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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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  • My grandfather, David Frankel, owned Richfield Clothes on 1736 Pitkin Avenue. I worked there for him when I was young and spent many a lunch time at The Kishka King eating that 12″ hot with mustard and sauerkraut and feasting on pickles/sour tomatoes right out of the barrel.

  • My last comment was complete and I do not see it at all Stuart Portnoy

  • Hello Harriet Schwartz and Ken Chernick. I too went to HES. Attended Hebrew school, drama club, day and sleep away camp. I also knew Arlene (Pixie) Udoff. Also went to jhs 263. Graduated 1962. Were you guys around then?

  • I went to Thomas Jefferson HS from 1952 to 1955. Since I lived out of the district, I had to agree to take German or Hebrew in order to get in
    I had Dr. Silberberg as my german teacher. We had great teachers!
    I now live in Pennsylvania but I remember all the fun we had in high school.

  • Dear Stuart Portnoy,
    When I read your post of Nov.9,2014, about a lady named Rose and her daughter Marion, I almost fainted. Rose was my mother’s sister. Everything you said about Rose was absolutely true. She was a woman way ahead of her time. She was brilliant and if she lived in more recent times she would have been a doctor or lawyer.
    Unfortunately, my dear cousin Marion, a registered nurse, passed away almost 3 years ago. We remained very close throughout the years even though she lived in Maryland and I in New York.
    I lived across the street from Rose at 148 Blake Ave. I went to Tilden High School, but we had already moved to 842 East 55th Street, off Glenwood Rd., when I entered high school. The two family house we lived in was purchased by my Aunt Rose. She lived upstairs, we lived downstairs.
    My parents were Lena and Sam Shabat. Do you remember them at all. I have a younger brother Danny.
    I would love to hear from you. This website is absolutely awesome!

  • My grandmother was Rose Slotkin and my mother was Marion. Roses husband was Al. You are talking about my grandmother. I am a fast typist as she was. I can tell you all I know and about my fascinating life if you wish. Stuart Portnoy wrote the article I am referring to.

  • By the way, Barbara Gelfman who also wrote a comment is my beloved cousin. Her mother, my great aunt Lena, was Rose’s sister. I loved her dearly.

  • I lived at 597 Thatford Avenue between Lott and Hegeman ave in the late forties to 1958. I then moved to linden and rockaway to Mitchell Lama coop-it was to be part of the Great Society program, but never came to fruition. There was and old farm in the corner of Lott and Thatford-was a cow farm in the 1930′s and I believe the stalls were used as garages later on. On Lott and Stone avenue there was a steel company. We used to go and pick up scraps of material on the sidewalk which we called iron chalk-it wrote like chalk. There were billboard strewn lots throughout the are, which we used to climb-it was out urban rock climbing experiance. There were come very adventurous kids whom at the time I was extremely envious of, who showed no fear and would climb to the top. Many of them fell into drugs and succumbed to suicide if heroin addiction. I envy the years when one could walk from from Hegeman avenue up rockaway avenue any time day or night.

  • To my good friends representing Rose Slotkin. As a teen ager knowing and working for Rose I was fortunate and happy to know her because she was unique in every way. Despite major dental surgery and lots of pain she continued to give respect and wonderful demeanor to all who crossed her path. I liked Al a lot and he gave Rose complete respect etc. I remember how pretty Marion was and Rose was proud of her. These are folks that I will always remember but I have been going through periods of grief at home. The sound of Rose on the typewriter could be heard downstairs in the street and she was magnificent at her duties. Knowing the Slotkins and others who were similar to them gives me a feeling of warmth and happiness knowing we were all from a tightly known area as Brownsville. God Bless you all. . Stuart Portnoy Coconut Creek Florida

  • Lived on the border of east flatbush and brownsville.Went to Tilden,somers and ps 219 LOved brooklyn .It was a tough place if you were a part of that world or just could not help it.My beloved school yard had changed to be dangerous .After going to a mets game at the polo grounds we all went back to the old area where I still lived . I had a sort of a rep and told the people in the yard to get out and not come back . they all left but one who a tore his shirt off his back and told him as well to go . He then ripped a car aerial and came at me . I told him I would tear him apart if it touched me. He backed down and two weeks later was arrested at the sutter ave el station for fighting with police . THe area I left finally was in 1966 .My mother was the last one standing along with two other old time neighbors .

  • my dad grew up on that area and sang in the Stone Shul as a choir boy!! I believe it was on Strauss and Pitkin. he sang there
    w/ a Rabbi named Rabbi Spector… in the 1929′s

  • To Andy – your note of March12 – Tanenbaum Bakery – My grandfather owned a laundry store at 1604 or 07 St John’s Place- diagonally opposite the bakery and bwtn. the barbershop and apartment house He’d leave this 10 yr old kid in the store, run across the street, buy carp (now known as sable at $44/lb at Fairway), then go to the bakery for an onion roll and come back. He”d send me to Mr Flemanhauft’s candy store with a message: Tell Flemmy ”he should give you a bottle ginger ale and papa will pay later. ” When I returned he’d take a “messer” (knife), cut the roll,’ throw’ on a piece of carp and say, “Nah, ess”(now eat). While I ate he brought out either of 2 glasses for soda – a yahrzeit glass or a jelly jar. In my life, nothing has ever tasted better than that roll, carp and soda given with his love!

  • Does anyone remember Peerless Haberdashery shop on Pitkin Avenue? I have the old business card but cannot find it, just was wondering the address or cross street. Probably 1940′s. Thanks you

  • Does anyone remember Peerless Haberdashery on Pitkin Ave, 1940′s, the address or cross street? Thank you.

  • Hi All. Interesting story. An acquaintance that I know was at a dinner that we both attended. She retired a few years ago having been a teacher. Where did she work? Yup! 263. For 30+ plus years. Another interesting aside. My orchestra teacher, Mr. Greco became the Assistant Vice Principal. Small world.