For displaced, misplaced, and nostalgic ex-Brooklynites

Memories of ENY Brooklyn

by John Bilitsky


was born, reared, schooled and married from the same house at 442 New Jersey Avenue,one block east of Pennsylvania Avenue and Thomas Jefferson High School. I even remember my telephone number, Dickens 5-6686. That was before the use of all numerical phone numbers and zip codes in the addresses. After World War II - about 1950 - the Post Office did issue a zone number to East New York. It was designated "Brooklyn 7, NY."

John Bilitsky, Class of '52, Th. Jefferson HS

To get the full flavor of the this section of Brooklyn, imagine the neighborhood being dissected by Pennsylvania Avenue that started in the south end from the Belt Parkway and ended on the north side at the entrance of Grand Central Parkway. Everything between the Belt Parkway and Linden Boulevard was farmland and the Savage Dairy with grazing cows, right through the 40's.

Most of the buildings west of Pennsylvania Avenue were five and six-story apartment houses but to the east of Pennsylvania Avenue they were mostly two and three story "railroad" room houses, right to the Queens border of Ozone Park. In this neighborhood all of the houses had iron fences and a courtesy bench for the old people walking to and from the Blake Avenue market. They could sit and rest as they carried their cloth shopping bags filled with groceries. It wasn't until the end of the War that they finally start making the metal shopping carts with two wheels to make that part of the shopping chore easier.

Most of my friends were first-generation Americans with cousins and close relatives living in the same neighborhood within a few minutes' walking distance of each other and, like a small town, everyone knew each other and they had their own kind of "telegraph." Do something wrong in the neighborhood at lunch and you heard about it when you got home from school, with the famous words, "Wait until your father gets home!" Not in my house! Up until recently I thought my mother was trained by the Gestapo.

In those days, you walked everywhere if it was in East New York or just over the border into the Brownsville section. Otherwise it was mass transportation: the Sutter Avenue bus or the IRT Line that was elevated from its last stop at New Lots Avenue along Livonia Avenue for about eight stops until it became a subway just before the Utica Avenue station. Two more additional stations took you to Franklin Avenue and a few blocks' walk to Ebbets Field to watch the Dodgers, with Leo Dorocher at the helm, sending signals to Pee Wee Reese, Pete Reiser and Mel Ott, where a seventy-five cents ticket would get you a seat in the left field bleachers and we thought, the best seats in the house.

I remember old man Fortunoff in the late 30's before WWII when he owned a Five and Dime store selling enamel pots and pans. There was even a discount section for chipped enamel ware. Our parents were shoppers for they lived during the height of the Depression and at this time, although things were better and more men were working, it was still the tail end of that era and not a penny was wasted. Across the street, one block up, was the Biltmore movie theater, which was to become the Fortunoff warehouse when he finally built his first Department Store that became famous from Brooklyn to Long Island.

The central area of this neighborhood was Thomas Jefferson High School on Pennsylvania Avenue just half a block south of Blake Avenue. At that juncture and west were probably the last "push cart" green grocers with storefront bakeries, appetizing stores, dairies and the "pickle man," who sold sour pickles and tomatoes from great wooden barrels. You could also buy pickled herrings (schmaltz) from barrels on the other side of the one-room storefront. On the sidewalk between the storefronts and the "push carts" would be a man pushing a metal cart with hot coals smoldering in the base of the cart, selling hot Knishes, sweet potatoes or the large soft salted pretzels. How I miss those smells of the bread baking on my way to school, the pickle man and the knish peddler.

One block north of Blake Avenue was Sutter Avenue and again from that intersection west to the intersection at Stone Avenue to Pitkin Avenue to the Loews Pitkin Movie Theater, about three to four miles away from Pennsylvania Avenue, almost every building on the ground floor was an individually owned retail store with large windows dressed with all the modern styles of the day. The only thing I remember you couldn't buy on that stretch of shops was a new automobile. For that you had to head north on Pennsylvania Avenue. These retail stores were only separated by the occasional Chinese Restaurant, hot dog stand, bar and grill, bank and a few movie theaters.

My family was lucky during the mid-thirties. While most families, because of the Depression, barely made it through the 30's without some family help, my father was a lucky one whose trade as an "iron worker/welder" kept him working, weather allowing, from the building of the Triborough Bridge to his retirement at the completion of the World Trade Center, our ‘Twin Towers." Every bridge, airport, parkway overpass, 1939 and 1964 World's Fair had my father's touch on it. No matter where we drove in the city area, he'd point out, with pride, where he worked on that project. Two lessons I learned from him by example and passed on to my sons was that a job had to be perfect the first time and that of an iron clad work ethic. I asked him once why he worked so hard and his answer was, "If I work hard and it makes my boss successful, I'll always have a job." In the forty plus years that he worked in the trade, he missed only twelve days of work due to illness

I started and completed my public education within two blocks of my home on New Jersey Avenue, starting in Kindergarten in 1939 at PS 182, Vermont and Dumont Avenues; JHS 149 on Sutter Avenue and Vermont Street; Thomas Jefferson High School on Pennsylvania and Blake Avenues.

Music and athletic endeavors seemed to permeate our neighborhood. Half of the 40's Knickerbockers pro basketball team were Jeffersonians. The jazz pianist, Peter Nero was a year younger than I and followed me through PS 182 and JHS 149 with its famous alumnus, Danny Kaye. I spent my High School years playing with the Jazz Band and its featured singer, Sid Liebowitz, better known today as Steve Lawrence.

The period that made the greatest impression on us was the time of the war years of WWII. I remember the weekend newspaper and scrap iron drive; ration books for sugar, butter and meat. Later in the War they used blue and red fiber, dime-sized coins for meat rationing. Dad bought a brand new Plymouth in 1938 and during the War years pasted a Black "A" sticker on the inside of the windshield that allowed him seven gallons of gas per month with a certain amount of ration stamps. I remember that in the early years gas sold at fifteen cents for regular, and "high test" (ethyl) was eighteen cents per gallon, when you could get it.

You stood on line during those War years for everything and never complained. If you bought tooth paste you had to turn in an empty metal tube from your last tube of paste or "no sale." The longest lines were for cigarettes and meat. I remember saving the inside foil of the cigarette packs and we spent the evenings one night a week separating the silver foil from paper backing and adding it to a great tin ball that had been started months before, and we turned that ball into the next scrap metal drive. I remember matchbook covers with a caricatures of Hitler or Tojo with the logo, "Loose Lips Sink Ships." All transportation at that time was by mass transit: bus or subway trains for the same fare, five cents. That was the day of the Buffalo Nickel. Even on the Staten Island Ferry, you could ride all day for a nickel.

Prices prior to WWII stick in my mind as I was sent shopping with a small list and coins in a handkerchief to the shops on the block and around the corner. "No crossing streets and be right back!" was the admonishment on every trip. The prices might be a surprise to many readers today under the age of fifty:

  • Milk was eleven cents a quart with a two cents deposit on the bottle, and you could see the heavy cream in the top quarter of the bottle.

  • An ice cream pop (on a stick) was three cents; large, five cents.

  • A Charlotte Rousse was five cents.

  • A soda fountain Egg Cream was three cents at the local candy store.

  • Chopped meat, when you could get it, was twenty-two cents a pound.

  • Fresh fish was fifteen cents per pound and was the cheapest meal you could have short of an omelet dinner, if you could get American cheese (The government instituted Meatless Tuesday during the War to cut meat consumption by one day per week. No one complained. Our "boys" in the service always came first).

  • The N.Y. Daily News was two cents a copy and the Sunday Edition was five cents.

  • You could buy new shoes at Thom McCann's on Sutter Avenue for about $2.50 a pair but I remember my mother saying, there are two things you never cheat on: the best shoes and food!

    Ten years later while in the army I knew how right she was. While some of my buddies lay on the side of the road barely being able to stand, I went through those forced marches like a freight train. My feet held up under that punishment. Thanks mom, for ‘shleping' me down to Cowards Shoes on Nevins Street for those $15 shoes, and that precious ration stamp. You see...I remember.

The big thing for me was the weekend when I'd be off for my music lesson in the morning to Manhattan (I became a professional musician after High School). In the evening after dinner my father and I would play two-handed pinochle waiting for seven o'clock in the evening so we could go to go to the newstand on Sutter Avenue to pick up the early Sunday edition and check out the War news and the comics. I remember Dick Tracy was always on the first page of the comic section in those days. I also remember the introduction during those years of Gravel Gertie, Prune Face, Sparkle Plenty and the wrist watch radio. But looking back now, as an adult and a retired school teacher, I am impressed that a neighborhood of first generation Americans could support seven daily newspapers with its two late editions. That's nine printings a day for a city, at that time, of 6.5 million people!

Sunday was the same schedule for us during the War years of the 40's. In the afternoon we would walk up Sutter Avenue to have lunch at a Chinese Restaurant and then on to the Loews Premier for a double feature and the Movietone News showing the highlights of the War that week in Europe and the South Pacific. All of that on a five-dollar bill and we had change left over. Then the walk home where mom made sandwiches in the evening as we listened to the Shadow, Gangbusters, Mr. District Attorney, The FBI, In Peace and War, Jack Benny and George Burns and Gracy Allen. The weekday radio schedule was the same at dinner time. Do you remember Jack Armstrong and Sky King? Then came the daily War news for six to seven while reading the newspaper.

The radio was the center of the family for the up to the minute news in probably every house in the city. I remember one Sunday, people asking, "Where is Pearl Harbor?" I know I walked to school one warm Tuesday morning and met some of my friends who told me something about "D-Day." It wasn't until we got to school and the Principal, Miss Jones, called an assembly of the entire school to explain to us the significance of that day and read, from the Bible that always sat on the auditorium grand piano, the 23rd Psalm for the boys who landed on the beaches of France. That was also significant to all of us, for we all knew someone or had a relative in the service at that time. We even knew strangers in the neighborhood who had fathers and sons that were in the service as they posted small pennants in the front window of their homes. Each Blue Star on the pennant represented person in the family on active duty. Then one by one, through those years, some of those Blue Stars were replaced by a Gold ones and you knew behind those curtains a family mourned for a loved one. And although it might have been a stranger, you felt their pain.

Do you remember Punch Ball, in the street, and looking out for cars? How about Stick Ball and the one or two that could hit the ball "two sewers"? Everyone played Hand Ball at the park or Box Ball, Stoop Ball or Johnny-on-the-Pony in front of someone's house on the street where we lived.

But the fifties were my years. I was part of the "Doo Wop" generation. I graduated High School in 1952, served in the Army in 1953, entered college on the GI Bill in ‘55 and married a Brooklyn girl in ‘59. Those were my special "Fonzy" years.

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