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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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564 responses so far ↓

  • Hi Stu,

    Wow Again! What precious memories. You were way ahead of me in that you pre-purchased theater snacks long before I ever thought about doing that! I didn’t start bringing pre-home-popped corn in bags hidden under coats… until after I was married and moved out of Brownsville.

    And it’s marvelous that you remembered the names of the theater owners and the matron at the Palace. The best I can do is remember the name of Sammy Umansky who ran the Betsy Head pool. I met him in the 1980’s when I discovered we shared the same ham radio hobby. His radio call letters were WB2FZD… he passed a long time ago.

    And I remember Mrs. Cherichetti… with her hair in a bun and wearing the same black and white polka dot dress forever. She used to ring a bell in the school yard on Hopkinson Avenue for the kids to line up with their classes.

    Great memories Stu.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz

  • Roger, When I went to the Stadium theater Im initially crossed over to Woolworths to get a large bag of pretzel ,sticks. The mgr. of the Stadium theater was Mr. Clark. The mgr. of the Ambassador theater was Mr. Davis. These two theaters along with the Stone were owned by Randforce Corp. The Palace had that old blonde matron who performed as a prison warden towards the kids. After her tour of duty she would proceed to the homes of the bad kids and report same to their mothers. She was on the style of ASST Principal Cherichetti od PS 175. Stuart Portnoy

  • Hi Stu,

    Wow! I vaguely recall the Tiffany theater but I’m positive I never attended it even once. I just did a Google Map search and took a look at the intersection of Chester and Livonia and, not a single building is standing on three of the four corners. However, on the fourth corner (north east) a building with a bricked up front seems to imply that is where the Tiffany stood… but I could be wrong about that. Your memory is so much better than mine here.

    re. the People’s Cinema… I always laugh when I think about the IRT train noise while watching a movie. I also recall that my fiancee, Joyce Platt, moved from Sheffield and New Lots to Trump Village in Coney Island and she had the exact same problem with the elevated train noise echoing between the adjacent buildings and we got some great practice lip reading the TV. Oh! The nonsense we put up with back then.

    P.S. I fondly recall the Stadium Theater on Chester Street near Pitkin Avenue. I saw Abbot and Costello Meets Frankenstein there as a sevem year old… and from that time on (for a long long time) I had to sleep UNDER my bed to keep the monsters away!

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz

  • Roger, The Peoples Cinema utilized two oversized tall fans and placed each one on the front of the stage. Between the noise of the fans and the IRT it really was not quiet. Do you remember the Tiffany theater on Livonia and Chester? Another dump. Stuart Portnoy

  • Hi Stu,

    Most of the people I saw on those sweltering summer nights were camped-out on their apartment building’s fire escapes. But, during the summer afternoons they’d also escape to “tar beach” another rooftop destination for a summer tan.

    We had a single window air conditioner so I dragged my foam mattress into the living room to survive those nights. Not many people had a window air conditioner. I was very lucky. The basement of my house was also much cooler.

    I recall the theaters like the Lowe’s Pitkin advertising they had AIR-CONDITIONING on banners that they hung beneath the marquis. Great memories.

    Thanks Stu.

    Roger

  • Remembering all the3 hot nights in Brownsville. There was a mass scramble by the fine folks of Brownsville to get up to the roofs so they could enjoy a cool night of sleeping. They were seen carrying pillows etc to their favorite spot on the roof. Those nights were hot in the apartments.Stuart Portnoy Coconut Creek

  • Hi All,

    Here’s something we all shared about living in Brownsville in the fifties. Please enjoy this nostalgic slideshow trip down memory lane:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjj9VKKSV2g

    Roger

  • Hi Stu,

    I surely remember the People’s Cinema… being diagonally across from the Ambasadore Theater. I usually went on Saturday mornings with a bag lunch and the theater was frequently so crowded that they “seated” us late-comers on the stage in front of the screen. What a weird feeling watching the movies laying on my back. I also remember the white-dressed matron patroling the aisles with her flashlight threatening us
    for doing something wrong like kicking the seat in front of us.

    Not only did we see at least two features but also several serials such as Lash LaRue or Rocket Man… and the Movietone Newsreels. As a young kid I was encouraged to take up “lip reading” since we couldn’t hear the dialogue when the IRT trains passed.

    I also recall that the Ambassador Theater gave out plates and dishes that they displayed behind glass window-boxes for… women who came on Friday evenings when they’d show tear-jerker movies that appealed to those women who would frequently cry in their dishes and they’d be encouraged to “collect the whole set” by coming every Friday.

    And speaking of “collecting the whole set,” the Lowe’s Palace offered yellow membership cards that had ten stars
    bordering the cards and they’d punch one star each time you visited. When all ten stars were punched you’d get in free on your birthday. The problem was, on our birthdays… somehow, it just wasn’t appropriate to be going to the movies. I never remember getting in free… but we did get in free in the Lowe’s Pitkin when they showed Quo Vadis because we chipped in to get one kid in who would open an exit door and we’d rush in and hide.

    Best,

    Roger

  • On Saratoga and Livonia who could ever forget the twin brothers Heshy and Sidney. Sidney worked in the Peoples Cinema as an usher and doorman. The owner of the Cinema were Savage and son. You really got your mon eys worth when going to the Cinema. Three films, Newsreels loads of cartoons etc. Those were the days, Adjacent to the Cinema was Willie Weitzman and his barber shop. Great barber and a true gentleman. Stuart Portnoy

  • Hi Mac,

    No apologies necessary. Thanks for the very interesting links. I had no idea Ruby had such a large following. It’s going to take a nice rainy day to read it all and peruse all the old pictures of Brownsville. Thanks so much for posting the links. I, for one, appreciate our input. Please don’t be a stranger here.

    Best,

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

  • My apologies to the administrator if I am not allowed to do this. I will understand if you take it down. I have a Brownsville, Canarsie, and other parts of Brooklyn page on pinterest. Here is the link.

    https://www.pinterest.com/tautog2k/canarsie-brownsville-and-the-rest-of-brooklyn/

    An amazing Ruby the knish man page is linked below.

    http://www.brucebrodinsky.com/ruby.html

    On the top row of pics there just might be one of Nick the pretzel guy. If so, please affirm, and if not please correct as I have not entered anything about the picture.

  • Hi Stu,

    I really hate to dispute your recollection of Crane’s but right after David Friedland posted the picture of Crane’s I asked my wife, Joyce, if she ever heard of Crane’s since she lived near the corner of Sheffield and New Lots Avenue from the 1940’s to the mid ’60’s.

    She never heard of Crane’s so I did a look-up in the 1945 White Pages (Winter page 75) and found a Crane’s Frankfurter and Potato Chips store nearby, located at 589 Sutter Avenue on the corner of Georgia Avenue, technically, in East New York, Dickens 2-9539 and was probably owned by Morris Crane who lived nearby at 378 Pennsylvania Ave. DI2-3802.

    In case you think the “chips” were our current kind of “potato chips”… back then they referred to the French Fries we now call them. The British call French Fries… “chips” and our kind of “potato chips” the British call “crisps.”

    The White Pages are a simply marvelous resource for looking up all kinds of things such as this (gotta thank Wikipedia for the “chips thing”) however, using the White Pages on-line is not as dirt-simple as it should be… but well worth the effort nevertheless.

    Respectfully,

    Roger

  • Sonny Crane sent in a photo of Craes food establishment. It was located on Sheffield and New Lots Ave in the vicinity of Jefferson HS. Their French fries were the best around. The place was called Cranes. Stuart Portnoy

  • Hi All,

    Today’s going to be the day you got REAL LUCKY because I just found you all these Brooklyn Directories from 1857 to 1967. Just go to this website run by the New York Public Library…

    http://tinyurl.com/zbtak49

    to get started searching. You will definitely need to get used to zooming and scrolling to find what you are looking for but, for the most part… everything is there, from family to friends to businesses… names and addresses and phone numbers… if they had a phone. I’ve happily wasted and entire day searching and loving it with probably many, many more to come.

    Enjoy!

    Roger