21 November 2008

Welcome to Newkirk Plaza


A couple weeks ago I saw Newkirk Plaza for the first time.

What can I say? What a place. I couldn't have dreamed it up if I tried. I was just biking down Foster Avenue in Ditmas Park and, Bam!, there it was, this utterly peculiar open air retail mall of largely independent businesses, perched above the Newkirk subway station. Instead of facing outward toward a street, the two lines of stores stare at each other over a trying-desperately-not-look-sad-and-shabby pedestrian mall. Because of the presence of the subway below, the whole thing has a tenuous feel to it, as if it were balancing on air.


Newkirk Plaza isn't new. That's apparent from clapping eyes on the shops, which look like they probably did a brisk business in egg creams and hula-hoops once upon a time. It was built in 1913, though some say 1908 (which would mean that this is its 100th birthday). So, in the world of open-air malls, it was a trailblazer. It has a weird ownership set-up. The Transit Authority owns the deck and station and the Department of Transportation owns the bridge. Plus, the buildings on the Plaza are possessed by private owners. This division of property may partly explain why the place looks like such a time capsule; what are the chances that all three parties ever agree on anything, improvement-wise?


Newkirk Plaza was not a nice place up until recently. It's nickname was "Newcrack Plaza." It was frequented by drug dealers, muggers, prostitutes and their friends. Things have improved considerably in the last few years. Many dollars were thrown at the area. Fancy ironwork fences replaced some concrete walls and new light fixtures were installed. And yet, the plaza still looks like a place your grandma might take you for a shopping spree, or somewhere your uncle goes for his monthly haircut. And for that, I love it. I loved it at first sight. Every entryway has a kind of dejected look about it, none more so than the corrugated metal wall that reads "kir Plaza." Your heart goes out to that poor de-lettered sign.


There are some sweet little businesses in this mall. You can tell by their quirky, worn facades that most are family owned. Almac Hardware, there since 1914. Minar Food Market, and Asian and American grocery with a pink elephant ride kids can enjoy outside. Lins Market, a tumbledown oddity that will pierce your ears, change your watch band, fax your documents, take your passport photo and sell you a hat, hosiery, "toy's" or "varieties." Alex's Medical Supplies, which has a great shoe-shaped sign and appears to sell orthopedic shoes. Leon's Fancy Cut, a barber. Lo Duca Pizza, which looks pretty old. (Don't these seem like Ben "Julius Knipl" Katchor names to you? Almac, Minar, Lins, Lo Duca. Actually, Newkirk Plaza itself seems like Katchortown.)

In fact, you can get almost anything you might need on Newkirk Plaza. That is, if your tastes aren't to hoity-toity. And for those who must have the comfort of a familiar chain, there's a Dunkin' Donuts.



17 comments:

Anonymous said...

I seem recall from the early 1980's that there was a fish market or butcher, (don't remember which) on Newkirk Plaza and you would squeeze past the counter in the rear and go into a small restaurant they ran. Pretty good. May have been named Phil's, but not sure.

Poetessnyc said...

To understand Newkirk Plaza, you have to understand: Flatbush Federal Savings, one of the original anchors. Almac, which is an old-fashioned hardware store where you can go in and describe some problem, and they'll listen to you and respond . . . You used to be able to come in through back-door entrances to stores on Marlborough and E 16th Streets. It's all about the subway: an Express stop, this area between Foster and Newkirk avenue is one of two in Flatbush along what is now the Q/B train (used to be the D/M, then it was something else, but I remember it as the D/M when I'd come from Long Island to visit my cousins the Rubens on Foster Avenue) which is densely populated with apartment buildings -- people naturally come there. From the subway platform, you can see little 'windows' which are actually basements for the stores. Many used to have advertisements for the stores above, long since decayed or gone. When I was pregnant with my son, who is now 28, my husband and I became entranced with a small greasy spoon which opened close to Almacs. The owner envisioned an all-night eatery in Newkirk Plaza serving hamburgers and knishes. I spent one night making such food, and that was the end of any fantasies I ever had about running a restaurant.

Simeon Bankoff said...

The restaurant was named Grillo's and was well-renowned as one of the better fish restaurants in Brooklyn.

don loggins said...

Its was a greek seafood called Grillo's. It was next to the savings bank. When the bank wanted more space they purchased the building Grillo's was in and tore it down to exspand.

Anonymous said...

Grillos Seafood... was there from before WW11. I grew up with Mike Grillos, the youngest of the 4 brothers..the restaurant was always there but was only "discovered" in the 70s..the rear entrance to the restaurant had steps up that were right next to the seafood store's garbage,,could be very smelly at times..Mike Grillos is a dentist that is still in the neighborhood on Rugby road..he grew up on east 18th street..I lived on East 17th from 1945 to 1965..it was a great, quiet neighborhood that never had to lock it's doors

Anonymous said...

As a kid in the 60s, I used to walk to Newkirk Plaza to meet my dad coming back from work. Sometimes, I would get my hair cut at Leon's (but only by Sal - short for Salvatore), and we always stopped at the best spot on the plaza - Ebinger's!

Two years after Ebinger's closed my mom pulled one of their famous blackout cakes out of the freezer for my birthday.

I had forgotten all about Grillo's. I used to love dining there. I remember that on some nights there used to be quite a line to get in.

Joel said...

we used to live on Rugby Rd a few blocks away in the early-mis '70s. My dad used to take me to a shop right across from the subway entrance where he's buy us ice cream and comic books. I also remember a shop that served fountain sodas and even then had an old-fashioned look to it. There was a hardware store that used to entrance me with all the lamps that hung from the ceiling. I also recall an Exxon gas station at one end of the plaza.

kerry said...

I'm a new arrival to the neighborhood, so this article was a great find. Three owners does help explain the state the plaza was in.

I'd love to see an update to this entry soon as it looks like work on the Plaza renovation is finishing up (read: winter 2010?)

grw said...

I remember getting my hair cut at the barbershop on Newkirk Plaza as a kid. We lived around the corner on Argyle Road when I was between 1 and 5 years old. I attended kindergarten at PS 139. It's possible I got my first haircut at that barbershop. We didn't do a lot of shopping there (mostly we went to Waldbaum's on Coney Island Ave.) but it was a favorite place to stroll and to hang out with my friends watching the trains come and go.
Thanks for the great photos!

grw said...

I should add to my previous post a couple of things. One is I'm referring to years between 1957 and 1963. My recollection is that the Plaza looked old and well worn back in those days. I'm amazed it's still around much less that it's a bit seedy. From the photos it doesn't look much different than I remember it. Just to keep things in perspective.

Anonymous said...

Grew up on 19th Street between Foster and Newkirk. As a kid, loved Wardell's(Spelling?)Hobby shop and pizza by the slice(15cents)

Carl said...

Grillos started as a fish store that would also sell you a limited number of cooked items. There were a couple of wood tables you could use to eat the cooked fish. Later the store became a restaurant, and later bought the neighboring storefront to expand before going out of business. It was a real loss.

BLSH said...

I worked at Grillos Fish store in the during 1966-1998 period. I delivered throughout the neighborhood on a commercial bike, usually until around 6PM when I was reassigned to the rear dinning room to clean tables. We'd roll the fish gets out the front and around the corner, past the bank to the rear street entrance where the trash was. there was a wholesale business run mainly out of the basement where the big cooler was. the neighborhood was still intact and very multiethnic.

karen said...

I lived in this area in the 50s. We lived 1st floor over Almacs hardware store and the corner of Newkirk and Marlboro across from the gas station. My dad known as Rudy or Tony had the barbershop on Marlboro Rd. I went to PS 217 till 8th grade and then to FIT. Would love to talk to some people from that era...My name is Karen Fischetti.rampthd very

EDWARD OSLER said...

Brooklyn is a place of really good memories. Chadish Jewish market on the corner of Newkirk Avenue and East 17th Street, then the bigger grocery store two doors down, the Bar and Grill, Augie's Barber Shop next to the Dry Cleaner on the corner of East 16 Street. Ebingers Bakery with their Blackout Cake, Othello eggs (hard chocolate on top, mocha and yellow cake underneath). Almac Hardware, Grillos Fish Market and Restaurant. Everyone knew everyone. No one was a stranger. It was a kinder, gentler time. It is a place and time that, like the LOEW'S KINGS theatre, will always remain a place in everyone's memory.

Francis Walker said...

I grew up on "The Plaza"> My parents had a "beauty" shop {Walker`s] at * Newkirk for over 20 years. It was a Great place back in the 50s-60s. I knew Al & Mac form the hardware store, & Ebingers, & Sam at the toy store. And Feldbaums, old post war type bar-lounge-restaurant. My father loved the goulash. And Lipton Chemists, Eddie the florist, the recored shop, candy store, so many to remember. Vic, at Vesuvius, the pizza place near the tunnel.On & on.

Bob Randall said...

I started selling fresh fish to Andy Grillo back in the seventies. My first sales were stripers from the Breezy Point surf. I later bought a boat and supplied Andy with fresh bluefish two to three times a week.