for wearing the same polkadot dress everyday and ringing the school bell to announce that it was time to line up and get inside. And if you didn’t make in time there was hell to pay.. I remember Mrs Anderson the Principal very well and after having an accident that caused me to lose my vision in my right eye. she spent some time with me making sure that I was OK to return to school. She was the antithesis of Cherichetti.
    If anyone is interested in Brownsville of the 40s’ and 50s’
    My children are very interested in my life in Brownsville and the times that I grew up in. To that end i am writing a series of vignettes or memoirs on those times. you may email me irazapin@live.com

  • Hi Stuart I lived at 172 and 178 Amboy St My parents were the building supt for many years. I remember the H.E.S. i spent my childhood in Brownsville. I went to work for Fortunoff’s for a number of years. I have been living in Miami Beach, Fl for over 20 years. The memories of Amby St will be with me forever. I have been emailing with Ira Zapin who was my neighbor.

  • My newlywed parents lived at 202 Amboy St starting in 1938 til 1958. My mother always said the Amboy Dukes was a figment of author’s imagination. None of us ever encountered any problems or threats from”hoodlums” We lived together in poverty, peace and looking out for one another.
    Harvey Abicoff – a friend of my brother Allan Flaum. Your sister was friends with Miriam Neidich. Miriam and Smitty came to babysit for us and your sister and boyfriend came with them. My brother was also friends with Barry Schutzbank, neighbors Stuie Berman and Freddie Hoberman. Later he would meet Ronnie Praeger and others at Jeff.
    I attended P.S. 156 – my side of Amboy St went to 156 but we were ”sent back” to J.H.S. 263 and graduated from Pitkin Theatre. We moved in 1958 and I went to Wingate H.S.
    Jeff Rubin -did you live in the bldg with Marlene or the one with Patty and her father the super? You had to be across from us at 202. You were on the side of grocery/candy store and I had Ziggy’s
    Steve Schlossberg – Wuhan’s was on same side as The Pitkin and Hoffman’s cafeteria. The owner was Robbie who slicked back his black hair and wore dark sunglasses.
    I was “found” by Ira Zapin on C-mates because he recognized the name Flaum.
    The synagogue in the picture – my grandfather went there. I can’t remember the street but somehow think it was near Brooklyn Women’s Hospital where I was born.
    My grandfather lived and had a laundry store at 1604 St Johns Pl. Slocum 6 – 0499. Remember when we had names not numbers?
    The electric busses ran on St. John’s place and when the rods fell off the conducter would climb onto bus’s roof and connect rod to wire. I remember Tannenbaum’s bakery and Flemenhoft’s store.
    Myra Miller – did you know the Rothberg twins and brother Jesse and Loretta and Roger Ellowitz whose g-mother sold knishes on Pitkin Ave?
    Sturar Portnoy – can’t place the faces of you or your family but remember your mother’s name quite well.
    The deli on Amboy and Blake across from Victor’s S. drugstore was Ziggy’s a heavy set man think black mustache/hair. Jack Kazman and his wife Mary lived next bldg to me and their deli was on Saratoga & Sutter. Ira and I remember the Rosen Brothrs grocery store – my father earned extra money working there on Sat. Anyone remember the candy(?) store on Blake btwn Amboy and Hopkinson? If the store was closed you’d go in the alley and call Mrs.K…..(?) and she’d come down and open the store.
    We all have beautiful memories – people can take our money, our home but never can these memories be taken from us. L’Chaim!

  • I wrote a long comment, pressed submit and it came back as I already wrote “that”
    I will test this as is and see what happens.
    I lived at 202 Amboy St. Ira Zapin ”found” me thru C-mates. My brother was Alllan Flaum and friends with Harvey Abicoff, Barry Schutzbank, Stuie Berman, Freddie Hoberman, Bernard Katcher.
    If this goes thru then I will write more.

  • Hi All

    I guess I am the new kid on the block looking for old friends. I guess I just found one of my best friends of old. Hi Steve (Albin) it’s been 60 Yeats since we played punch ball on Lincoln place. Those were the best years of my life as well. Punch ball and stick ball in the summer and snow balls in the winter. I can’t believe seeing your name pop up on a website. I would love to hear from you my e-mail address is srsniffer@gmail.com

  • Wonderful reading the mail. Ira, I remember your Dad Harold always spruced up with a bow tie. From what I remember, he was a boss in retail. Harvey Abikoff I remember well along with his dad Mickey and Mom Ann. I also remember Glenda and Billy. We had Mrs. Goldberg living upstairs in 172 with Yetta Siegel. If anyone can not remember me I was always selling Bungalow Bar ice cream on a ice cream bicycle. Always trying to make a buck. Been in Florida since 1983. Before then we always travelled to Miami Beach for vacations. Stayed at the Newport, Colonial Inn, Raleigh, Ritz Plaza and Sea Isle etc. Now we can not get around much due to health reasons but do the best we can. Getting back to Miss Cherichetti I think she wore the same dress even when she retired for the night. My very best to all Stuart Portnoy Coconut Creek, Florida

  • Hi Stuart what a memory you have, I remember your parents as well and both of your sisters and your brother. You are living son Keithy he’s in Coral Springs, his mom Sheila is in Boca Raton, seems like everyone sooner or later moves to Florida. I met up with Edward Bigman a few years ago I dont know if you remeber him? Barbara Flaum Kleinman how well I remember you and of course Alan, Freddy and Stuart. Its really great hearing about all of you, we all have a lot of wonderful memories about growing up in Brooklyn, especially living on Amboy St.