Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Atlantic Avenue

It starts down near the docks in Brooklyn and snakes its way eastward through preppy Clinton Hill, Downtown Brooklyn, Bed Stuy, East New York (keep your car doors locked for those last two stretches), Woodhaven, and finally stops abruptly at the dreaded Van Wyck Expressway in Ozone Park, Queens, where traffic goes to die. I'm talking of course about the street that is so bound up with my youth...Atlantic Avenue. Back in the day, before shopping malls began sprouting everywhere, people flocked to neighborhood stores strung out along Brooklyn boulevards like Atlantic Avenue, Rockaway Avenue, Fulton Street, and further down, Pitkin Avenue, and Sutter Avenue, the latter two streets referred to casually by the locals as "Jewtown".

Shopping density along Atlantic Avenue waxed and waned, with the heaviest concentration of "name" stores in Downtown Brooklyn, and clusters of local stores strung out all the way to Queens. Back in the 1950s, cars were not as plentiful as they are today, and one of the reasons Atlantic Avenue thrived was great public transportation, All of the city's subway lines had stops along Atlantic Avenue, and many bus lines brought shoppers from outlying areas to spend their money. There was even a Long Island Railroad stop (East New York station) that has since been abandoned and closed down . Back then, the train would leave the gloomy East New York station, re-enter the tunnel under Atlantic Avenue and continue east in practically a straight shot to Jamaica. There was even a trolley that ran along Rockaway Avenue where you could transfer at Atlantic Avenue for eastbound or westbound buses.

There were many prominent landmarks along Atlantic Avenue like the distinctive red brick building known as The 23rd Regiment Armory, at 1322 Bedford Avenue, that was built from 1891-1895 and takes up most of the square block bounded by Atlantic Avenue, Pacific Street, Franklin and Bedford Avenues. The regiment was organized during the Civil War and was housed in a nearby armory on Clermont Avenue from 1873-1895. Another is the Williamsburgh Savings Bank, which stands at the crossroads of Flatbush Avenue and Atlantic Avenues in Fort Greene, where it rises majestically into the Brooklyn sky. At 512 feet, the building's tower is the tallest structure in the borough, and its gilded copper dome and clock have been a familiar sight to Brooklyn residents since 1929.

There was also a mysterious building complex called the House of the Good Shepherd, just off Atlantic Avenue at Hopkinson and Pacific. The Home, whose stated objective was "the reformation of women and the preservation of young girls", became the standard repository for women mostly in trouble with the law. In those days that could include disobeying a husband, drunkeness, failure to pay a debt, etc. It was also a home for wayward girls. The Sisters of the Good Shepherd, who ran the home, did an excellent job of keeping the girls protected by building a ten foot high brick wall topped with barbed wire around the complex. Altar boys from the local churches were recruited to help say Mass in the home, and the tales of wild doings behind those walls ran around the neighborhood like wildfire.

Around Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues stood Bickford's Restaurant, a popular spot that stayed open late and was a favorite stop after a movie date Downtown at the Fox or Albee Theaters. Another restaurant we hung out in was the White Castle on Atlantic Avenue and Highland Place. This was the scene of our infamous arrest for murder as told in an earlier post: View "The Lords of Flatbush". In Queens, further out on Atlantic Avenue, was a joint called Maybe's that served burgers in plastic baskets covered in a mountain of french fries. And of course anytime a birthday rolled around, we would head to a bakery on Atlantic and Vermont called Mrs. Maxwell's. The old owners would decorate cakes in the window so people could watch. It's still at the same location but under new management. I have souvenir plaque in my arteries as a grim reminder of Mrs. Maxwell's.

As you drive along Atlantic Avenue today, there are remnants of the old street, but it has changed greatly. You can still see the Williamsburg Savings Bank tower, but I believe it has been converted to condos. The Armory is still there looking much like it did in the 1950s, but its really not safe to walk there any more. The House of the Good Shepherd is a housing project. In the past five years, Atlantic Avenue has undergone a renaissance, with big box stores like Target and Best Buy coming into the old downtown area. There is also the Atlantic Yards project, under which, after much misguided resistance on the part of local residents, the new Barclay's Center Arena and shopping complex will be constructed. It will serve as the new home for the New York Nets basketball team, and will revitalize an area that had fallen on very hard times.

If I close my eyes and think back, I can picture the walk from my old street corner down Rockaway Avenue to Atlantic Avenue. I would pass Louie's Candy Store, the cigar stand under the el at Fulton Street, Crachi's Drug Store presided over by my godfather Gabriel, my grandfather's hat blocking shop, and across the street, Ariola's Pastry, a neighborhood treasure where they made the best sfogliatelle pastries in the world. This link will give you a virtual tour of the Atlantic Avenue I knew. http://www.forgotten-ny.com/STREET%20SCENES/atlantic/atlantic.html


Craniofacial Association


The Whiner said...

Wow, I really liked this blog. I remember when we were kids going to visit Grandma and Grandpa P. and the Belt was backed up, you would "take the streets" and I think Atlantic Ave might have been one of them. I also always remember Mom running into Mrs. Maxwell's for one of those Black Forest cakes or a German chocolate. She would always clarify "Are we stopping for cake?" on the way. This seemed as important a decision as whether or not to take the Belt or the streets. As for the House of the Good Shepherd, it's a good thing I wasn't around back then because any one of those "crimes" might have landed me there!

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

My aunt lived on Atlantic Ave, right near Sackman, and I remember the all the shops that lined the one-sided street. The stone wall that faced her house was the East New York LIRR tracks, and the dream was to go in and take the train out to Long Island,and the country. Then one day, when we moved from Brooklyn, we did just that!