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Taking a Ride Through Brooklyn’s Storied Past

<i> Goldfarb is a Los Angeles free-lance writer who used to live in Brooklyn</i>

It was not one of New York City’s premiere days. Dark rain clouds blanketed the upper stories of the Chrysler building and the wind blew briskly off the East River.

A light drizzle beat a steady tattoo on the windshield of Lou Singer’s blue mini-van as he pulled out of his customary parking place on East 41st Street in Manhattan and navigated along busy 2nd Avenue. We were heading toward the Brooklyn Bridge.

Nothing seems to dampen the enthusiasm of Singer, a 62-year-old native Brooklynite. Singer has been taking sightseers through the Big Apple for about 15 years, and leads more than 200 tours annually. We were so delighted with a Singer tour we took a few years ago (Travel Section, Aug. 11, 1985) that we were back for more.

There were eight of us in his van, embarking on Singer’s “19th-Century Brooklyn Tour,” which he combines with an ethnic food-tasting tour.

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‘Biggest Booster’

Called “Brooklyn’s biggest booster,” Singer is an enthusiastic, engaging person who dazzles you with a bewildering variety of historical trivia.

A retired newspaper route driver for the New York Times, Singer is a fountain of knowledge about everything Brooklynese, including brownstone apartments, intricacies of Tiffany glass techniques and the quirks of the borough’s history. He once taught a course on the city’s history at Brooklyn College.

“Did you know that if Brooklyn was a city it would be the fourth-largest in the U.S., with a population of 2.4 million?” he said on his van’s public address system. “It has a history going back to the 1600s.”

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Continuing his rapid-fire chatter while driving, Singer pointed out that one of seven American families have roots in Brooklyn. “In the Los Angeles area alone,” he said, “there are between 5,000 and 10,000 members of the Sons and Daughters of Brooklyn.”

Most of his clients come from a 100-to-150-mile radius of New York City, but over the course of a year he greets visitors from all 50 states, particularly California.

Repeat Customers

On this trip, seven out of eight passengers were repeat customers who had been on other Singer-led odysseys through the nooks and crannies of New York City.

Marge and Jim Tottis of Dearborn, Mich., learned about Singer’s New York City tours while on vacation and joined his “Noshing Tour of the Lower East Side.” They liked it so much that they returned for the Brooklyn tour two days later.

One of Singer’s most memorable tours took place a few years ago when 41 members of one family booked a tour to visit the Red Hook section of Brooklyn.

All had migrated to California in the 1940s, and this was their first visit to their old neighborhood in 40 years.

“I’ve never seen such a close-knit, fun-loving family,” Singer said. “They couldn’t believe that every house on the block was still standing. Of course the makeup of the neighborhood changed. They were surprised to see that trees were planted on the block. This was a real nostalgic visit to their roots.”

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According to Singer, what we call Brooklyn today is a collection of once-independent small towns established in the mid-1600s. Five were Dutch: Nieu Amersfoort (Flatlands), a farming and fishing area; Vlackebos (Flatbush), a rural village; Breukelen (Brooklyn), including the area that grew into the first brownstone suburbs; Boswijck (Bushwick), the eastern district that included Williamsburg and Greenpoint, and Nieuw Utrecht.

Led by Lady Deborah

The sixth, Gravensande (Gravesend), was settled by English colonists led by a woman, Lady Deborah Moody. The borough of Brooklyn was an independent city until 1898, when it joined New York City.

Singer tells you that the first major invasion of the Revolutionary War took place in Brooklyn in August, 1776. Thousands of British and Hessian troops stormed ashore at Gravesend Bay, forcing the American Army to retreat to the tip of Brooklyn Heights.

“George Washington and his troops narrowly escaped when they were ferried one foggy night across the river to Manhattan,” Singer said.

We drove through Ft. Greene where the remains of 12,000 American soldiers were buried after the Revolutionary War. On Montague Street he pointed out intricate iron work on little balconies of brownstone homes. We also passed the house where the movie “Prizzi’s Honor” was filmed.

Driving slowly in the rain, Singer pointed out the former site of the Brooklyn Eagle, Brooklyn’s only daily newspaper, now a co-op apartment project. On Sands Street we saw what was left of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, extremely active during World War II. Part of the yard is used as an industrial park.

Turning into the Greenpoint section, Singer pointed out streets lined with red brick and brownstone buildings. Manhattan Avenue and Milton Street brimmed with shoppers.

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Large Polish Community

“Greenpoint is the home of the second-largest Polish community in the United States,” Singer said, adding that only Chicago has a larger Polish population.

Everybody left the van at 915 Manhattan Ave., the Nassau Meat Market, where we were given a plate of mixed Polish sausages and other meats.

From the Greenpoint neighborhood, we drove through the Williamsburg section, just across the Williamsburg Bridge from Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Settled by Germans in the mid-1800s, the section became the home for thousands of Hasidic Jews who fled Hungary, Poland, Germany and other Eastern European countries.

“Some 40,000 religious Jews live in this section,” Singer said, driving along busy Lee and Division avenues. “The women are living in 15th-Century style, averaging nine children per family.”

In addition to the Hasidic Jews, Singer spoke about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, Crown Heights, Flatbush, Bensonhurst, the Prison Ship Martyr’s Monument, Bedford, Brighton Beach, Coney Island and the best gargoyles, cornices and decorative architecture the city has to offer.

The Bedford-Stuyvesant area, the largest black neighborhood in the city, was next.

Another Ethnic Treat

Driving along Chauncey Street, we passed the house and street where Lena Horne grew up, across from Chauncey Park.

At the corner of Stuyvesant and Macon Street we stopped at McDonald’s Dining Room (not to be confused with McDonald’s with the Golden Arches) for our next ethnic treat. Here we sampled the specialty of the house--barbecued chicken and ribs, cooked West Indies, Jamaican-style.

We drove past President Street in Crown Heights, where we saw “Doctor’s Row,” a lineup of $500,000 homes.

Three of Brooklyn’s most famous landmarks are in the Park Slope section. Prospect Park, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and the Brooklyn Museum are clustered within walking distance of one another in the heart of the borough.

Atlantic Avenue, south of downtown Brooklyn, boasts two unusual tourist attractions. It is a major center for antiques and also contains the city’s most concentrated number of Middle Eastern stores and restaurants.

“You’ll find items to satisfy your search for everything from Art Deco to chandeliers,” Singer said. “In this neighborhood you will find Lebanese and Syrians, along with Moroccans and Yemenites.”

Continental Dining

For a taste of Middle Eastern food, Singer stopped at the corner of Atlantic and Clinton. We dined on continental fare at the Tripoli restaurant, which was attractively decorated with paintings of bazaars, churches and narrow streets filled with shoppers. Our dish consisted of lamb, rice, cake rolls, vegetables and Moroccan bread.

Next, Singer took us toward the Bay Bridge section, which provides marvelous views of the Verrazano Bridge and ships passing through the Narrows on their way to metropolitan area ports.

“This area is known for Italian restaurants, Scandinavian seafarers and acres of lovely one-family homes that are removed from the bustle of the city,” Singer said.

Largely rural until the 20th Century, the Bay Bridge area originated as part of the Dutch town of New Utrecht.

“Norwegian and Danish sailors and their families began settling here when the shipping industry grew in Brooklyn in the 1870s,” Singer said. “Today, Scandinavian stores still dot the area, but Irish, Italian, Greek, Hispanic and other ethnic groups have also moved here.”

No Counting Calories

Our final gourmet treat came at Pierrot, a French pastry shop on Bay Ridge Parkway and 3rd Avenue that is acclaimed for its classic desserts.

One of Pierrot’s specialties is a green apple sorbet , an all-natural dish made from fresh fruit. I tried a small dish of the it. Sensational! Then I succumbed to a slice of chocolate rum truffle cake.

Other dishes included fresh fruit cobblers, cheesecake, strawberry shortcake topped with whipped cream and French pastries.

On the drive across the bridge back to Manhattan, somebody asked Singer why he has this love affair with Brooklyn.

“Well,” he said, “Brooklyn has been so neglected, it needs a little tender care. If Brooklyn was 100 miles from Manhattan it would be one of the world’s great cities.”

The cost of Singer’s year-round “19th-Century Brooklyn” tour is $41 ($25 for the tour and $16 for the snacks).

Passengers are met and dropped off at 41st Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan, unless other arrangements are made. Transportation is by air-conditioned van. Tours run from 10 a.m. to about 3:30 p.m. Singer also conducts bus tours for up to 50 persons.

In addition to the Brooklyn excursion, other Singer tours include A Noshing Tour of New York; Brooklyn Brownstones; Fabulous Flatbush; Jewish Roots; On the Trail of Tiffany; Harlem and Lower Manhattan; Ethnic Brooklyn; Chocoholic’s Tour, and the SoHo, East Village and Tribeca Artists Tour.

For more information, contact Lou Singer Tours, 130 St. Edward’s St., Brooklyn, N.Y. 11201, phone (718) 875-9084.


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