Joan V. Cusimano Lindquist
If the title of this month’s “Remembering Brooklyn Square” column seems cryptic, let me explain. It wasn’t until I had taken on the research and writing/editing of my third book, Remembering Brooklyn Square: The 1930s To The 1960s, that I realized that throughout my life there has always been a Brooklyn in it—from Brooklyn Square, once the heart of the city that gave its name to businesses and blocks; to Brooklyn, NY, once the fourth largest city in the country; and to a local restaurant about a quarter mile from my home in Jackson, NJ called Brooklyn Square Pizza. I kid you not!
My late brother John Cusimano was so excited when he discovered this restaurant’s website that he called me to ask (1) if I knew of the place that shared a name we were very familiar with and (2) had I ever sampled any of their multitudinous and maybe even “far-out” varieties of pizza! In a word—Yes. But more to the point: why the name? Is history repeating itself? When I put the question to Pete Grillo, owner of this pizzeria, he said: “Because I’m from Brooklyn and I make square pizzas!” Take for instance Pete’s specialty—the Upside Down Square Pie, a beautiful thick pizza that boasts a crisp, oven-baked crust topped with (and here comes the Upside Down part) fresh mozzarella covered with tomato sauce and sprinkled with Pecorino Romano. A delicious inversion of a traditional topping! But as Pete went on to say, the Square in the name of his place refers to that part of the Brooklyn neighborhood where Pete is from because he and his buddies used to hang out in what they called “the Square.” Is it any wonder the name followed him to New Jersey? Old habits die hard.
But let me take you back a few years to my earlier history. As a kid growing up on Derby Street that has come to be known as the Lost Neighborhood, I was very familiar with Brooklyn Square because my trips literally “uptown” took me through the Square, a once-thriving center of commerce and industry—from shopping trips with my mother to Conti’s Grocery and the City Public Market, to weekend afternoons at the Roosevelt Theater and a Johnny’s Lunch Texas hot, to perusing the rack of movie magazines at Harvey and Carey Drug Store and maybe winding up my afternoon with a hot fudge sundae at the store’s popular soda fountain if I had enough jingle left in my pocket. That was the “Brooklyn” in Brooklyn Square that I knew.
Fast forward to September 5, 1964, the day my husband Hal Lindquist and I got married and then point the direction east to Brooklyn, NY where a second-floor apartment at 172 Bay Ridge Avenue aka 69th Street awaited us. The demographics of Bay Ridge have changed over the years, but when we lived in that part of Brooklyn it was a large, well-established enclave of Norwegian and Norwegian American families. Maybe you’re envisioning blocks and blocks of apartment buildings for those of you who have never visited Brooklyn, and there are such areas in the city, but we lived in a comfortable red brick with white trim row house owned by the Solversens that faced brownstones.
Like the Brooklyn Square that I had known, Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge Avenue, bounded by numbered streets (we lived between Third and Second close to the ferry landing) contained virtually every human need: from the super market across the street to the butcher shop to Thomson’s Fish Market to the cleaners and barber shop, where each day a man with a horse-drawn cart of fruits and vegetables would rest and feed his horse from a feed bag, to the two beauty shops, and Ken’s friendly neighborhood bar where “everybody did know your name.” Often one of Ken’s regulars who walked his dog, a little blond cocker spaniel named Cindy, would stop for a draft, and Ken would fill a small saucer with “suds” for Cindy for a late night doggie night cap! True story. What I’ll never forget, however, were the walls in that pub that were covered with photographs of neighborhood men and boys who had gone to fight in WW II from their departure point at the end of 69th Street where the ferry would take them to the ports in Manhattan where war ships would carry them to Europe. A simple but lasting tribute.
On Columbus Day weekend in 1964, my dear and long-time friend who was one of JHS’s librarians, came to visit, her first time in Brooklyn, NY. It was a busy weekend with shopping at Abraham and Strauss, their flagship department store on Fulton Street in Brooklyn, Macy’s Department Store in Manhattan with a lunch stop at Schrafft’s, dinner on Saturday night at the famed Cattleman Restaurant for cocktails and prime rib and Sunday Mass at Our Lady of the Angels R.C. Church which, compared to my knowledge of Catholic churches in Jamestown, looked like a cathedral; it was also the parish where the bishop of Brooklyn had his lodgings. And that afternoon, where else but the 1964 World’s Fair held at the Meadowlands! A memorable visit. Yet what remained with her that was awakened many years ago in 1995 was the painting of a row house on a greeting card she sent me that recaptured her recollection of the Brooklyn house we lived in. Not quite the same, a bit more charming, but close enough…
It’s true. There will always be a Brooklyn in my life.