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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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UPDATE: July 18, 2015

Roger Elowitz has kindly shared some Brownsville images from his personal collection. I am posting them here. Captions are from Roger. Enjoy! David

Kishke King

Kishke King

Pitkin Avenue looking toward Hopkinson Ave.

Pitkin Avenue looking toward Hopkinson Ave.

Skateboard scooters

Skateboard scooters

The Kinish Man... with obligatory salt shaker.

The Kinish Man… with obligatory salt shaker.

Thomas Jefferson H.S

Thomas Jefferson H.S

 

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UPDATE January 31, 2017

One of our readers, Sonny Crane, sent in this photo of his family’s potato chip stand in Brownsville.  Maybe some of you will remember it.  Either way, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the photo.  David

Crane's

 

 

 

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780 responses so far ↓

  • more esther gendleman; Miriam osner;
    aaron Zimmerman ; Beatrice slayton; aaron kantrowitz; Alvin Bieber; Harvey salz; Gerald josselson; lila gomberg; howard korchin; lester kleinman; Stanley grushkin;

  • Hi Stuart,

    I live just a few blocks from where the St. Lucie Mets play at Tradition Field and I often watch the fireworks displays from my pool deck. Unfortunately, I have no interest in sports of any kind so I don’t follow baseball. I think I was a spectator at one ballgame there in ten years… and I did enjoy it.

    The one thing I have to do to “get ready” for the new season is plan a new route to travel that keeps me away from the significant traffic in the area on game days.

    Best,

    Roger

  • Roger, Are you getting ready for the St. Lucie Mets and the new baseball Season?In the late 80s I frequented the Yankee Stadum to observe the Fort Lauderdale Yankees play. Then they moved to Tampa and thjat was that was the end of kit until the Baltimore Orioles movwed in and then they fled the scene. The best to you Stuart Portnoy Coconut Creek

  • more frank rabinovitz; faith Schultz; Morton friedman; Arnold whitaker; Stanley thune; howard thune; dorethy savader; ed rossoff; sid Halpern; fred warentz; marvin winter; eddie eglowitz; jerry Rosenberg; bill garfinkle; howardalweil ;archie silverang;

  • Anybody know or knew any of :these people:

    jerry karp; saul Levine: francis Kreisler louis Kreisler
    ruby Kreisler janet lerner phil lerner Naomi haft
    Marcia stein sonny goldman Marylyn miller edih scher
    Sheila yudoff Bernard Leibowitz harold chait
    Rosalind Weinstein norman koplowitz Bernice koplowitz
    Barnett koplowitz howard felix danny dwork Harvey Weinstock eddie spivak; ;mel Levine; zoo; isreal; Seymour mandel; hilda mandel; eddie savader; nick poholchuk; marty schmeltz abe schmeltz; jerry cohen;
    howard tapperman; renee dorf; Bernard elmowitz; siggy siefert; ruth seifert; partial list

  • We never felt poor. There was always food on the table. The only Spanish teacher I remember at Sommers was Mrs. Morobito who was Hal Jacobson’s [the phys ed intructor’s] flame. Sam L. I believe was at Tilden.

  • Hi Walter,

    “Careful allocation of available cash” is a GREAT euphemism for “being poor.” LOL! I love it. JHS 252 I believe was Sommers JHS. Did Sam Levinson,he comedian, used to live across the street from my wife (on Sheffield Ave. in East New York) and I thought taught Spanish at 252… but, she thinks he taught at Tilden. She’s usually right! .

    Best,

    Roger
    BTW… While Elowitz isn’t a common name I’m sure the immigration officers had their way playing with the phonetic spelling of eastern European names. Ellowitz, Elmowitz, Elmorwitz, etc., and then you merely had to change the ending (witz) which I believe in Polish meant “son of” and it also became “weicz” or anything that sounds like that.

  • Roger

    As far as being down on ur luck to afford loosies, this was not the case in my time. The careful allocation of available cash was the norm @ 1 cent a butt, we weren’t rich We spent the money in better ways. Like 3 cents for a pretzel stick to accompany say ha malted

  • roger

    I knew a guy who lived on legion. his last name was Elmowitz. Everybody called him ELMO

  • Roger

    You are absolutely correct. Loosies went for 1 cent each. Mrs Packman was principle a.nd she lived right across the street when I went to 156., then to JHS 353.

  • Hi Walter,

    If I’m not mistaken… “loosies” were cigarettes you could by individually.. not in a pack. You needed to be pretty “down on your luck” to only afford to buy individual cigarettes. Yikes!

    I went to P.S. 156 (1949-1951) on Sutter between Legion and Grafton so you probably went there too. I had Mrs. Cantor in the 4th grade, Mrs. Warhaftig in the 5th grade and Mr. Feuer in the 6th grade. I also ate “paid” school lunch there because it was quite a walk to go home to Amboy Street to eat lunch. That school has been razed to the ground and a new elementary/JHS grew in its place.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz
    Port St. Lucie, FL
    and Marlboro, NJ

  • Anyone out there hail from Saratoga Ave, Legion Street cross Dumont or Blake or there abouts?.

  • I hail from 593 Saratoga anyone remember moes and mines candy store? do you know what loosiies are? now sno bird to Boynton beach and north woodmee

  • Pincus and Anna Brodsky raised my Bubbe Ethel on Pitkin Ave. thru her wedding, June 1922. They seemed to have “enjoyed” Brownsville.

  • Miss Cherecheti, with the bell. And if the boys didn’t wear a tie for assembly…she would have them make one of newspaper. White shirt……neck scarf….mandatory for us. Mr. Bompey (principal) reminded me of Abe Lincoln. Spent K-6 in that school, best educators ever in that building. I owe my love of music to the dedicated teachers like Mrs. Sirota..and a nod to Mrs. Scharff. Ah….these kids today don’t know what they’re missing. No computers, just smelly mimeographed assignments. No more air raid drills with us hiding under our desks (and not facing the window – so we wouldn’t get glass on us)…sweet youth……you have fled on the outside…..but my inside is full of better, younger days…………..May the true legacy of Brooklyn never be erased………

  • Richard Teddy Farley was a favorite and n o one like him. He was a great guy and justm before his passing he was hospitalized and I went to the hospital to visit him. He was not awake and I sat by the side of his bed for quite awhile, Auint Gertie and Uncle morris were an astounding couple and I enjoyed and loved them deeply. Aunt Gertie always rendered sour pickles at home on 217 Sutter Ave and they hit the spot. II had a close relationship with Alvin. Your Mom Enid is one of the nicest people I had ever met and so was Enids Mom. I kept a close relationship with Shirley Farley for a lifetime. until her demise. Your cousinsm Linda and Suzanne reside in Boynton Beach Florida. A pleasure to be reacquainted with you. Stuart Portnoy Coconut Creek

  • Hi Stu,

    Many, many thanks for your background info. It was very much appreciated.

    I “thought” Sherwood’s dad was a restaurant waiter but I have no hard facts on that. I have a recollection that Sherwood became a chemical engineer. I don’t know what Heshie did. Samuel Lustgarten was the “brains” of the Lustgarten family. I think he made something of himself after he served in the Air Force. I’ve long lost touch with all of the Lustgartens.

    Did you know the Schumer sisters who lived directly across the street from Sherwood? Their names were Joyce and Ginger. Joyce married a friend of mine and she recently passed due to Parkinsons.

    I think in the same building lived a family called Bonfiglio. There were at least two kids… Frank and MaryAnn. I think their parents owned a luncheonette on Amboy near Sutter… a few stores up from Shimmy’s Bar and Grill.

    Also on that side of the street were the Kupperbergs… Louis and Sidney…. both, extremely nice and intelligent lads. Sidney was in my grade and Louis was about three years older. I would assume both did very well in life.

    I also had an older friend on Amboy Street named Sheldon Gottlieb and he had a sister Cynthia. I used to listen to episodes of Superman on the radio in his house. He lived on the side of Amboy Street next to the sheet metal fabricating factory.

    For some of these kids I can still see their faces today if I close my eyes. Amazing.

    Best,

    Roger

  • ROGER, Samuel Lustgarden was a classmate of my sister Myrna for all those school years. Samuel was probally born in 1939 as was my sister. I was born in 1933 on JULY 4. The father of Sherwood was a restaurant waiter and I would imagine his wealth came from getting big tips. Of course he must have budgeted himself well. Good luck Stuart Portnoy

  • Hi Stu,

    Fantastic! We finally have a “close connection”… Sherwood Moll. As a point of fact, I don’t really recall very much about Sherwood. He was 3, 4 or 5 years older than me so we rarely interacted. I can’t even recall his face although I recall him to be thin and tall. His brother Heshie, was much shorter, blonde and probably much heavier with a face full of freckles. Heshie was likely one or two years at most older than me but we still played together. His mother took us to see Howdie Doody in Manhattan and I sat in the Peanut Gallery… or rather, behind the kinescope and since it was Howdy’s birthday… they had a contest to find the best artist to draw Howdy’s birthday cake. I won the contest because I took art lessons from Jon Gnagy on TV and could draw in perspective. I won a pair of roller skates which were stolen from me the following day!

    Heshie’s mom would call out from his grandpa’s bedroom window… “H-e-s-h-i-e!!! Come up and tickle the ivories!” This, of course was his call to practice the piano.

    For some reason, I recall the Moll’s as somehow being “well off!” After all, they had a Webcor wire recorder we had so much fun with and they also had a giant magnifier in front of their 9-inch B&W TV where all the kids would watch Howdy Doody! And Heshie’s mom managed to have a humongous ironing roller machine AND a metal chest she would bake in that sat on the stove top burners.

    So, add in a piano and the fact that they owned the apartment building… they must have been “wealthy” Then again, I didn’t know if they had a car. I rather doubt it. But what confused me the most was where all this “wealth” came from because I believe Heshie’s dad was a waiter in a delicatessen! But, what did I know at eight or nine years of age? Wealth really wasn’t anything we ever really thought about.

    On the first floor of Heshie’s building lived the Lustgarten family. They had three sons, Samuel (Sonny), Richard (Bully), and William (Butchie). Bully and Butchie were the neighborhood “trumbanicks.” Sam was the brains and would eventually go places while Bully would most likely go… to prison. I loved these guys. The boy’s mother played the piano and was always writing melodies in the hope that one day she’d have a hit song. Never did as far as I know. I think their dad drove a hack.

    In the basement of Heshie’s building lived a black family of extremely nice and well respected people. They had a son Ebenezer who we called “Ebby.” Only recently did I figure out how that nickname came to be derived from Ebenezer. Duh!

    I fondly recall playing “stickball” or “punchball”:with all these kids. I also recall shooting marbles with them, rolling nuts on Passover and playing Johnny on the Pony… against the lamp post in front of my house.

    What beautiful memories.

    So Stu, if you went to school with Sherwood I’m going to guess that you are about four or five years older than me… I was born in 1941.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz
    Port St. Lucie, FL

  • Wow!
    reading responses from my Father’s dear friend Hy brought back the stories my Dad would lovingly recall. Growing up in Brownsville was the best of times.
    I also read responses from Staurt Portnoy my Dad’s first cousin!
    Straurt, I remember growing up and attending so many wonderful family events. Sadly my Dad passed in May of 1999!
    Please keep contributing to this wonderful website!
    Best,
    Richard Farley

  • Wow! Just browsing and came across Responses from my father’s boyhood friend Hy, and my second cousin Stuart Portnoy.
    My Father Ted always spoke of the good old days growing up in Brownsville, Hy I know that you Normie and Morris were dear boyhood friends of his. Sadly he passed away in May 1999, I sorely miss him.
    Stuart I rememebr growing up and sharing great memories of family get togetherss seems so long ago.
    Best,
    Richard Farley

  • Roger, Sherwood Moll was my classmate throughout all the schools in public and junior high. I remember his Dad and I visualize his appearance now. Sherwood came to school all dressed up and in a clean looking appearance. On Amboy Street between Pitkin was bennys barber shop. Benny was a first cousin to my Mom. I sit here and miss the good old days. Wee had less and survived well. Stay happuy and healthy and that wish is bestowed to all others on this website. Stuart Portnoy Coconut Creek

  • Hi Stu,

    Sorry but I never knew Heshie and Sidney. The only “Heshie” I knew lived at 112 Amboy Street and his real name was Harold Moll. He had an older brother Sherwood and a younger sister Eileen. Their family owned their apartment building. Heshie’s grandfather would invite me upstairs for Shabos prayers and after the brief service he’d serve me some white raisin wine that he made… and I’d just love it.

    Please don’t get me started on stories about the People’s Cinema. What a place! Two feature films, three serials, cartoons and Movietone News! And you learned to read lips when the IRT train passed overhead.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz

  • Roger, Do you remember the twin brothers Heshie and Sidney who hung out on Saratoga and Livonia? Heshie was a combination of usher and doorman at The Peoples Cinema. Stuart Portnoy Coconut creek

  • Hi Marilyn,

    Thanks for posting here. Strange, I don’t ever remember a “Strauss Junior High” in Brownsville… but my wife Joyce assures me she went there as it was also called JHS 109..

    Please click this link on the Internet for more information:
    http://tinyurl.com/y7nlus37

    Here’s a bit of interesting information I got from the site above…

    On April 14, 1916, P.S. 109 in Brooklyn, New York was renamed the Isidor Straus school, and the girls’ department bore the name of Isidor’s wife Ida. Both perished aboard the Titanic nearly four years to the day of its sinking. Isidor Straus had been a co-owner or the famed department store R. H. Macy & Co. This dedication was the result of a change in policy by the Board of Education to bestow distinguish names upon the New York City schools, who up to that point had been distinguished purely by number, e.g. P.S. 109 (Public School 109.)

    The school was located on Dumont Avenue between Powell Street and Sackman Street.

    I believe the Brownsville-East New York neighborhoods were infested with gangs in the late 1930’s to late 1940’s and no doubt there was a gang called The Amboy Dukes. You may find it strange that I grew up on Amboy Street between Pitkin and Sutter Avenue from 1944 to 1959 and never once met anyone involved with a gang called The Amboy Dukes. I surely read the book by Irving Schulman called the Amboy Dukes but there was never a movie by that name. There were also lots of “tough looking guys” who hung out in Shimmy’s Bar and Grill on the corner of Amboy and Sutter but I think they were mostly just what my grandmother called “trumbanicks.” I thought they were mostly bookies and the like.

    Here’s an interesting link to the book about the Amboy Dukes:

    http://tinyurl.com/y7cyl3oj

    I went to JHS 66, an all-boys junior high and attended from September 1954 to June 1955 for the seventh and eighth grades.The school closed and we moved to the co-ed Col. David Marcus JHS 263 in September 1955. Many times the police from the 73 Pct. would drive me home because some gang or group was waiting for me at JHS 66. To say this was a “rough school” is to grossly understate it.

    I have a feeling that the gang stories were grossly exaggerated but I have no doubt that they existed.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz
    now in Port St. Lucie, FL

  • I went to Strauss Jr. High in Brooklyn and had to
    pass by the area dominated by the Amboy Dukes.
    I was in class with the leader of the Girl gang and she would walk me past all the guys after school. No problem. I remember they made a movie of them.

  • Hi Janis,

    Sorry, but I have no knowledge of the candy store you are referring to. Unfortunately, at the location of Powell and Pitkin today there is only a park and a relatively new “project” apartment building. The building your parents lived in on Liberty Avenue has been replaced by what appears to be a warehouse/office building.

    Our old Brownsville neighborhood is becoming a fading memory. Thanks for posting your remembrances.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz
    now… Port St. Lucie, FL

  • Hi Janis,

    Sorry I’m not able to help you, except to say that currently, your “lost candy store” has been replaced by a “projects” apartment building and park that currently exist on that site.

    Thanks for sharing your remembrances of the old neighborhood and your parents. I have heard that many cultures around the world believe that as long as there is someone left to recall the names of those people who are no longer with us… those people still live on.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz
    Port St. Lucie, FL