Living in Brooklyn: The Jewish Experience

Explores life in an urban immigrant Jewish neighborhood, Brownsville, Brooklyn, experiencing cataclysmic world events through the prism of the American Jewish lens – from World Wars, the Cold War and the Holocaust to Saturdays at the Loew’s Pitkin and the desertion of the Brooklyn Dodgers.


Celebrating Hope, Hard Work, Tolerance and the Triumph of the Human Spirit, By Sylvia Siegel Schildt
These excerpts of Ms. Schildt’s memoirs are reproduced with the permission of the author.
Chapter 7: From Holocaust to Herzl Street

Brownsville - the Jewish Years
Escorted by American soldiers, a large transport of children survivors of Buchenwald file out of the main gate of the camp, April 27, 1945. They are being taken to homes and medical centers in France. Eli Wiesel appears as the fourth child in the left column.

Shortly after the war ended, my mother was walking down our street, when she heard someone call out her name, the name she was known by in the Old Country. Emma. Emma Basson. Running to her from across the street was a tall woman with reddish brown hair topped with a crown of braids. Her name was Sarah Medansky and she was a distant relation, a Holocaust survivor from her home town of Vilna in what is now Lithuania. They embraced and laughed and cried together. What a sight it must have been – our plump little mama, no bigger than 4 foot 7, hugging this gaunt woman of about 5’8”. And what tragic news Sarah Medansky carried with her.Over a cup of coffee in our tiny kitchen, Sarah Medansky brought sad closure to years or worry and fear over the survival of her large family – father, stepmother, brothers, a sister (two others had long emigrated to Canada and South Africa), their spouses and children, and an army of cousins and friends. They family had all been rousted out of my grandfather’s apartment and slaughtered. Why had she survived when all the rest had perished? She told us that she had worked in the German army kitchens and was not in the ghetto when the roundup occurred.

Afterwards, when Sarah returned from work to the ruins of the Vilna ghetto, she looked in on our grandfather’s apartment and found all the furniture overturned – they had struggled and not gone to their deaths like sheep. She also said it was Poles and Lithuanians who did the rounding up, not Nazi soldiers.

Somehow she made it through, and in the wartime aftermath, landed in the DP camps in Germany. There she married a nice quiet man and they produced a little daughter, Chanele, on whom they lavished unusual love and care. And in a unique twist of fate, Sarah Medansky, found herself living on the same street as our mother.

I later learned from the sole-surviving nephew that they had been shot at Ponar, a former military fort and later a place for picnicking that had been turned into a site for mass shootings and burials of Vilna’s Jews. I later learned this last roundup, the final one, took place on September 23, 1943 and my family perished along with thousands of other Jews from the Vilna ghetto. Vilna, the Jerusalem of Europe, site of learning and Jewish culture, reduced to nothing. Its Jews, shot, starved, or murdered in the ghetto and death camps. I try to remember to light a memorial candle on September 23 every year.

It’s important to know that to us in Brownsville, the disclosures about the 6,000,000 who perished, the camps, the ovens and the tragic remains were very personal, not just the statistics and horror stories we saw in our newsreels and newspapers. Many of the surviving remnant found their way to the DP camps of Germany, and the HIAS, Joint and other organizations issued daily lists of these people as they passed through their gates. My father became totally immersed, even obsessed, in scanning these lists, mainly in the Yiddish Forward, for family, townspeople, anyone he or my mother might have known. A remnant of about 250,000 Jews found themselves in these UNNRA camps, their movement stalled by quotas and red tape in potential host countries such as the US and Canada.

Father found a few unrelated survivors from his home shtetl of Malat, north of Vilna, to whom he reached out, and one day, came upon the name of my mother’s nephew, Eliezer Basson. He had escaped, along with a brother, and had served in the Russian army. His brother was killed in the fighting, and Eliezer, known in the family as Leizer, had lost an eye. Upon returning to Vilna after the war, he saw the ruins, and understood that this was no longer his home.

One Yiddish song, also sung in English, was very popular in Brownsville. It poignantly expressed the national Jewish feeling of uprootedness.

 Vi Ahin Zol Ikh Geyn
: S. Korn-Tuer
Lyrics: O. Strock

Der Yid vert geyogt un geplogt The Jew is chased and persecuted.
Nisht zikher iz far im yeder tog No day is sure for him.
Zayn lebn iz a finstere nakht His life is a dark night.
Zayn shtrebn alts far im iz farmakht His striving is blocked at every turn.
Farlozn bloyz mit sonim kayn fraynt He is left only with enemies, no friends.
Kayn hofnung on a zikhern haynt No hope without a secure today.


Vi ahin zol ikh geyn? Tell me where can I go?
Ver kon entfern mir? Who can answer me?
Vi ahin zol ikh geyn? Where can I go?
Az farshlosn z’yede tir Every door is closed to me.
S’iz di velt groys genug The world is big enough
Nor far mir iz eng un kleyn But for me it’s crowded and small.
Vi a blik kh’muz tsurik I If I try to return
S’iz tsushtert yede brik Every bridge is closed.
Vi ahin zol ikh geyn? Tell me where can I go?

When my father found his name, Leizer was in one of the DP camps. Father alerted the Basson clan in the Bronx , my mother’s family, which had an active cousins’ circle. They offered to bring him to America and set him up. Leizer refused – there was only one home for him – the Jewish homeland, Eretz Yisrael, then called Palestine and still under British rule. And to Palestine he went, where after helping the Haganah to rescue Jewish refugee children, he became a shepherd in a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley. He married a survivor from Bulgaria and they built a family together. I always felt the lack of a place, a cemetery, a headstone, something to stand by and physically mourn the loss of my bobe/zeyde, grandmother and grandfather, indeed, the entire European Basson family. Decades later, I was able to visit my surviving cousin Leizer at his kibbutz – and there in a memorial garden, in a kibbutz filled with aging survivors, was a plaque honoring the families that had perished. And there for the first time, the only time, was something concrete to stand in front of and weep. Yes, the Holocaust is a very personal experience.

I have always envied those who got to know and have a relationship with their grandparents. History denied this to me and my siblings. But Tante Brokhe and Uncle Moishe substituted for grandparents in our lives and I shall always be grateful for this.

I became friendly with a refugee of my age named Bronya Zatz. She was the youngest of five and had four brothers, along with very religious parents. They were from Poland, but had escaped to Russia under harrowing circumstances. There they were eventually captured and separated. She got through the war all alone. Little red-haired, pale-skinned Bronya made a vow – that if by some miracle her entire family were to survive and be reunited, she would become super frum, super religious, just like her parents. She wound up, after the war, in a DP camp in Frankfurt and after some effort by the Allied authorities, located them all, safe and sound. And Bronya kept her promise – her faith intact. As did her parents. Her four older brothers however, emerged secular, unbelieving and cynical. Same outcome, different conclusion. They all lived together in a Brownsville apartment. Their home was strictly observant, her mother always wore a wig and a scarf, and her father had a thick gray beard. Many of our best talks happened while we were taking long walks along Pitkin Avenue on a Sabbath or Jewish holiday afternoon.

I also had the pleasure of linking up, in French class, with three girls from France, originally from Poland, also DP’s. They taught me current French slang and culture, and it went a long way to helping me shine in learning that language, while I helped them in learning about how things worked in Brownsville.

My fluent Yiddish opened many doors to me with the newly arrived refugee survivors, my mother used to call them “di grine”, the greenhorns. On the far corner of Herzl Street, at No. 8, there lived a settlement of grine, all from the city of Lodz, which had been a center of the garment industry in Poland and in which many Jews had been involved at every level from sweat shop laborers to owners. These were mostly young men, some single, a few married with Polish nicknames like Anyush. The youngest among them they humorously called Junior – he was now about twenty-one.

They spoke Yiddish and Polish among themselves and they had accepted me easily into their company as we gathered in front of their building some evenings. They spoke about the Lodz ghetto and individuals they knew. And also about their mutual time in the concentration camp of Auschwitz. One of the most chilling things I heard was that when they first entered the camps, it was the fatter people who died first. They concurred among themselves that food deprivation hit the obese the hardest.

The married couple at No. 8 once asked me to babysit their newborn for a special evening out. I remember feeling there was something odd, something missing in the apartment. There were newly bought tchatchkes, gimcrackery, a few prints on the wall, new curtains and appliances, there was a fresh coat of paint of the walls. And they had left me food in the refrigerator to nibble on if I got hungry. There was a wedding photo, taken in the DP camp where they met, in a small frame on a mahogany lamp table – but still something was missing.

And then it hit me. There were no family photos – no pictures of grandparents, relations, childhood pictures. There was no history to clutter up their décor. These people had come from rubble and bones and were starting all over again from nothing. It made me shudder.

But there was a dark side to this new influx of people to Brownsville. As the postwar boom allowed some residents to move to richer neighborhoods, these “grine” moved in. Some of these moves helped remove rent control guards so landlords could raise the rent. Various refugee organizations helped subsidize their housing, found them work, helped furnish their homes.

But what rankled many old-timers was that the very landlord improvements which had eluded them most – new appliances, upgrades in plumbing and heating, painting and plastering – the refugees got it all. There was anger and resentment.

There were a number of dark allegations that emerged – someone like Sarah Medansky survived because she must have consorted with the German soldiers. Those boys who survived Auschwitz, survived because they did dirty things to survive. Maybe they ratted on their fellow prisoners or did Sonderkommando tasks, (sorting remains, gold teeth, spectacles) with the crematoria.

These suspicions lurked in the very atmosphere.

On the other hand, these survivors were initially “damaged goods” – they had undergone such traumas as the human mind, body and soul could barely tolerate.

So they did not come hat in hand, overflowing with thanks to their American rescuers and sponsors. They had baggage – personal memories of betrayal by long-trusted neighbors and even fellow Jews. They had been physically and psychologically abused for over five years. And had lost everything, everyone that meant anything to them.

And liberation had been no picnic – they encountered virulent anti-Semitism if they tried to return home. Their first experiences after liberation from their camps and hiding places, shell-shocked and almost dead, had been to be herded into DP camps in of all places, Germany. There, under seemingly interminable detention, barely different from concentration camps, they awaited an uncertain fate.

It’s not that America’s Jews were unsympathetic to their plight and tragic history – but many felt the refugees believed the world now owed them a living, while they the old-timers, continued to toil under the old conditions and no one was cutting them a break.

This was particularly true in Brownsville, where poor housing had been a longstanding sore issue about which nothing was happening but lip service.

One set of grine that became very important to our family was a young man who, together with his sister, had been separated from their parents in Holland and hidden by Dutch citizens. Orphaned like so many others, Arnie and Theo van der Horst were found and brought to the States by their aunt and uncle. And when Arnie met my sister Lakie almost a decade later, they meshed and became a couple, married and raised two sons. For decades, Arnie spoke little of his wartime experiences and traumas as a hidden child, but recently, he began to speak out in public and is now sharing what happened to him with a whole new generation.

© 2007 by Sylvia Siegel Schildt.
Ms. Schildt’s book, “Brownsville: The Jewish Years,” from which the above excerpt was taken, can be purchased 

Courtesy of Steven 

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Living in America: The Jewish Experience

The Loew’s Pitkin, which opened in 1929 at 1501 Pitkin Avenue in Brownsville, was one of the great ones. It was designed by Thomas Lamb, who was a big name in theatrical architecture. writer Suzanne Spellen identifies the architectural style of its exterior as “Art Deco with Mayan and Art Nouveau touches.” 


Celebrating Hope, Hard Work, Tolerance and the Triumph of the Human Spirit, By Sylvia Siegel Schildt
These excerpts of Ms. Schildt’s memoirs are reproduced with the permission of the author.
Chapter 13: The Loew’s Pitkin: Brownsville’s Eyes on the World

The Brooklyn Movie House

The Brooklyn
Movie House

Let’s start with the nuts and bolts. The dramatic Loew’s Pitkin Theater on Pitkin Avenue between Legion Street and Saratoga Avenue, backed by East New York Avenue, was born on Saturday, November 23, 1929 precisely 11 A.M. Its seating capacity of 2,827 people included a big auditorium below, a sizeable upstairs balcony section and several loges.

Designed by Thomas W. Lamb, it was one of the Loew’s theater chain’s highly touted atmospheric theaters, with a cloudy, starry sky and romantic lighting effects. There was a carpeted grand staircase in the lobby, with richly carved lion’s head details. Even the restrooms were elegantly decorated with their own entrance lounge areas. The first movie at Loew’s Pitkin was the talking-singing feature “So This Is College” (MGM) with Elliott Nugent, Robert Montgomery and Sally Starr. There was a stage revue as well, featuring performers direct from New York’s Capitol Theater, comedians and comic acts, magicians, acrobats, musical artists and famed acts like Buck and Bubbles. This combo pattern continued for years and even when it was no longer the norm, there were occasional live vaudeville shows along with the films. At opening, it offered four De Luxe shows daily at 1:30-3:45-7:00-9:00. It was heralded as LOEW’S AMAZING NEW! PITKIN on Sat. Nov. 9, 1929 at 11 A.M.. Opening Day prices were 11 a.m.-1 p.m. .35 cents, 1-5 p.m. .50 cents, 5 p.m. to closing .75 cents. Note (Loges slightly higher.)…

In its almost four-decade existence as a movie theater it played the top tier movies immediately after their New York movie house runs.

In addition to 5-act vaudeville shows, the programs also included the ever-present Henrietta Kamern at the organ, a Robert Morton classic pipe organ which was raised and lowered as needed. Henrietta accompanied the Follow the Bouncing Ball singalongs, and served up rollicking music at the beginning and end of major features.

Occasionally the theater featured Beauty Contests and eager younger movie crazed girls would submit their photos which were displayed in the lobby. The concession stand served up drinks, large sized candy (including jumbo Tootsie Rolls, huge boxes of Nonpareils chocolate topped with white sugar pellets, and of course, freshly made popcorn.

Ushers were elegantly dressed good-looking young males and reportedly used this opportunity to meet and date young ladies of the neighborhood.

The building, with its Mayan inspired exterior was ringed on its Pitkin Avenue side with fine retail establishments. Today, the inside has collapsed but retail establishments of a lesser order still do business on the outer side of a fake wall.

These are the nuts and bolts. But in its heyday, in its glory, it was a whole lot more than the sum of its parts. The Loew’s Pitkin was a pleasure palace, an escape from the struggles and humdrum existence of this working class neighborhood, its luxurious appointments and décor alone a sharp contrast to the squalor in which many lived.

A peak inside...

Pitkin Theatre Ceiling Collapse
Recent photos, prior to the collapse of the ceiling, show not only the vast size of the Loew’s Pitkin, but the scenic magnificence of the surrounding sides.
Henrietta and her beautifully stage-lit Robert Morton organ
Henrietta and her beautifully stage-lit Robert Morton organ would emerge from the left front. And the orchestra pit was in front of the elaborate stage, in the center.

There was a Loew’s Pitkin for everyone. For the reasonable price of admission, adults could enjoy at one sitting, top rung dramas, comedies, lavish MGM musicals, mysteries or westerns, paired with lower budget B pictures (some of which are now prized as “film noir” classics) along with the latest newsreels and, depending on the length of the main feature, additional short subjects. Everything about the experience, from the moment you came up Pitkin Avenue to the ticket booth, to your entrance, to the show itself was an escape. You walked on lush carpeting, sat in comfortable seats and enjoyed the best Hollywood could create.

Our mother went to the movies by herself, either to the Pitkin or the Palace, usually on Tuesday nights, which were less crowded and management gave every lady a free dish. She loved the tearjerkers, especially the ones with Bette Davis most of all, and had found that having a good cry in the theater was very cathartic We developed a rating system for her. A really good one was a five-hankie picture. Two or one hankie pictures were disappointments. She would get dressed up, earrings and all, and put on a fancy hat for the occasion. It was normal to see our hard-working mother “all dolled up” for an evening at the movies by herself.

Saturday night was date night for young adults and teens. Unlike today, it was a time for dressing up, making up and showing off. Males wore shirts, ties and suits, adding dress coats with white silk scarves in winter. And it was cocktail dresses and fancy hairdos, jewelry and the whole nine yards for young ladies.

Couples in love spend the whole evening “making out” except for interruptions by the ushers. Couples not really in relationship spend the evening in a choreographed wrestling match. It goes something like this. He buys their first round of treats and they find their seat. He holds her seat for her, “like a gentleman”. They settle in, make light conversation, nibble on sweets or popcorn and sip some Coke or Pepsi. The lights dim and the program begins. As the theater darkens and all eyes are on the screen, a male hand reaches for one or another part of the

female anatomy. She knows what’s happening and has three options. She can push the hand firmly away, leave it there passively but not respond, or jump right in there with him and “make out.” If the hand is rejected, he tries blowing in her ear and looking soulfully into her eyes, especially in conjunction with a romantic portion of the movie.

The balconies were the places of choice for serious ”making out” or heavy petting.

During breaks or scheduled intermissions, you went to the lavish restrooms, and combed your hair to be ready for the next round. Girls would re-do their makeup sitting at mirrors, surrounded by flattering lighting.

If a girl came by herself, and sat next to an empty seat, she would be easy prey for any unattached male who would sit down next to her. And the games would begin. Same choreography. The response was up to the girl. And if she really disliked the fellow and he didn’t get the message, she would call the usher, to make him either vacate the seat or leave the theater.

The balcony section was popular for this sort of activity – in general the loges were too expensive, and the main section too out in the open.

The kiddie matinees on weekends were a whole different matter. If the main film was not considered appropriate for young eyes, or a hot kid movie was just released, that would be part of the double bill. A special section was roped off for kids and the aisles were heavily patrolled by searchlight-bearing ushers and matrons.

Kids would come in beginning with the opening of the doors around noon. They came with sandwiches, fruit and treats from home or enough money for the treats from the concession stand in the lobby.

Not only would the youngsters see a double feature and news, but also an array of short subjects, cartoons and that most popular kiddie favorite – the 12-part serial. Evolving from the Perils of Pauline type serial, they would pit a witless hero against equally witless villains. We called them, in Brownsville vernacular, the “chapters.” There was a new chapter every weekend, ending in a cliffhanger, literally. Sets were unconvincing to any but young eyes. Kids cheered and booed and had a great time. The hero, The Phantom, or the heroine, Perils of Nyoka,

would have found a secret entrance to a room on the way down the cliff, or a way to disarm the bomb that was about to go off. The intrepid Nyoka and her friends would be pitted against Vultura, Queen of the Desert, on a quest for the Golden Tablets of Hippocrates or some such treasure. And so on, to the 12th and final chapter. And then a new one would begin. The chapters kept the kids coming on a regular basis – no one wanted to miss finding out how the hero/heroine was rescued. On kiddie matinee days, there were huge signs at the movie house doors promoting the chapter and serial of the day. Each chapter had a dynamic name, presaging Indiana Jones, names not unlike The Temple of Doom, or Flaming Inferno, or Railway of Death.

Ah, the Perils of Nyoka - crushed by gorillas, about to be spiked to death in the shrinking room. Kids waited eagerly, week to week, to see how she would escape certain doom.
Ah, the Perils of Nyoka - crushed by gorillas, about to be spiked to death in the shrinking room. Kids waited eagerly, week to week, to see how she would escape certain doom.
Ah, the Perils of Nyoka - crushed by gorillas, about to be spiked to death in the shrinking room. Kids waited eagerly, week to week, to see how she would escape certain doom.

I am an incurable filmaholic and I watch Turner Classic Movies very often. So many of the films I see there or on other channels of that type, I first saw at the Pitkin, most of the 100 top films of all time. Casablanca, Best Years of Our Lives, Gone with the Wind, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Mrs. Miniver, Lost Horizon, all the MGM musicals. The Robert Mitchum film noir adventures. All the great comedies. The Pitkin was our eye on the world. Its newsreels shaped and ignited our patriotism in wartime.

It was more than that. It was a destination, and a place from which images flowed to inform, to entertain and to change thinking. And for us, immigrants and the children of immigrants, caught up in our tight world of work and school, it was how we absorbed American ideas and values.

Even to this day, those who once lived in Brownsville speak with deep affection for this movie theater. I feel it is a shame that it has been allowed to deteriorate this far.

And I would suggest if anyone reading these pages has the money or the means or both to do something truly meaningful with it before there is any further deterioration. I would imagine, in the light of the gentrification of Brownsville, that the building could be restored and converted into a museum of Brownsville’s colorful turbulent history as a way station for different waves of immigration, while honoring the films that shaped two generations.

Lowes Pitkin Theater Flyer
Right hand page offers tickets to a Pitkin appearance in person of The Three Stooges, in tandem with cartoons.

If such a renovation were to come to fruition, it could revitalize Pitkin Avenue and make it a destination again.

Postscript: The fates of the lesser movie theaters in Brownsville and adjacent East New York. The Hopkinson Theatre, originally a live Yiddish theater and at one time a foreign film theater, was subsequently razed and is now a lot. The Stadium, where B mysteries like Charlie Chan were shown, met a similar fate and is now a small park. Loew’s Palace, the Supreme, the Ambassador, the People’s Cinema (nee Bluebird), the Livonia, The Lyric (Hendrix), Elite (Euclid), Kinema, Biltmore, Premier, Embassy, Warwick, Adelphi (Gem), Gotham, have ALL been demolished. Those that remain as churches include The Parkway, New Prospect (Ralph Ave.), the Montauk Arcade (Montauk) and Brair’s Theatre (Powell) both on Pitkin Ave, the Penn, Sutter, Miller (Jehovah’s Witness on site) all on Sutter Avenue. 

© 2007 by Sylvia Siegel Schildt.
Ms. Schildt’s book, “Brownsville: The Jewish Years,” from which the above excerpt was taken, can be purchased 

Courtesy of Steven 

Living in Brooklyn - The Jewish Experience

Brownsville Early Century

From the Lower East Side to Brownsville, Brooklyn

Williamsburg BridgeLate in the nineteenth century in New York City, a transformation had begun in earnest. No longer would the immigrant have to live in one of the many crowded, dilapidated tenements on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Advances in bridge building and improvements in the transportation system provided the immigrant with options not available to them before. What would occur over the next couple of decades would change the face of Jewish demographics, and at least for a short period of time, give the immigrant a chance to pay a lower rent and live in a more healthy and bucolic environment. Many moved eastward to Brooklyn, which at that time was not very developed. One of the first areas to receive an influx of new residents was what would be called Brownsville.

What of Brownsville, Brooklyn? What was the origin of this fabled area? It seems that it all started back in 1861 when a real estate speculator named Charles S. Brown bought some property in the area that we now know as Brownsville. He had hoped that the 250 small houses he would eventually build in 1865 would serve as a pleasant alternative for those dwelling in New York City who wished to leave their cramped quarters for a weekend of pleasant frolic in the country. In his town, which he originally had called “Brown’s Village,” there were cottages, shops, meadows on which cows could graze, and a very big dairy farm. While this was all an admirable venture, it didn’t quite work out as he had planned. At the time this area was difficult to get to; there were no big bridges and it wasn’t generally reachable by sea. So eventually others came to Brownsville with different ideas of how to develop the land.

In 1887, Brownsville (as it was now called) began to evolve in a wholly different direction. There was another real estate developer named Aaron Kaplan who began to buy up multiple tracts of land. Like other developers had already done in Manhattan, he built tenements. His idea was not to use Brownsville as a vacation spot as Charles Brown envisioned, but to bring in businesses from Lower Manhattan, and thus increase Brownsville’s population and his success. After a time, the single-family homes and cottages that were previously there aplenty became scarce, and were replaced by two-family houses and tenement buildings.

How did this part of Brooklyn now become more accessible and desirable? Due to advances in bridge building, the magnificent Brooklyn Bridge was built in 1883. With this new connection between Manhattan and Brooklyn, the newly-arrived immigrant could now think of moving there directly upon immigration, rather than living on the overcrowded Lower East Side. The area of Brownsville, Brooklyn was much more open than the Lower East Side, and rents were be much cheaper. For some it wasn’t a choice, but a necessity. The Fulton Street El (an elevated subway that is no longer there) was extended in 1889, but a “depression” occurred during this period, preventing further expansion in the area for a period of time.

In 1903, the building of the Williamsburg Bridge displaced many residents who had been living on the Manhattan side by the construction of the bridge’s onramp by Delancey Street. Those displaced often wound up moving to Brooklyn. Then, in 1909, the Manhattan Bridge was built.

The first sections of Brooklyn that were developed, before the subways came into being, were the areas that were closest to New York City. The IRT subway line was ready to begin service in 1908. This made areas of Brooklyn that were once inaccessible, open for development and growth. Later on, other subway lines would be built, allowing for even further expansion into the outer areas of Brooklyn.

The search for less crowded conditions wasn’t the only reason Brownsville (as well as the rest of Brooklyn) became increasingly populated. In the late 1880s, some garment manufacturers decided it was best for them economically to make their exodus from the Lower East Side, so they took their workshops and their workers with them to the other side of the East River. With the migration of businesses to Brooklyn, the families who worked in these factories (sweatshops) usually followed their employer. Other folks who had jobs in New York City did a reverse commute from their homes in Brooklyn. Even though it would cost them more money to commute, they would ultimately save money by paying a lower rent in Brooklyn. Of course, as the growing population required more living quarters, more and more tenements were built, often stretching once again for blocks and blocks, as it had in a similar way on the Lower East Side. Conditions deteriorated in areas of Brooklyn too, and living conditions became poor. Eventually laws were passed to protect the tenant, mandating an improvement in tenement conditions.

Within a five-year period, between 1899 and 1904, the population of Brownsville increased from ten thousand to sixty thousand. During this boom period, one can imagine that those with enough cash and smarts would have a keen interest in buying up land in areas such as Brownsville. There was a great deal of land speculation during this time, and property values eventually went through the roof. A semi-skilled immigrant who might have eked out a living for a time and perhaps saved enough money to buy a tract of land, might have been able to buy that tract on one day and turn around and sell it for a profit the next. This turned a number of formerly poor shlumps into wealthy landowners. America, what a country!

After a time, formerly pastoral Brownsville became heavily concentrated with people, as did areas such as Williamsburg and the southern part of Brooklyn. Later, Coney Island, an area where many of us loved to play in when we were younger, also became a place that was accessible, and thus this area became developed too. The flow of immigrants could not be slowed, thanks to conditions in places such as Russian Poland and Galicia. At one point, immigrants were settling in Brooklyn at the rate of one thousand per week!

It should be said that not everybody who wanted to escape the awful living conditions on the Lower East Side was able to escape to Brooklyn. In the early years of the 1890s, many Jews fled north. Those that could afford to do so moved to the Upper East Side, where more well-off German Jews (often the owners of the garment factories that had occupied the Lower East Side) lived. One of the neighborhoods on the Upper East Side was named Yorkville and was located east of Lexington Avenue, between 72nd and 100th Streets. At the turn of the century, many Jews had also settled between 97th and 142nd Street in an area that we know as Harlem. In 1905, the first subway to the Bronx was built, running through the Harlem River tunnel. Prior to 1906, the Bronx had been incorporated into the City of New York, but subsequently became an entity of its own accord like Brooklyn. Many people, after first trying out Brownsville, skipped over to the Bronx, where they hoped there was still some unused space and more favorable housing conditions.

At first, living in Brownsville was a much more appealing place to live for the Jew. Perhaps it had the appeal of a shtetl in the countryside and offered the hope that they could once again live a traditional way of life that they longed for. A man (or woman or child) might be able to find a job where they would not have to work on the Sabbath and could go to shul, as was their wont. Brownsville, along with the East New York section of Brooklyn and perhaps New Lots, were the areas that were favored the most by folks moving to Brooklyn from the East Side of Manhattan. Brooklyn then was predominantly Jewish, and as such was dubbed the “Jerusalem of America.” In 1925, Brownsville’s population was ninety-five percent Jewish!

One could certainly call Brownsville a working-class community. There was developed a strong religious and cultural foundation along with a strong socialist element. This was a carryover from their time back in Eastern Europe when many joined organizations based on ideology. On many a day, Pitkin Avenue would be the site of strong political debates between socialists of varying opinion. In 1916, a woman named Margaret Sanger opened the nation’s first birth control clinic in a tenement storefront in Brownsville. If a woman had ten cents she could receive a pamphlet entitled “What Every Girl Should Know.” She could hear a short lecture on the female reproductive system and learn how to use certain contraceptives. Of course, as fate would have it, the clinic was closed down after only two weeks. The women of Brownsville would have none of it, and due to the notoriety of the Sanger trial, legislation was eventually passed that gave the doctor the right to prescribe contraceptives to women for reasons of health.

Over the years, the Jewish women in both Brooklyn and the Bronx showed their commitment to social justice by speaking out and protesting. They organized a kosher meat strike in 1935 (the prices were much too high). The kosher meat store was, of course, an integral part of Jewish life. Their standing up for their beliefs forced butcher shops to close for a week, eventually forcing prices back down to reasonable levels. Events like this would raise the social and political awareness of many denizens of both Brooklyn and the Bronx.

Most of those who had moved to Brownsville at the beginning of the twentieth century were of a lower socioeconomic status than the people they had left on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Gang violence was common, and there was a certain level of organized crime in the area, most notably a group called “Murder, Inc.” This group was most prominent in the 1920s and 1930s. Whether a Brownsville resident was involved with the criminal element or not, it took a certain amount of toughness to survive on the streets of Brownsville. It made sense to learn how to defend oneself during those times. Pity the poor mother that had to drag their son out of a pool hall to save him from getting mixed up with the wrong crowd!

Besides Pitkin Avenue being the site of socialistic debate, it was also the main shopping district in Brownsville. This area even drew customers from as far away as Manhattan, as there were good deals there on furniture, clothing and appliances for the household.

Lastly, let’s not fail to mention how wonderful life could seem for those who were growing up in Brooklyn. Many were poor, but most of their friends were poor too, so it didn’t seem that one had more than the other. The candy store was often the local hangout and an easy way to socialize. How many of us had an ‘egg cream’ in one of these candy stores, or had a cold drink from the soda fountain? The boys would amuse themselves by playing stickball, where they would use a broomstick for a bat and try to hit a rubber ball as far as they could. On Friday nights, the streets of Brownsville would be hushed because of the Sabbath. And how many of our parents or grandparents who, due to a lack of air-conditioning, sat out in front of their apartment until late at night just to cool off? Well, that is all a topic for another time!

Courtesy of Steven

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Crane's Chip Stand


by Sonny Crane Hi, As a young boy growing up on Kings Highway in the 50’s, the apartment building we lived in was an eclectic mix of families and quite special. One of the joys I had from my father was his stories of growing up in Brownsville with his father and him running CRANES POTAO CHIP STAND. You could get a hot dog and French fries for 5 cents.… Read More »CRANES POTATO CHIP STAND