On the Avenue

The south side of Avenue U between West 10th and 11th Streets, Brooklyn, as it looked in September 2014. Courtesy of Google Street View {https://goo.gl/maps/WpjKgMNrHMA2}.

To many Gravesenders the phrase “on the avenue” — as in “I saw him on the avenue” or “she went shopping on the avenue” — refers to one avenue in particular: the neighborhood’s main drag, Avenue U. In proper Brooklyn parlance the word “avenue” is pronounced “aven-yoo,” not “aven-oo.” That should make “Avenue U” come out as “Aven-yoo Yoo,” but it doesn’t. Instead it’s pronounced “Aven-uh Yoo.” Don’t ask why. (Some snoots do say “Aven-oo You,” but they’re too fancy for me.)

My ancestral stretch of “the Avenue” is the south side of Avenue U between West 10th and West 11th Streets. Except for two houses at the corner of West 10th Street (80 and 82 Avenue U), the rest of the block is taken up by an attached row of eight three-story brick apartment buildings–nos. 62-78–designed in the vaguely Tudor style that was popular in Brooklyn in the mid-1920s. Each building has five apartments: two each on the upper stories (front and rear) and one on the ground floor, behind the storefront. The front apartments have four rooms (living room, kitchen, and two bedrooms) and the rear apartments have three (living room, kitchen, and bedroom). Except for the corner building (no. 62), which is three windows wide on Avenue U, all the rest are four windows wide. And the corner building’s apartments are entered from 2101 West 11th Street; the other buildings have alternating pairs of side-by-side entries on Avenue U.

Outside Tony’s Luncheonette at 62 Avenue U, when the Mets won the pennant, 1969.

For decades the block was anchored by two establishments: Tony’s Luncheonette, at 62 Avenue U, on the corner of West 11th, was once called the Mayflower Luncheonette, or something like that. (If it ever had a sign with that name, it was long gone by my time.) Tony was Anthony Salerno, known to the neighborhood as “Tony-the-Mutt” because of his terrible betting record. Losing streak aside, he flipped the tastiest greasy-spoon burgers in the world. But I digress.

The other store, the Varacalli grocery, was run by three generations of that family at 70 Avenue U. It was the archetypal no-frills place that stocked everything under the sun. You could buy toilet paper there in any color you liked so long as it was white.

Armand Varacalli in his grocery store at 70 Avenue U, around 1949

My maternal grandparents and their three children occupied the third floor rear apartment at 66 Avenue. My mother’s older sister married into the Varacalli family next door, at no. 70 (for some quirky reason, the addresses skip from 66 to 70; there is no 68 Avenue U). My aunt still owns that building, and although she now spends most of her time on Staten Island, she holds the title of longest resident of the block, somewhere in the ballpark of seventy-five years.*

My grandparents moved to West 8th Street in the mid-1960s and stayed there until about 1979, when they moved back to 66 Avenue U–this time to the ground floor apartment. My grandmother remained there until her death in 1995. That year, my mother’s brother, feeling nostalgic, commissioned our cousin, the innately talented, self-taught artist Matt Fontana (born 1940), to create an idealized picture of “the Avenue” (below).

Matt worked from memory and from photographs (compare the snapshot of Tony’s Luncheonette, above, with his rendition of the storefront). He compressed the view a bit, and moved some things (the mailbox, for instance, was really across West 11th Street), but artists have license to do that. All the people are real–the woman seated is my grandmother; next to her sits Joe “Bucko” Varacalli; the guy in the gym shirt is my cousin; the woman entering the door is my mother’s sister; and that’s me, supposedly, sitting profile near the door. The lady leaning out the window is my grandfather’s aunt, Angie Marrano. She actually lived one floor higher in a different building (there’s that artistic license again), and would send down money in a basket on a string for us to pin on St. Anthony when the procession went by. Then she’d haul up the prayer card we got for her dollar.

Pastel fantasy of Avenue U at the southeast corner of West 11th Street by Matt Fontana (b. 1940).

My uncle surprised me last Thanksgiving with this priceless picture. I never lived on “the Avenue,” I only “hung out” there, but when I stare at this scene the stories I’ve heard a thousand times swirl in my brain. Like the one about Signora Ernesta, the hundred-year-old lady (give or take). Or Chubby, the dog who terrified everyone. Or Chubby’s master, Ida, who forced my anemic mother to eat spinach sandwiches. Or the time Tony-the-Mutt served Angie Marrano a sundae that was largely shaving cream topped by a cherry. But I digress. Again. Sue me.

*UPDATE: My aunt Jay died today, Saturday 1 July 2017, aged eighty, taking with her the title of Queen of the Block. R.I.P.


Copyright © 2017 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Gravesend’s ’70s Toyland

I’d been picking my brain to think of an appropriate Christmas post when I suddenly remembered I had this flyer for Taverna’s toy offerings from around 1979. You remember Taverna’s, I’m sure, with their two stores at 222 Avenue U (south side, between West 5th Street and Van Sicklen Street, where Tre Fontane Restaurant is today) and 229 Avenue U (at the northeast corner of West 4th Street, in the building that originally housed the post office and, most recently, Rite Aid). You could buy anything at Taverna’s, from lawn chairs to socks, but for those of us who were kids in the 1970s, their store at 229 Avenue U was the go-to place for toys. I hope these images will inspire as much nostalgia in you as the do for me. I’d love to hear if you had any of these toys. I still have my “Strolling Bowling,” in its original box! Happy holidays, my friends, and all the best for 2017.  — Joseph Ditta

(Click on each image, then scroll down to the lower right and click “view full size.”)


Copyright © 2016 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Willy Wonka at the Avalon

The sad news of the death of the uniquely funny Gene Wilder reminded me I had this flier for the 1971 opening of “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” at the Avalon Theatre, 1720 Kings Highway. Despite the invitation to “Meet the Wonkaplayers,” I doubt any of the stars appeared at the opening. The S.S. Wonkatania awaits!

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Flier for the opening of “Williy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” June 30, 1971, Avalon Theatre, 1720 Kings Highway, Brooklyn. {Collection of Joseph Ditta}

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Kings Highway in its heyday, looking east from the Brighton Line. Note the Avalon Theatre, at right. {Collection of Joseph Ditta}

A postcard view of Kings Highway in its heyday, looking east from the Brighton Line. Note the Avalon Theatre at right. {Collection of Joseph Ditta}


Copyright © 2016 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Coney Island Palimpsest

Looking west through the temporary arch over Surf Avenue at West 8th Street, Coney Island, August 1893 {Collection of Joseph Ditta}

Looking west through the temporary arch over Surf Avenue at West 8th Street, Coney Island, August 1893. {Collection of Joseph Ditta}

Twenty-seven thousand firemen descended on Coney Island in August 1893. No, the place wasn’t burning, for once! They came for the 21st annual convention of the New York State Firemen’s Association and a week of dinners, speeches, boxing matches and parades. As the New-York Tribune described the setting on Monday 14 August 1893 (p. 10, col. 1), Coney Island “was one mass of flags and bunting. It looked as if . . .

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. . . every one tried to outdo his next-door neighbor, and the result was the most lavish display of decorative material ever seen at the Island. The preparations for the firemen’s convention ended with these decorations, and yesterday was given over to welcoming the delegates. The line of march for the big parade next Friday is covered with flags, and across Surf ave., near Eighth-st., a big arch has been erected, decorated with pictures of engines, hose carts and hook and ladder wagons. Across the top, in big letters, are the words ‘Welcome to Coney Island’.”

It’s easy to imagine this fanciful arch stood where the pedestrian bridge would later span Surf Avenue connecting the West 8th Street subway station to the New York Aquarium. The arch is long gone, of course; it probably came down right after the convention. The bridge went up in the mid-1960s and served for half a century. Safety concerns prompted its overnight demolition in August 2013.

The New York Aquarium's pedestrian bridge spanning Surf Avenue as it looked in June 2011 {Courtesy of Google Street View}.

The New York Aquarium’s pedestrian bridge spanning Surf Avenue as it looked in June 2011. {Courtesy of Google Street View}


Copyright © 2016 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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Summering in Sheepshead Bay

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Jones’ Cottages, circa 1910. The four houses to the left in the main image (nos. 2631-2639 East 19th Street) and the bungalow (no. 1908 Jerome Avenue) survive as private houses. Another house (not shown) stood next to the bungalow, near the southwest corner of Jerome and Ocean Avenues.

Not sure where to beat the summer heat? A century ago you could have taken rooms at Jones’ Cottages, a compound of seven boarding houses in Sheepshead Bay clustered around the southeast corner of Jerome Avenue and East 19th Street. The houses — furnished by proprietress Mrs. J. C. Jones-Moneuse in mahogany and Circassian walnut furniture — enclosed a communal “rustic garden” of “peaceful delights for those seeking a cool, quiet evening.” Covered walks connected each cottage to a dining hall, where guests devoured home-cooked Southern fare — fried chicken, sweet potatoes, corn bread, and sour milk biscuits — before sinking into hammocks to the strains of nightly music. Every room had hot and cold running water, with valet, manicurist, and Lady’s maid services available at all hours. All this for $2.00 a day and up. Five of the Jones’ Cottages stand today as private houses.

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Copyright © 2016 by Joseph Ditta (webmaster@gravesendgazette.com)

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