A Walk on Columbia Street



Neighborhood: Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Featured

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If you never saw Columbia Street before 1960, you missed a lot. The street is still there; the sidewalks, the street sign, but the stores, the people, the charm are all gone. That strip of avenue is unrecognizable, now lined with barrack type housing and no character at all.

The house where I was born no longer stands. 11 Woodhull Street. Next door at 9 Woodhull Street was my grandfather's candy store, Ralph’s. I can still picture him in his canvas Daily News apron and metal changer hanging from his belt, a Camel cigarette dangling from his mouth.

Columbia Street was colorful, with old stores, old people, and lots of kids. It was a neighborhood of Italian and Puerto Rican poor people, produce, poultry and petty gossip; And everyone we encountered knew our names. My Mom might be known as Ralph’s daughter or Lefty’s niece, or Christina.

On the corner of Columbia and Summit Street was Mr. Bell's Pharmacy. This is a vague memory, I was very young. But, I do remember Mr. Bell's shock of white hair and the glass counters with old medicine bottles lined like soldiers. And the big scale, which cost a penny to use.

During a typical grocery-shopping afternoon with my mother, we’d first stop at the chicken market on Sackett Street, right off Columbia. As a kid I thought it was a pet store, hearing those live birds squawk, until my mother would walk out of that store, one hand holding mine and the other carrying the bag with a freshly killed chicken.

On the corner of Columbia and Union Streets was the open fruit market. The produce crates covered half the pedestrian sidewalk, skirting the entire corner. With her hands full of bags, my mother would squeeze the fruit and inspect the vegetables. She would meet a dozen other women going through the same drill.

Our next stop was on Union Street, to the original Mastellone for some fresh cut bologna and American cheese; orange, not white. Thick and delicious, slapped on Wonder white with mayo, it was our Saturday lunch routine. I grew up on it, no baloney.

On occasional Saturdays, my mother's youngest sister Sophia, an aunt who is four years older than myself, would sometimes take me to the Happy Hour Movie House. We’d buy brown soft chocolate licorice, the kind with the two holes down each side. I’d suck the flavor right out of them. The concession stand was oddly located - down by the screen, just to the right. The matron was mean and you couldn’t make a sound. After the movie, we’d stop next door at Izzy’s for a Charlotte- Rouse. At  a dime apiece, it was mini layer cake with whipped cream, topped with a cherry, wrapped in a white cardboard cylinder, easy to hold and wonderful to eat.

Everyone in the neighborhood eventually got framed. Anyone in the neighborhood who received communion or confirmation, got married and had a baby would all wind up hanging in Pamasano’s window, the local photo studio. I hated seeing my face up there, white veil, crossed eyes, and buck teeth framing a forced smile. The most beautiful photo to grace his window was that of my youngest aunt and future uncle, their engagement picture. Blue eyes sparkling right at you. Diagonal to Pamasano’s was the competition, Natoli Studios. Each of these two stores had their own loyal following of customers.

In those days, no one had money, at least not my family. My parents furnished their entire apartment from Sokol Brothers Furniture Store. Furniture on credit, a month, no interest, no contract, just an agreement kept track on a 3X5 lined index card. This was real old fashion mahogany, not the pressboard stuff passed off as furniture today.

There on Columbia Street near Union Street stood the BIG Clock. If you ever had to meet anybody, it was always under “The Big Clock”. That’s where the Shoe Box shoe store was located. Every end of August my mother would take me in for school shoes. I would always wind up getting smacked because I wanted loafers and she insisted on ugly laced oxfords. I never won, but I do have a closet full of shoes today, and none of them have laces.»

A Walk on Columbia Street
Image by Chris Kreussling

My Easter outfit was always purchased at Mrs. Summers', a small clothing store run by an elderly Jewish lady. Hers was another store I often got smacked in. I hated hats and every Easter my mother would insist I wear one, the most ridiculous assortment of bows and fake flowers. I looked goofy enough without that straw upon my head. On Easter Sunday, with my young aunt, we’d be on our way to Mass at St. Stephens Church, but when far enough from the house, I would pull the hat off and replace it with a tiny lace chapel cap.

Making a left onto Union Street we’d hit “Cheap Cheap” Louie, where everyone in the neighborhood bought nylons, bloomers and aprons. My grandmother used to do her Christmas Shopping there, probably spending no more than thirty dollars for twelve people. She would buy the girls pajamas and the boys socks, always socks, and sometimes handkerchiefs.

A few doors away was Choffi Pastry Shoppe. It was only once a week, Sunday mornings, that my grandmother would give me three dollars to buy some pastries for the house. That three dollars would be enough money to feed pastries to the whole family. This was not something we did during the week; it was only on Sunday afternoons, after the big meal when expresso was served to the entire family and, for unexpected relatives who would drop by. The door was always open at Concetta’s.

As we’d walk home toward Woodhull Street, we’d meet many of our relatives on the way. My mother's Uncle Lefty Big Ears (They all had nicknames) would be hanging out by his house on President Street, in front of Gargulio Florist. He’d be dressed in a suit, no matter the season, surrounded by his loyal friends, ex-long shore men and ex-cons. He could take your watch right off your arm and you’d never know it. He did that for entertainment for the kids while producing a quarter from behind your ear.

Next door was their club, an old rented storefront. Beach chairs filled with cigar smoking men, coffee in hand would gather in front of their social club. In the dark recess of the store, a card game would be going on as the TV blared baseball or boxing. His wife, my Aunt Anna would cook homemade lunches for a dollar or two, serving black espresso afterwards.

Sometimes Lefty’s brother was in town from Hollywood, CA. Louie, the uncle that got away. He was so dapper and tan, when you ran into him you’d have thought you were meeting a real moviestar. The whiteness of his teeth blinded you and his conversation had you mesmerized. We could not get enough of Uncle Louie. I never did find out what he did for a living, but he sure looked good. Never worked a day in his life.

There were many other stores and people worthy of remembrance; it was truly a great community, but my memory does not delight me in every detail. Those things I do remember, including “multiple smacks along the avenue,” I will never forget. For me, the ruins of Columbia Street are as significant as the ruins of Rome. A lost civilization.

Tina Portelli, baby boomer, lives in Cobble Hill Brooklyn, where she was born. She self published a book called Brooklyn Lasagna, 55 Layers a collection of humorous short stories based on life in Brooklyn. She still works as a full time office manager, and continues to write for fun.

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§ 14 Responses to “A Walk on Columbia Street”

  • tsb says:

    There are many lost civilizations in New York. Sometimes this website feels like a collection of bureau chiefs reporting on their own precinct, Peter Eder and his Germantown on York Ave for example, McGreever and his schools, Lopate on Knickerbocker Village, Passaro At Large, Roberta Allen on the old Upper West Side, the list goes on and on. Glad to have a dispatch from yours.

  • Laura Eng says:

    Tina, I loved your story! You really captured the feel of the way things were. And I know exactly how you feel. I’m a Carroll Gardens native and I also miss the “lost civilization” of our old neighborhood. It’s still a good neighborhood; just not what it used to be.

  • Tina, My name is Louise my mom was Mary, aunt Anna’s sister. I remember you and your mom Christina she was the avon lady, Of course I remember aunt Concetta and aunt Dada, and all the rest, I loved aunt Dada, She pierced my ears when I was a little girl, I bet she also did yours… I enjoyed reading “A Walk on Columbia Street” It was written beautifully, That’s exactly how we grew up. Thanks for the memories……………

    Regards, Louise.

  • Ronald says:

    I also came from 261 Columbia Street great reading

  • Eileen Carrier says:

    I didn’t grow in Brooklyn but I’ve always felt at home here; maybe because I grew up in a Boston, mostly Irish, world a lot like this. Thank you for sharing

  • Nelly Vidal says:

    I am a Columibia girl born and bred. You brought back so many memories. P.S. 29 and JHS 142.. I was born at LICH and my first home was on Columbia and Summit St. Pizza or calzone with no ham every Friday. The friesh fruit and fresh vegetable wagons, oh what a life we had. Yes, so many memories. Thanks. Hope to hear from you.

  • ivette says:

    I still live in the neighborhood. .
    49 years and counting. My sisters confirmation picture was in the window of Natoli.
    The place has changed quite a bit..
    All the old timers gone..it doesn’t not have the character as it one did..
    Remembering as a child, picking up a hot dog on the corner of President and Columbia street.
    Going to john’s bargain store on Columbia street passing the army navy store. My parents also bought furniture from Sokol brothers!
    And still my mom has pieces of furniture from that place..it’s gone now..A High rise condo in its place that truly kills the charm of the neighbor hood.
    Thank good we have memories to keep and pictures to look at.
    Thanks for sharing ur story..it was great!

  • Ralph Frulio says:

    Thanks for the walk down memory lane. I lived on 31 Woodhull St and remembered Ralph’s Candy Store and Mr. Bell’s drug store. I also remember playing with author’s aunt Sophie. However, my ol’neighborhood was Red Hook and NOT Carroll Gardens!!!

  • Alma Fernandez says:

    Thank you for the memories. I often think of what was and now is. I was raised on Sackett Street. Union Street Park was my back yard. I also remember the Happy Hour, Izzy’s, The Shoe Store, The Beautiful Clock, the stores and the mixture of people. Yes, We were poor but we never knew it. In a lot of ways, we were all family. My picture was also displayed at Napoli’s, Sacraments at St. Peter’s, PS 29 and the lady with the jelly apples, 142 and Angie’s. The waterfront, the ships, the longshoremen. I smile every time I remember. Its a shame how much things changed. Even the name!

    Yes Ralph it is and always will be RED HOOK.

  • Fernando Torres says:

    Hey all,just listening to these story brings back some real true memories. my name Fernando Torres, some of you might know my brother underdog, he worked with ceasar Carisquillo in the grocery store on columbia between degraw and sackett, I lived at 165 columbia street right in front of what used to be Sedwick street. I lived right in front of the factory Valley candles in i remember the shoe factory when it caught on fire, The bodega owned by Don Juan and Teresa. I still remember watching the Twin towers being built. It felt like everyone was your mother and father because if they caught you doing something wrong you got a cocodaso, then they would take you to your parents and tell them what you did and get another cocodaso and be punished after. put wish we still had people like that who cared and everyone looked out for each others kids and family. I really miss those days.

  • Diane says:

    I live in Italy since 1977, but your story brought me back to my childhood and it’s exactly how I remember it. I lived at 174 Union street across The Police Station. Thanks for sharing your story…sei stat assolutamente pittoresca!!! Grazie di cuore <3

  • Gloria R Gallegos says:

    I was born at Long Island College Hospital in January of 1934. And that would make me 80 years old and I was touched with your story.

    Red Hook was exactly as you described it even when I was little. My family moved there in the twenties, migrating from Puerto Rico. Most of us lived at 298 Columbia Street. Family was very important to us. Most ladies were homemakers and most men were Merchant Marines. Children were safe and carefree.

    Thank you for the memories, though we are from different generations and cultures, in Brooklyn we were all kin.

  • Maria Taormina says:

    I was born on 427 Columbia Street. Great Story…Why do I remember cheap Charlies and not cheap Louies? The landlord at 427 was named Ralph any relation?

  • Jose Garcia says:

    I’m Jose Garcia and I went to JHS 142 and graduated in 1962. I used to go to the House of Pizza and Calzone on Union for lunch. I recently visited the new House and it looks great. My youngest son Joseph finally tasted what Brooklyn pizza and calzones are all about. I live in east Orlando, FL now but I visit every year.
    Nothing beats Brooklyn and its special people.

§ Leave a Reply

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