Gotham Lost and Found header image 1

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

 

 

 

 

 

Tags:   · · · · · 446 Comments

Leave a Comment

446 responses so far ↓

  • Before entering the Army in Korean times I worked for the State in the unemployment office. Those days did not have computers and everything was file cabinets and manual action. My office was on ENY and Ralph. Those were the days. Stuart Portnoy

  • Hello friends, Did not post for quite awhile due to health issues and future health issued. Hope all of you are enjoying the golden years. Stuart Portnoy Coconut Creek

  • Hi Mark,

    You and I both lived through a period of time marked by a large Puerto Rican emigration to NYC. Remember West Side Story?

    When my grandmother sold our home on Amboy Street it was to realtors who were definitely “red-lining” Brownsville-East New York for quick turnover to substantially poorer families. As young kids we weren’t aware that the buildings we lived in were well over fifty years old by then and sadly in need of new roofs, plumbing, heating systems, electrical wiring etc.. These costs quickly overwhelmed the new owners who began to torch them for the insurance claims. Within a few years the old neighborhood looked
    like Berlin after WWII.You should see the difference now with mostly low built two story homes or row houses.

    The Spanish influence we experienced was tremendous. I wore powder blue pegged pants with saddle stitching down the sides… almost like a Zoot Suit of the 20’s but definitely with a Puerto Rican influence. Sometimes half my classes were filled with this influence and I learned to speak Spanish on my own because in Junior High they only offered French as a “proper” foreign language.

    My father worked in the garment trades and most of the sewing machine operators were Spanish speaking and he studied Spanish at evening classes offered by the Garment Worker’s Union.

    While some people had mixed feelings about our new neighbors while I embraced them. My dad even went to P.R. to work training sewing machine operators in their local factories and helped maintaining their machinery.

    Yes indeed. The neighborhood definitely changed… as all neighborhoods do in time. We were just around at a time of great exodus and the flight to Canarsie and then to Staten Island and New Jersey. We must always keep in mind that our homes there, like everywhere, had a realistic functional lifespan and that lifespan was coming to an end.Real estate practices hastened the demise.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz

  • WE MOVED OUT OF 424 HINSDALE STREET IN 1961 WITH THE SOUNDS OF “LA BAMBA” AND “CHIQUITA BANANA” BLASTING OUT OF THE TENEMENT WINDOWS. EVEN NOW, AT THE AGE OF 67, I STILL CRINGE WHEN I HEAR SPANISH SPOKEN………IT REMINDS ME OF HOW WE WERE TERRORIZED AND SUBSEQUENTLY FORCED OUT OF OUR OWN LITTLE ” GARDEN OF EDEN.”

  • This brought website back fond memories of my youth. Born in 1950, I lived in Sutter Avenue in front of a Synogue, and this brought back memories of childhood friends (Scott, Thomas Jemec, Stanley Kroon, Randy). Mrs. Dorothy Sirota is still in my memory, a wonderful teacher who inspired me, will forever be grateful to her. What a wonderful time that was!

  • I lived on Grafton St. between Pitkin and Sutter from 1941 to 1953 when I went off to the University of Chicago for graduate study in biochemistry. My parents continued to live there until my dad Sam died in 1957.
    I went to Thomas Jefferson and then City College where I studied biology and chemistry.
    I’ve enjoyed reading many of the posts about the old neighborhood-the stores and restaurants on Pitkin, the movie theaters including the Sutter, the Pitkin, the Stadium and the ones on Saratoga near the el station. I also remember the deli, the appetizer store and the drugstore on the corners of Howard and Sutter.
    There was a group of boys about my age on Grafton including Iz Levine, Stan Salter, Bob Shonhorn, Bobby Mace, Al Kaden, and Sol Dichtenberg (later Roger Dixon). Most except Iz and Stan are now gone. I saw them both in L.A. recently. We had a club in a basement in East Flatbush which we grandly called Club Collegians.

  • Steven Epstein:
    Was your father friends with Sid Gordon?If so,we were friends.

  • Ate at Wuhans Chinese restaurant on Sunday nights. Lines were out into the street.

  • Hi Ronnie,

    While I surely knew of Al Shanker, I never had the pleasure of meeting him. I surely owe the UFT a tremendous debt of gratitude for the contract fights and the benefits we won over the years. They significantly altered my life and my family’s for the better.

    All the best,

    Roger

  • Hi, Stuart Portnoy, Thanks for still thinking of me and my family. My sister Barbara also says hello. We’re sorry to hear that you lost your wife. Your posts are a real track record showing that you live life well.

    Roger Elowitz, Thank you for your informative posts. It may sound weird, but as a retired public school teacher, I want to ask whether you personally knew one of my heroes, Albert Shanker.

  • My grandfather spent his childhood at 192 Newport, near Rockaway Ave. Allen Oster, son of Irving and Natalie.

    I’ve been digging trying to find any friends or family from the old neighborhood. The Oster’s moved to Lawrence in the late 1940s. My great grandfather Irving owned a butcher shop called Oster Bros.

  • By the way, my grandfather was born in 1896. To this day, all of his children, grandchildren and even past them…..are all Shomer Shabbos. He, as you could imagine, was let go from many jobs as a highly-skilled tailor when he would tell the boss on Friday that he would not be able to come in on Saturday.

    He was very well rewarded

  • Hello, Stuart….

    My mother was one of five sisters who grew up at 515 Bristol Street off Newport. Their last name was Portnoy. My grandfather was Chaim or Hyman Portnoy who was Bar Mitzvah while on a boat coming from White Russia to the USA. I still have three of my aunts. Any chance that we are related ?

  • Simply hilarious Stu. Where’s Alaska? LOL.

    BTW… I’m not so sure our current crop of Brooklyn College graduates could tell you. Here in Port St. Lucie, FL at the Indian River State College we have a professor who is a Doctor of Geography and he has a 3-minute spot on our local NPR radios station (WQCS) every morning with a geography quiz about places around the world. It’s quite tough! But, who would ever think one could get a doctorate in geography!!!

    Roger Elowitz

    Roger

  • The latest happening re. our current college grads and others has them making purchases in stores in Alaska and asking the employee if they accept American money. Our Brooklyn College graduates would never do that Stuart Portnoy

  • Hi Stuart,

    I know exactly which building you are referring to for that barber shop although I never frequented it. I always got my hair cut at Murray and Nat’s barber shop on Sutter Avenue between Amboy and Herzl Street.

    Now I opened my Google Map program and went to take another look at the HES and, guess what? It’s still there only it’s a Hands & Hearts Learning Center… whatever that means?

    Here’s a link to that street view:

    http://tinyurl.com/zoj39mu

    And directly across the street there are no longer any tenement houses but rather, only one family dwellings and both sides of Hopkinson Avenue (now called Thomas S Boyland St.) are lined with trees. So, dear Stuart, the neighborhood had surely changed… perhaps for the better. Gone too are all the businesses I used to frequent. So much for change. BTW… when you go to Google Maps to view the neighborhood… all you have to do is click on the screen and hold down the left mouse button and drag it around to see different views or click on the street to move up and down the block. With a little practice you can eventually see the entire neighborhood. Lots of fun.

    Enjoy!

    Roger

  • On Hopkinson and Sutter in the first apar5tment house across from the HES on the ground floor front was Frank Utchansky who operated a barber shop in his dwelling. I remember thje board he put across the seat for the little boys who had to be raised up in the chair so Frank could give a haircut. The barber had a son in his 20s who had tremendous muscles and was a weight lifter. The son worked for NYC Transit somewhere in the subway system. Also remembering all the little boys receiving a haircut would receive a small toy for later on. Those were the days. Stuart Portnoy

  • Just a bit of correction and addition:

    My old friend Sam Umansky (who ran the Betsy Head pool) lived at 1938 67 St in Brooklyn. Did anyone else know him? He passed away over 20-years ago.

  • Hi Marty,

    Memories of Betsy Head pool are precious. I recall those round brass locker number tags with the blue elastic bands that you wore. Did they give you a bathing suit or did you bring your own? I don’t remember. But leaving the locker room you had to walk through that wading pool that, for some reason, we dreaded to have to step in.

    Many, many years later (50 or so,) I met the guy who supervised the pool by the name of Sammy. The kids would prank him by throwing unwrapped Baby Ruth candy bars into the water and then scream for his help. I don’t have to tell you what it looked like. Sammy, it turns out was also a ham radio operator with the call letters WB2FZD. We remembered those call letters by jokingly associating the letters with the words Fly Zippers Down… always good for a laugh on the air. Sammy was quite a character… but he lived in Boro Park near 20th Avenue and 69th Street. I’ll try to post a picture of Betsy Head.

  • I knew a Heshy but his last name was Goldstein. His older brother was a basketball star for Louiville Kentucky . His name was Don Red Golstein. He lived on Amboy Street corner Dumont Avenue.

    As for Ebbet’s Field I got in free. I use to walk around Amboy street looking for Elsie Ice Cream Wrappers. If you collected 10 you could get into the bleachers free. When I wanted to go to the pool when it was hot in those summer months, I went to Betsy Head Pool. Before 9AM it was free to get in. I ate my lunch and dinner there. I spent the whole day free of charge. I saved a dime.

  • Roger, The name of the florist on Pitkin and Rockaway was Hyman Spitz. I worked for Rubys florist on Saratoga and Livonia and utilized the subways for deliveries to the Bronx etc. There was no flowers by wire in those days, I schlepped myself all over NYC for measley tips including going up to the hospital room to hand the patient the flowers. Rubys was owned b y Harry and Rudy. Imagine how we struggled to make a few dollars; Stuart Portnoy

  • Hi Marty,

    Sorry, the name Hellman is not familiar but Chester Street most certainly is. Near the corner of Pitkin Avenue there once existed the Stadium Theater… which I was taken to to see a Frankenstein movie when I was way too young for that fare and it gave me untold nightmares thereafter. Many people remembering the Stadium Theater can be found talking about their memories by clicking

    http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/8259

    I also recall that around the corner on Bristol Street near Pitkin Avenue I visited the phone company to pay my parent’s phone bill. That building still stands although they tore down the Stadium Theater a long time ago.

    Pitkin Avenue was the commercial hub of the neighborhood and it molded many of my memories of growing up in the 50’s. I certainly remember the Woolworth’s 5¢, 10¢ and $1 up on Pitkin near Rockaway Avenue. Across from Woolworth’s was a tobacconist where I bought my pipe tobacco. Next to the Woolworth was a photography supply store where I bought my first darkroom chemicals. And on the corner of Pitkin and Rockaway I believe you’d find Atkins? florist. Rockaway Avenue… where the trolleys ran, was a place to go for furniture shopping.

    Roger Elowitz

  • Marty Blumberg was great to provide me with this fabulous bit of nostalgia video… for a pleasant trip down memory lane. Sadly, it’s not really Brownsville related but well worth watching anyway.

    Enjoy!

    Please click on this link: http://tinyurl.com/zfjezct

    Roger

  • Hi Trina,

    Thank you. I did try. Close but no cigar!

    Good Luck searching for your images.

    Roger

  • Anyone remember Irwin Hellman from chester st between sutter and pitkin aves?

  • Darn! Thank you for searching, but those photos are all contemporary, and what I’m looking for are photos of Brownsville in the early 20th century when there were still grazing goats among the buildings and it was called “goat country.”

  • Hi Stuart,

    I’ve been to some Dodger games at Ebbet’s Field in the early 50’s. We’d get bleacher seats and then sneak down to the duggout where I took pictures of Duke Snyder warming up.

    When they tore down Ebbet’s Field my mother bought stock in Kratter(sp?) Realty who built the apartment buildings on the site and she promptly lost all her investment.

    In 1957-1958 when I was sixteen, I worked as a soda jerk for Morganstern & Stark newstand at 829 Franklin Avenue near Eastern Parkway. It was a great spot to meet girls from four or five different high schools and also meet the people who took the IRT to the Franklin Avenue station and walked down the hill to Ebbet’s field.

    So Stuart… looks like we had ice-cream in common in our teens. LOL!

    Roger

  • As a kid I went to Ebbetts Field daily. Fifty cents for the bleachers. If you purchased am Brooklyn Eagle newspaper for five cents they gave you a free scorecard and a pencil to keep score. Saw Ed Head hurl a no hitter and Leo Durocher being tossed out of the game daily by the umpires. Stuart Portnoy

  • Whoa! Trina!!!

    I just struck a “gold mine.” by committing the UNTHINKABLE… I did a Google search by entering… “Brooklyn grazing goats” Sheesh! Nothing could be simpler… and here’s what I found… perhaps just what you wanted?

    http://tinyurl.com/h4p59rm

    Enjoy!~

    Roger Elowitz

  • Hi Trina,

    For old photos of Brooklyn I did a Google search for: “Old Photos of Brooklyn”. Quite easy really!

    Here’s what I found: Please go to:

    BrooklynPix.com

    or: http://www.oldnycphotos.com/

    Unfortunately, browsing those pictures I didn’t see anything with goats grazing. Still, the pictures are interesting. Please understand that these websites would like to SELL you these pictures so they put a “water-mark” on them to discourage you from copying them. Of course, you CAN copy them but the watermark stays smeared all over the face of the image.

    You might also try http://www.nyc.gov/records I haven’t visited that website yet but they are a trove of old pictures.

    Now I just found this wonderful website that will keep you busy for hours for a tour down “memory lane” of Brooklyn photos:

    http://tinyurl.com/jgoeqph

    Sorry but after looking at hundreds of photos I haven’t found one yet with goats. Just gotta keep searching. I’ll bet then NYC website or the Brooklyn Public Library has some. Then again, you might even try researching the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper.

    Good Luck in your quest.

    Roger Elowitz

  • Hi, I’m looking for photos of Brownsville in the 1920s, when it was still “goat country.” Especially, photos of the old buildings with goats around them. Can anyone help?

  • amboy dukes where tough my father an itaian mobster use to tell me about the amboy dukes that they where a tough gang that he had friends an when i was 5 or so years old he would go to brownsville an hang out with them with me on his shouldes an a well respected jewish gaagster would call me dada

  • Re. some excellent books about Brownsville have been written by Carol Bell Ford who resided on Legion St. She is a professor at colleges and her writings about Brownsville are superb. Stuart Portnoy

  • Hi Stuart – I don’t see anything pending from you. I checked the spam folder too just in case. Can you try reposting? David

  • My last few messages are being kept out of the website. What is happening?

  • Hi Steven,

    Thanks for chiming in here. Since I was born in 1941 your dad was six years older so he was out of my league of friends. Blake Avenue runs quite a distance too from East Flatbush through Brownsville and East New York to within a mile or so of Aquaduct Race Track. The only “Heshie” I knew was Harold Moll who lived at 112 Amboy Street. I lost track of him a long time ago.

    Roger Elowitz

  • my dad was born in 1935. his name is harold “heshy” epstein. He is still going strong at 81 this year. He had 3 brothers. Julius, Ben, Seymour. there parents were louis and sylvia epstein. only 1 uncle of mine remains -Ben. they lived on blake ave. probably around 1930’s to 1950’s

  • My sister and I grew up on New Lots Ave. I remember everything you have shown. When I grew up, and was able to shop at Jack Diamond, I new I had made it. Every time we shopped on Pitkin Ave. we would go to the Kishka King for a 12 inch hot dog. My sister went to Thomas Jefferson high school, and I got Bar Mitzvah at the Tomid Tora Synagogue, on Pennsylvania Ave. and New Lots. On Saturday we would go to the Baltimore Theater, or the Supreme Theater, on Livonia St. where Fortunoff started there stores. It was such a great neighborhood to grow up in.

  • Hi Martin,

    Here’s a book you may enjoy about Brownsville called “Another Time another Place” by Gerald Chatanow and Bernard Schwartz. I bought my copy on Amazon.com. No! I’m not selling this book. I did enjoy most of it.

    http://www.amazon.com/Another-Gerald-Chatanow-Bernard-Schwartz/dp/0738842338

    Roger Elowitz

  • THE TOUR OF BROOKLYN PHOTOS WAS ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC! THE SIGN FROM THE WUHANS CHINESE RESTAURANT, BROUGHT BACK WONDERFUL MEMORIES. MY PARENTS TOOK ME THERE FOR DINNER ALMOST EVERY SUNDAY. IT WAS ONE FLIGHT UP & TO SEE THE SIGN STILL HANGING WAS INCREDIBLE. I SPENT A LOT OF TIME ON PITKIN AVENUE AS A YOUNGSTER, SHINING SHOES FOR A NICKLE A SHINE. A LIFETIME AGO! THANKS FOR THE MEMORY & LET ME KNOW HOW I CAN ORDER ANY BOOKS YOU MAY HAVE COMPILED.

  • To Ronnie Katz, Hope you are doing well. Your family in Brownsville were wonderful folks. Your Dad and Mom Betty and your siblings Barbara and of course Loretta. I wish you and yours well always. Stuart Portnoy

  • Hi Stuart,

    Yup! Fudgie Wudgies were fudge pops, I believe… another favorite. By the way… I’m laughing at myself for my spelling mistake above… “before they through me out for…” They should have thrown me out for misspelling “threw.” Oh well!

    Carrying those shopping bags of things to sell spoke volumes about what we were willing to do as youngsters to make a buck. I waited and bus’d tables at Shenk’s Paramont in the Catskills as well as the ILGWU’s Unity House in Forest Park, PA. If it paid a buck… we lined up to do it. I trudged THROUGH the snow to deliver mail as a Post Office Christmas Assistant in Canarsie and got NO TIPS because I wasn’t the “regular mailman.” I was also a soda jerk on Franklin Ave and Eastern Parkway. When I was about 14 I delivered the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper in the Brownsville projects…even in the snow.

    Sheesh! We both learned what it meant to work hard to make a buck.

    Roger

  • To Helene Fuchs:
    I posted a message to Bruce Katcher about his cousin Herb Lubin and how the Lubin family lived right next door to us on Blake Ave.
    My family was very good friends with the Lubins. I see that you were also related to them. I am curious about Herb and if he is still alive and if so where he lives. I think he was in a branch of the military. I would be grateful for any information you have about that family.I remember them well. Rose was a good friend to my mom.

  • Roger, I also sold ice cream on the beach in Brighton Beach, Do you remember the vendors selling FUDGIE WUDGIES? The people who made the most money on the beach were the thieves walking around and stealing the beach goers pants while they were bathing in the ocean. It was actually Good Humor whom I worked for on Bay 2. Walking through the sand with a bag full of ice cream reminds me of basic training. Those were the days Stuart Portnoy

  • Hi Stuart,

    For some reason I idolized the Bungalow Bar guy driving that white truck with the tiled roof. That truck held my all-time favorite toasted almond vanilla ice-cream pops or the twin-sicles ice-pops or the orange ice pop with the vanilla center.

    As a teenager I loved to hear the cries of the vendors selling the orange-aid drinks out of shopping bags on Brighton Beach… Bay 2, or the guys hawking hot potato knishes. I just finished dinner and now I’m hungry again! Rats!

    BTW… I always wanted to go to the NY School of Printing. I do remember one of the guys on Amboy Street going there. I forget his name. Really big guy! Instead, I went to Brooklyn College and had a fabulous time before they through me out for… what else… having too good a time! I re-matriculated by going at night and taking the hardest courses imaginable… Mechanical Drawing, Analytical Geometry, Classics…. and ended up graduating Cum Laude (more like “Come Sooner or Later”). Some of the best years of my life were had in Brooklyn College… and Brigham House (House Plan). Eventually I became a public school teacher.

    Roger

  • Roger, Spent my teen age years working for Bungalow Bar on a ice cream bicycle and graduated to a truck at 18r a short while. Graduated from The New York School of Prin ting at 461 8th Ave in Manhattan. Then there was the waiting re. thje Korean war/ But I never forgot about Brownsville. Stuart Portnoy