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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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710 responses so far ↓

  • How many folks remember NINOs pizzeria on New Lots Ave. His wife was Jean and then they relocated to Crossbay Blvd in Lindenwood Howard Beach. The restaurant was always jam packed Stuart Portnoy

  • Hi David,

    Sorry, but your link to the “stories” doesn’t show up. There were most certainly farms all over Brooklyn in the early 1900’s. I’m told that the school I taught in, P.S. 176 in Bay Ridge, used to face a farm. People kept animals in their backyards until it was outlawed. Most of Long Island was all farms. There was a field opposite P.S.173 that I went to in Brownsville (on Blake and Hopkinson Avenues) that we used to plant vegetables and flowers in. We got the seeds in little manila packets that we ordered from the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.

    Best,

    Roger Elowitz

  • STORIES FROM “OLDER” FAMILY MEMBERS OF FARMS IN THIS AREA AROUND 1900 ANY TRUTH TO THIS

  • To all our observant Jewish friends…

    L’Shana Tova. Our very best wishes for a Happy, Healthy and Peaceful New Year.

    Roger Elowitz

  • Hi Shelly Salinsky,

    Manny, many thanks for contacting me by e-mail after 66-years. I’m looking forward to sharing many memories and catching up with all that’s transpired in our lives. Should be great fun.

    And please don’t forget to post your Brownsville memories right here… stores you shopped in, teachers you had loved and hated, friends you made… anything. These shared memories help Brownsville to live again for all of us former residents.

    Best always,

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

  • i am a brownsville native. brooklyn to the bone. i am also a jeff grad.my year was 1963/4. i was a “social senior”. when was the last time u heard that term, if ever?

    u can reach me by email at terifik@hotmail.com. u might know my older sisters june or sondra meltzer. we lived on stone ave, now called” Mother gaston blvd”, how do like dem apples? they also changed the name of “nanny goat park” to christopher ave. park, although i remember it being called called christopher st. am i right?
    by the way, if you are really interested in old brownsville the way u remember it, my cousin brian merlis just wrote a book on brownsville, which is its name,and i helped him with it some. lots of pix, he collects them, and writes books on old brooklyn. he’s younger than me by some years, and goes by maps a lot. but i still had to correct/inform him of a few things. i know brownsville like the back of my hand, & i do venture there on occasion.

    i recently went to the brownsville rec center, originally the brownsville boys club until it went coed. i was there for brian’s book signing. that’s where he had it. afterward i actually walked to the rockaway ave. station, & even did some shopping on the way, and i survived that trek, without incident, and am still here to tell u about it.

    also, betsy head park/pool survived the neighborhood destruction, and can still be seen from the el, and is still in use today!

    i’m sorry for going on so much, i had 2 much caffien tioday & it makes me very chatty. anyway it’s been fun. wish you a very happy holiday season/ & much nachus in the coming year.

    zei gazint

    Clyde meltzer

  • Hi Shelly,

    Wow! It’s been a long, long time! Of course I know you. We graduated Jeff together and if I’m not mistaken, you were in my 5th grade class in PS 156 (Mrs. Warhaftig). I can still name you half that class. It’s REALLY GREAT that you showed up here to share some memories of Brownsville.

    I won’t use this great forum for personal chit-chat so if you’d like to contact me by e-mail please write me at: K2JAS@Comcast.net

    Meanwhile, we’d love to hear your shared memories of growing up in Brownsville on this great blog.

    Best,

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

  • 1872 Straus Street –1941-1960

  • Born 1941–ps156—somers. Jhs –Jefferson 1956-1959