07 June 2011


It's been a good long time since I posted an edition in The Union Street Project, in which I trace the past of every building on Union Street, between Hicks and Columbia, in Brooklyn. There's a reason. And that's: gathering information on these piles of bricks is damned difficult.

The newspaper archives provide only so much material. And the memories of locals are spotty at best. There are several local legends in my area whom I was instructed to seek out. They know everything about the old neighborhood, I was told. I did seek out these people. And I found out that they know almost nothing. I'd ask them specific questions and they'd answer in generalities and make guesses.

These dead ends temporarily halted my project. Finally, I knuckled under, resorted to the Municipal Archives and ordered a number of (expensive) archival shots of various buildings. Photos don't lie.

One of the photos I ordered was for 139 Union Street, seen above. This interesting looking building is on the south side of Union. Unlike other structures on the street, there is no trouble tracing the date of its erection. It says so on the cornice: 1928. This means it's one of the newer buildings on the streets. It also means that it supplanted a previous building, for an 1855 map has a building standing on this spot.

Whoever built it was feeling his Italian roots. It has a quasi-palazzo feel to it. The ostentatious, but completely useless, stone balcony on the second floor is a singular flourish. As the 1940s picture below indicates, all the brickwork, including the special white framing around the balcony window, is original. The windows have been sadly altered, however.

(UPDATE: A reader wrote in claiming that 139 Union is not actually actually a new building from 1928, but an old building that once looked like its neighbors 137 and 135, but was given a new Italianate facade. But I have no way of verifying this information.)

I've always been intrigued by the storefront of the building, and am amazed at how closely it resembles the original.

139 Union is presently used by a Pentecostal prayer group that meets every Friday night. Do they knew how the space was used in the past? Wonderfully, it was a pool hall. An Italian pool hall. Bigliardo La Bella Sicilia was its name. You can see above the kind of tough characters who hung out there.



enodo said...

Hard to tell if they were tough or not. But the pastry shop next door definitely looks inviting.

modern life is rubbish said...

What an amazing photo. It's funny to imagine this block the way it was not so long ago.
I think you should talk to the little old lady who lives next to the hair salon on Union. She is very old and bound to be able to give some insight into the past of this street. I see her everyday hobbling out of her building and walking up the street, precisely at 9.10am on my way to work.
And by the way the building you are profiling was constructed in 1926 not 1928.

lorenzo said...

Hi, i'm sure there are many contributors to this project on Union St. Here's a tidbit.....in the early '50's i would buy shopping bags (paper) at "Frank's" store on Union.....then wander between Columbia and Hicks.....threading between many black-clad "MamaDellas"....snow on the sidewalk....fires in the metal barrels with sellers warming their hands. Then: there were the roasted chestnuts....and each seller yelling-out their vegetable and fruit prices. (not to mention the screamers at the corner of Union and Columbia's Fish Market (the VanBrunt/Columbia Union-corner....next to Mastalioni's). i doubled my money yellin'-out: "SHA-pin Baaags!". (SacredHearts-of-Jesus&Mary's Mother-of-Cabrini Nuns taught us how to Make-An-Honest-Buck).

Joe said...

I lived on the top floor at 139 Union St from 1942 to 1958. My grandparents lived across the street at 120 Union. One of my mothers brothers lived next door at 137 Union. The owners of the building when I was there were the Genovise family. Like Lorenzo we also shopped at Frank's, Mastalioni's & the fish market on the corner. It was owned by the Balsamo family who lived next door at 141 Union.

Barbara D. said...

My name is Barbara. I now live in Florida. I grew up in Carroll Gardens on First Place. My Grandfather John Messina was the proprietor of the Billardo La Bella Sicilia pictured in the photo from the 1940's through the 1960's. I have many happy memories visiting my Grandfather. I hope this information is helpful.

Thank you.