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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.


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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  • I have vague memories of PS175. In the kindergarten I had Mrs. Miss Robinson who got married and became Ms. Porback or was it the other way around? In the first grade I had a mean old witch named Mrs. Piccar who pulled me by my ear. My dad got me my own Dicky Dare reader instead of the old torn one she handed out. In the second grade I had a flaming redhead, Mrs. Fogelson of whom I remember mostly nothing but her hair and putting the ponytail hair of the girl in front of me in the ink well. I do remember writing with those scratchy ink pens. In the third grade I had a nice gray haired teacher named Mrs. Antel. I still recall the song she taught us… “Over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house we go….” I also learned a Thanksgiving song… “We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing…” I also recall our assembly programs began with someone reading from the Holy Bible. I most certainly remember Mrs. Cherichetti who wore a black polka dotted dress she never changed and she wore her hair in a braided bun. I have a hard time remembering Mrs. Mrs. Anderson. I also recall there being the Dubin Sisters, old redheads… one of whom was my mother’s teacher. I have very fond memories for the garden across the street on Blake Avenue… and ordering those packets of seeds from the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens… both flowers and vegetables. I fondly recall planting seeds, especially Zinnias, in a Borden’s Elsie the cow… cheese-box that I tended on my kitchen window sill.

    PS 175 still exists. I have pictures of it but the name has changed. It’s no longer an elementary school and the little schoolyard we used to line up in.. on Hopkinson Ave.. is no more.

    And then, for some mysterious reason they changed the school boundary line without moving I was then assigned to go to PS156 for the forth through sixth grades. I remember all my teachers there quite well. PS156 was torn down not too long ago and rebuilt as a combined elementary and junior high I believe.

    And, again, without moving I went to JHS 66 from the seventh through eighth grade when it was closed and we moved over to the brand new Col. David Marcus JHS 263. We were the first class to graduate from that building. I used to say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning over the school’s PA system.

    That school was an amazing place. Most of the male teachers I had there became principals and superintendents under the tutelage of Adolph Dembo. I also vividly recall my art teacher, a Mr. Cacisus who also worked as a professional wrestler after school. Shoenhaut, Peck, Mirsky, Daily, and Garner became superintendents. I still have our 263 yearbook. What great memories of learning ballroom dancing in the cafeteria.

    Lots of good memories.


  • To Phyllis Wilk Sommer,

    We lived on Hopkinson between Blake and Dumont, 668 Hopkinson, right next to Feldman’s Lumber Yard. My parents,Dotty & Willy and brother Errol moved to Long Island around 1955.

  • Stuart,

    Found this site this morning while trying to find some reference to the Hopkinson Yiddish Theater, which I did find in some of the comments. I also read back through all the old comments and found some names that ring a bell. I believe that Howie Hochman’s parents owned the small grocery store on the corner of Hopkinson and Blake and his father was Hymie. I think the candy store that was taken over by Julius was on Amboy or Herzl and his wife was Lillian. My cousin Herb Lubin lived on Blake between Amboy and Herzl and in his group of friends there was a guy who was only referred to by his last name, Babbitt, maybe the Murray Babbitt you mentioned.

  • We lived in a tenement on Legion St between Pitkin and Sutter. Grandma lived on Saratoga, my cousins Bruce and Errol and My Aunt Dot and Uncle Will lived on Hopkinson..My cousin Herb and his mom and dad..Uncle Archie and Aunt Rose lived on Blake ave. What fond memories. When I was very young, my parents took me to the roof of our building so we could see the Loew’s Pitkin on the day that Al Jolsen was there..what a thrill Our graduation from Somers JHS was at the Pitkin theatre..We would walk the avenue and get a knish from the knish man or go to Kishke King. I also saw one of the photos of WuHan..that was the Chinese restaurant that we all went to…eat there or take out..what great memories..thanks for posting this.

  • Murray Babbitt resided at 225 Herzl St. His father Willie drove a cab. Willie lit one cigarette one after the other, 225 had Irving Jacobson, Carl Goldman, Both their families were the ideal American family and unsurpassed. Marty Obler also lived at 225. Howie Hochman lived at 231 Herzl St but his parents did not have a grocery connection. Murray Babbitt lives in St. Lucie Florida and Joey Gross in Boynton Beach Florida. Welcome to this website Stuart Portnoy Coconut Creek, Florida