07 March 2011


This is the fourth post of "The Union Street Project," in which I unearth the history of every building along the once bustling Brooklyn commercial strips of Union Street between Hicks and Van Brunt, and Columbia Street between Sackett and Carroll.

The first three entries of the series, I tackled three successive edifices on the north side of Union Street, each right next to the other. I'm now temporarily skipping over the south side, mainly because the next few addresses on the north side—137, 139, 141 and 143—are proving to be stubborn characters, revealing little if any of their history.

About 124 Union, meanwhile, I learned plenty. The fairly unremarkable, three-story, red brick building is home today of a Stop One deli, known to everyone in the neighborhood as Mrs. Lee's. Mrs. Lee is the chatty, friendly, charitable woman who runs the store with her husband, Mr. Lee. Mrs. Lee is a big presence on the block, and well appreciated. If you're a little short of cash, she'll wave a dime or two, or just round down the amount. And if you need to pay tomorrow, that's OK, too.

Before Mr. and Mrs. Lee arrived, this was Joseph Pizzimenti's fruit and vegetable store.

On Jan. 2, 1959, the building was at the center of a bizarre kidnapping scheme in which a "stout blonde widow," Jean Iavarone, took a newborn from St. Peter's hospital. She committed this rash act in order to trap Pizzimenti, with whom she had been living, into marrying her. Iavarone had had bad luck with men. Her first husband divorced her, and her second had died. She had four children by each marriage, and was forced to give up the children to orphanages and foster homes. She couldn't get them back until she was settled. Her crazy scheme was to drag Pizzimenti to the altar by insisted the stolen baby was in fact him.

The taking of the child prompted a huge manhunt. Thousands of cops and hundreds of federal agents—a number larger by far than the 1932 search for the infant son of Charles Lindbergh—searched for the kid. According to The Daily News, "a tipster's call at last led Brooklyn police to a shabby brownstone on St. Marks Ave., within sight of the Bergen St. station, where, in an $18-a-week furnished room, they found a 43-year-old widow tenderly rocking the missing infant. Jean Iavarone had seven children of her own, three grown, the four youngest in orphanages and foster homes, unreturnable to her until such time as she had a husband and proper home, and she was lonely. Authorities quickly understood that she was hoping to lure a gentleman acquaintance into marriage by presenting him with a child ostensibly his own. Then she could have her family back again."

The kidnapped baby, who was recovered after a nine-day search, was Lisa Rose Chionchio. Frank and Frances Chionchio of Bay Ridge were her parents. The Chionchios felt so bad for Iavarone, that they chose not to prosecute. Instead, she went for a hospital stay.

I am not usually able to find out the architect of the buildings on this street. But in this case, their names are on a City document available on the Internet: Burke and Olsen. I have seem their names attached to other local structures. Nino Sabbatino owned the structure in 1927.

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