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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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579 responses so far ↓

  • My good friend Marty Blumberg remembers Sol’s Ice Cream Parlor on New Lots Avenue where his father took him for ice-cream treats.

    I never visited this place but My wife did since she lived only a block away. Rummaging through some old papers I found an actual Sol’s menu. If anyone would like to have a copy… just e-mail me at:

    K2JAS@Comcast.net and I’ll send you a copy.

    I used to hang out after school (Jefferson) in Metrick’s Candy Story on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Livonia Avenue right beneath the IRT train stop.

    I’d also frequent Meyer’s Luncheonette and soda fountain on Pitkin Avenue between Amboy and Hopkinson… after dances at the H.E.S. run by Adolph Dembo.

    There was also a luncheonette on the corner of Amboy and Pitkin Avenue where I’d get a vanilla malted… before my dad bought a Hamilton Beach malted mixing machine. I’d make my own malteds at home with syrup delivered by the seltzer man. Foxe’s U-Bet chocolate and vanilla syrups were my favorite.

    On Amboy St. near Pitkin Avenue there was also a seltzer bottler that used to fascinate me with their machinery.

    Roger Elowitz

  • Hi Stuart,

    Some of our fondest memories of Brownsville revolved around the business there. I can vaguely recall a Times Square Store. Was it on Pitkin Avenue near the Kishka KIng and later one on Linden Blvd.?

    I also recall a store on Pitkin Avenue across from what we called “Kitzel Park” (next to the Lowe’s Pitkin). This store sold Boy Scout uniforms as well as camping supplies. I got my Cub Scout and Boy Scout uniforms there., I believe this store was between Grafton Street and Howard Avenue or perhaps between Legion St. and Grafton Street.

    I also recall a men’s clothing store on Pitkin Avenue between Amboy and Hopkinson called Penrod. I bought a pair of electric blue pants there when I was thirteen… which had saddle stitching down the sides and it was “pegged” at the cuffs. Seems this was part of a major “Zoot Suit” revival or Puerto Rican influence. Anyway, I thought it was “cool” at the time.

    I also remember buying a leather (real leather) motorcycle jacket and a chauffer’s cap to wear to Lew Wallace JHS 66. I believe Marlon Brando’s “The Wild One” (1953) was a major influence on the new teenage culture of the time… with shirt collars pulled up in the back and a pack of cigarettes stored in rolled up shirt sleeves… to achieve a “hard guy” look. Tough! Real tough!

    By the way… The Lowe’s Pitkin is now a Dollar Tree store! Yeow!!!

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

  • I remember the stores called Friendly Frost, Johns Bargain Stores amongst others, There was also Bressners which was located on New Lots ave. They were near Ninos pizzeria who eventually moved to Cross Bay Blvd. B jut the place on Linden Blvd was Coney Island Joes. Their food was great with the stewed onions etc. Stuart Portnoy Coconut Creek.

  • Hi All,

    My good friend Marty Blumberg from Amboy Street in Brownsville sent me a wonderful article on “How To Make An Egg Cream.”

    http://tinyurl.com/m54xnst

    This brought back many great memories because, as a seventeen year old living in Brownsville, I’d ride my Schwinn Traveler bicycle to my after-school job as a soda jerk at the Morganstern and Stark news stand and soda fountain on Franklin Avenue and Eastern Parkway where I’d make all manner of delicious ice-cream treats… and I can testify that the guy in this article had great advice for all egg cream aficionados.

    Ahhh! Those were the days! Perhaps you might even recall ordering a “Kitchen Sink” at Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlor on Nostrand Avenue or in Jamaica, Queens? BTDT. Those were the days when the body’s metabolism just didn’t care!

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz

  • Hi Stuart,

    Another GREAT remembrance from you about the cone of rolled up wax paper containing deli mustard. I haven’t seen one of those in more years than I can remember. It must have been long before there were plastic squeeze bottles of mustard on the tables and, of course, ketchup then always came in a Heinz glass bottles.

    My great deli treats were lean hot pastrami on club sandwiches with crinkle-cut fries and a bottle of Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda. Oh! I forgot about the potato and kasha knishes on the grill as well as the slices of stuffed derma. And who can forget the great bowls of either split pea soup or mushroom-barley soup? Oy! What delicious Brownsville memories.

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

  • The Wolfman family had several kosher delis in Brownsville and other areas. of Brooklyn. I always asked for specials which was another name for knockwurst except for Brownsville, On Suitter was another kosher deli owned b y Mr and Mrs Goldstein along with a gentleman by the mam e of Ben ny who was the deli clerk. . He rolled up those small plastic pieces of paper who then resulted into a tube of mustard. Stuart Portnoy

  • Hi All,

    An old friend just e-mailed me a great link to a wonderful bit of Brooklyn nostalgia. Please click on the link below to watch.

    http://tinyurl.com/hlfqo44

    Although it’s not about Brownsville, per se, the neighborhood candy store will surely bring back fond memories. I remember Metrick’s Candy Store on Pennsylvania and Livonia Avenues where we hung out after school at Thomas Jefferson H.S.

    Enjoy!

    Roger

  • Hi Stu,

    Two points bear mentioning: although we complain about being “abused” by our rabbi, I frequently recall hearing about how our Catholic friends were hit by their church’s nuns in Sunday school classes or in parochial schools. (Lord knows we all deserved those beatings due to our behavior.)

    And, while I complained about learning to read Hebrew and not understand a word I spoke, our Catholic friends had to recite and memorize prayers in Latin which they never understood either. So, all of us were “victims” of our religions… so to speak.

    Best,

    Roger

  • Hi Mac,

    Sorry but I never saw this knish guy. The guy we always saw on Pitkin Avenue sold Abe’s Knishes. However, the website you linked to was to the Brooklyn Eagle’s photo archive and that kept me busy for quite a few hours. Wow! What an absolute treasure!

    Stu…as usual, your recollections of Rabbi Morris Heifetz were spot on. I remember he slammed that wooden ruler across my hands more than once. Sometimes, he would send me to the room in the back where I would read for his wife. When she would nod off I’d often skip a page or two but when she awoke she always knew everything I missed reading. I’ll never figure out how she did that!

    Truth be told, the most amazing part of my Bar Mitzvah studies was that I could read fluent Hebrew from anywhere… and understand ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about what I was reading! I will never be able to understand why God needs me to speak to him in a language I don’t understand but could read fluently? And, by the time I was thirteen I was also fluent in Morse Code and with a telegraphers key and a ham radio station that I built myself and an FCC government license… I could talk to people all over the world from my bedroom on Amboy Street. Pretty amazing stuff. I think my mastery of Hebrew reading proved to me that if I put my mind to anything… it could be accomplished… and that is a most powerful lesson to learn at such a tender age.

    Best to All,

    Roger Elowitz

  • I wonder if any of the people on here recognize this photo. A knish man that wasn’t Ruby the legend.

    https://m.facebook.com/bestinbrooklyn/photos/a.425582454131137.91691.165513853471333/597871113568936/?type=1&theater%5D

  • Roger, I had my share of experiences with the Heifetz family. They resided on the top floor of an apartment house on Amboy and Blake.. Upon my enrollment Rabbi Morris Heifetz dispatched me for lessons to learn the Jewish alphabet . His wife Molly was my teacher and she was on one side of the kitchen table an d I was on he other side powered by a 10 watt bulb. After I graduated from Mollys college I proceeded to Morris Heifetz in the store on Blake and Herzl. I did the best I could and the Rabbi was a bit mishigah. One day he did not like how I was doing and gave me a frosh in the punim full force and I saw stars and also fell out of my seat. I than ked him in Brownsville language, When I think of it every once in a while I could still feel the pain . Stuart :Portnoy

  • Hi Martin,

    Your Bar Mitzvah was head and shoulders more fancy than mine. At least you had a “reception.” I went to the shul around the corner on Herzl Street (that I had never been to before) with my father and no one else from my family. I said my Haftora, got a quick shot of schnaps from the rabbi and then went home and put on my dungarees and went to school, JHS 66 where my home room teacher, Mr. Gus Rappaport gave me a Fig Newton from his lunchbox and congratulated me on this milestone.

    It was not generally noted that I was kicked out of the H.E.S. for poor scholarship, and the same result with Mr. Hifetz’ storefront Hebrew school on Blake Avenue, and a private tutor who came to my house for tutoring. I just went to my room and jumped out the window… which was on the ground floor. I ended up finishing my studying for my Bar Mitzvah in an old woman’s apartment on Amboy Street, on the fifth floor where I chased mice between reading paragraphs.

    I guess you could say I wasn’t a “motivated student.” My penance for this non-scholastic behavior was to come later in life when I attended literally hundreds of Bar Mitzvahs as the official photographer which I did as a “side business” for almost 30-years.

    Regards,

    Roger Elowitz

  • I had my bar mitzvah at Jack’s Little Oriental. The entertainment was one person walking around playing an accordion. Everyone sat on chairs that lined the walls. It was considered an expensive event for the times. You could have fooled me.

  • Hi All,

    Thanks for checking in here with your memories of Brownsville. My time in Brownsville was from 1944 (at age 3) to 1959 at age 18… all spent living on Amboy Street between Pitkin and Sutter Avenues. In all that time I surely heard about the Amboy Dukes from the book written by Irving Shulman. Wikipedia has some interesting information about him at:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irving_Shulman

    I must add that in all my time on the block I never once met a single Amboy Duke. There surely were some unsavory characters going in and out of Shimmy’s Bar and Grill on the corner of Amboy and Sutter Avenue but as far as I knew… that gang was mostly just interesting fiction. It sure made Irving Shulman a lot of money. Of course, I can’t dispute your treatment by some “gang” by the same name. I belonged to a “gang” called “The KIngsmen” who mostly played basketball at the H.E.S. around to corner.

    I’m glad you got to tour Brownsville yourself using Google Earth. I use Google Maps and I find it absolutely eye-opening, how much the neighborhood has changed. Yes! I agree, the neighborhood was in transition with most of the Jews moving to either Canarsie or Flatbush.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz

  • As a kid in 1965, I can attest to the fact that the Amboy Dukes were for real! They “invaded” Hopkinson Ave across from PS175 and held about 5 of us kids as hostages for what reason I have forgotten. My mom told me that the Amboy Dukes used to be a gangster gang back in the 1930s. From a recent look at Brownsville on Google Earth, most of the apartment building that had marble lobbies have been razed and replaced with block homes. The apartments that I remembered as a kid had at least 6 floors, so now the two-floor homes accommodate hundreds of less residents in the Hopkinson and Amboy streets apartments did. I don’t recall any Jews left at all back in the 60s, as it was all black and/ or Puerto Ricans in that neighborhood. The Jewish community had long left by the mid-60s.

  • 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