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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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405 responses so far ↓

  • 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

  • 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, 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

  • 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.

  • 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