This week, we continue our series of deep dives into the histories of storied addresses.
When a New York Times reporter caught a horror-themed drag show at Don Pedro in 2014, he described it as an “off-the-wall experience”— which is how you could describe so many of the shows there. Riot Chica, for instance, was a “queer riot girl” show that featured the likes of Amor Prohibido, a cover band that puts a punk spin on the classics of late cumbia superstar Selena.
For 16 years, the bar, restaurant and DIY venue at 90 Manhattan Avenue kept the party going and survived the gentrification of East Williamsburg. When it finally closed its doors for the last time on May 6, Brooklyn’s Latino artists were devastated.
The building that housed Don Pedro, at the corner of Boerum and McKibbin, was sold for $1 million last December to an LLC whose owners are hard to trace. Wedged between a deli and a Pentecostal church, the boarded-up yellow brick structure looks worn out by time, another victim of displacement in the gentrification capital of the world.
Still, these are only the most recent changes at 90 Manhattan Avenue, and they reflect a longstanding neighborhood pattern. Manhattan Avenue was previously known as Ewen Street, until the street honoring city surveyor Daniel Ewen was renamed around 1897. Over the years it has housed dozens of businesses and working-class immigrants: bakers, molders, tailors, hatters, milliners, and grocers. Some establishments were pushed out just like Don Pedro was, in the way ordinary people get caught up in the grander trends of the neighborhood and the city.
Long before a building stood on the property, the plot was part of a colonial farm owned by one of the original families that settled in the Dutch colony that is now modern-day Brooklyn. Jacob Duryea Boerum, born in 1750, owned the 58-acre farm that sat atop Ewen Street and the stretch that would eventually become Eastern Williamsburg. He would pass management of the farm to his second youngest son Henry. “During the great land speculation” of 1835, Henry Boerum sold parcels for several thousands of dollars to John McKibbin and his partner, Thomas Nicholas, who built homes for incoming German immigrants. This was during the period when the neighborhood became known as Dutchtown.
Bushwick Avenue and Boerum Street are the boundaries of the 16th Ward, as drafted for this part of Brooklyn in 1860. In June of 1857, the ward’s German presence caught the attention of Walt Whitman, wrote about a Sunday stroll with German writer Frederick Huene, and their encounters with “innumerable lager bier shops, the promenading groups, the harmonious strains issuing from latticed gardens and curtained halls, the ‘sweet German accent.’’’ It is where Whitman presumably “developed his long-lived fondness for lager beer.”
Whitman’s descriptions, in 1857, contrast sharply with accounts of the neighborhood’s economic well-being four decades later. By 1899, East Williamsburg had become, in the words of the County Clerk William Wuest, a place where “the bubonic plague would flourish were it to obtain a foothold in Brooklyn.”
Wuest owned a drug store across the street from 90 Manhattan Avenue, on the corner with Seigel Street. His store had occupied the space since 1855 and from its windows at the turn of that century, Wuest looked out on living conditions deteriorated enough to “unquestionably invite plague.” On Dec. 28, 1899, he showed a Brooklyn Daily Eagle reporter the unpleasant sights of the “Ghetto”: “the feather littered and filth lined gutters, the narrow, dark and foul smelling hallways of rickety tenements, the dirty and time worn cobble paved streets abounding in holes and mud, the reeking marketplace floors from which arose almost unbearable stenches.”
And yet, Wuest remarked, the ward’s residents were “industrious, hard-working and honest,” united by religious denomination as much as by their encroaching poverty. As an example, he told the story of a woman about to go into labor without the money to pay the doctor. Her husband and children canvassed the neighborhood, telling their story and by the time she delivered, they had collected the needed $10 in “in pennies and 5 and 10 cent pieces.” The “poor stand by the poor here,” Wuest told the reporter, as he called on the city to pave the area’s streets, establish public baths, install proper street lighting and clean out the slum housing.
And yet the poverty did not preclude pride of place. Homes in the ward were usually two-story framed structures built on the rear of lots with abundant vegetables, and the front yards were filled with flowers. Gardens flourished in the center of the plots. It was the time when “old-time Dutchtown” began undergoing a transformation. The population was largely German until the 1903 construction of the Williamsburg Bridge, which brought to the neighborhood an influx of Jews.
By 1904, a reporter would describe how the Jewish community lived and did commerce in the “New-Jerusalem” of Manhattan Avenue, with its “conglomeration of small traders in bread, cakes, oranges, vegetables, lace curtains, cloths and notions, and all are doing a rushing business” amid the “myriads of pushcarts” bustling on Cook Street and Manhattan in “squalor and shiftlessness.” According to the New-York Daily Tribune, in Williamsburg in 1904 there was “20,000 to 25,000 Jews, who were paying $10 to $12 for a floor of four or five rooms, or $12 to $18 for a flat of four rooms.”
The Mandibergs of the 16th Ward were an upwardly mobile entrepreneurial Ukrainian Jewish family. Max Mandiberg arrived in 1890 with his wife Minnie, who died in 1918. Max remarried Rose Mandiberg in 1919. From 1885 to 1910, Max and his mother Dora Mandiberg owned the Cohen & Mandiberg’s Restaurant, or the Manhattan Café & Restaurant, at 90 Manhattan Avenue.
Originally from Kiev, the Mandiberg’s emigrated in 1893, leaving behind the difficult life of their Russian shtetl for Brooklyn’s Sixteenth Ward. Max Mandiberg’s family grew up in a shtetl, 30 miles from Kiev, leaving a sister behind when he emigrated. A family chronicle documents the rapes and murders endured by members of the family during the Kiev Programs of 1919, and the mob attacks on the Jewish communities in Ukraine. Max joined other Mandibergs who left Kiev and eventually started a deli business in Eastern Brooklyn.
Between 1903 and 1905, the restaurant became a hangout for numerous Jewish social clubs like The Single League, The Children’s Hebrew Aid Society of Brooklyn, The Young Men’s Benevolent Society of the Eastern District, and the Shaftesbury Lodge.
The building was a three-story frame double tenement, with stores that was converted to a brick structure at the turn of the century. Its tenants over the years included a succession of Jewish, Russian and Italian families. Among them were a pair of bakers who got involved in a shoot-out in Ernest Augustine’s bakery on the lot in 1866. Frederick Spellka and August Reis “quarreled” in 1886 at the bakery at 90 Ewen and Reis “ran up to his sleeping room” for a five-chambered revolver and shot Spellka four times in the street in front of the business. The following year, Aaron Meyer also made the newspapers for his role in what the New York Times called the “The Dutchtown Elopement Case.” Meyer, who had a wife and child back in Germany, eloped to California with 13-year-old Delca Muller, absconding with thousands of dollars of their neighbors’ money at the same time.
Families moved their businesses. The Mandiberg’s moved their deli out of Brooklyn after 1910 to midtown Manhattan. They opened the café that likely became the Gaiety Delicatessen on West 46th Street, managed by Max’s son, Abraham. The Gaiety Deli, a popular hangout for celebrities like James Dean and once employer of Max Asnas, was paid homage in a song and was the setting of the Broadway musical “Skyscraper.” It also famously received three stars from New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne, a first at the time, and beat Katz’s Deli to the practice of serving overstuffed sandwiches. The Manhattan restaurant with East Williamsburg roots closed down in 1966.
The neighborhood began to change again in the 1960s, around the time when manufacturing in the area was in decline. Puerto Ricans moved into the apartments south of Grand Street and predominantly along Graham Avenue, also known as Avenida Puerto Rico, just west of Manhattan Avenue. Hasidic Jews also moved in while the neighborhood’s former Italian, Irish and non-Hasidic Jewish residents departed.
Puerto Rican cultural life flourished south of Grand Street in South Williamsburg, the divide the New York Times once referred to as the Mason-Dixon line. Puerto Ricans lived across the more blurred border between south and east Williamsburg, presumably Union Avenue. They used culture and community to confront the poverty and violence, as depicted in Diego Echeverria’s documentary “Los Sures.”
In the last decade, gentrification has changed the “industrial wasteland” and its demographic makeup. Rising rents have pushed out some Puerto Rican families. Despite gentrification, young Puerto Ricans write about their continued presence in the neighborhood, though now they reminisce about “when the bodegas and apartment windows had Puerto Rican flags proudly displayed, waving defiantly.”
As a Williamsburg cultural institution, Don Pedro represented the neighborhood’s permeating Latino presence when it opened as an Ecuadorian restaurant in 2001. As it became more of a mix-use venue later that decade, it came to welcome all, from the Bathsalts to the Latino punks. Shomara Terceros, also known as Shomi Noise, lead singer of Amor Prohibido, said Don Pedro– with its multiple functions as a bar, DIY venue, restaurant, arcade, and vintage shop– “gave access to music, art, and culture that not only exist outside of the status quo but also directly questions and challenges it.”
At the bar’s final show, people gathered to listen to a 10-band lineup and revel in “a pre-Bloomberg punk paradise,” as Bedford + Bowery’s Nick McManus described it. Friends joined owners Steven Solomon and Mitro Balsams, and “in their little slice of heaven, all was right with the world.”
Since May, Riot Chica has kept its punk mayhem alive in spaces like El Cortez bar, five blocks west from Don Pedro on Boerum Street. Without a permanent home, Shomi Noise said it’s on hiatus until early next year.
The limited liability company that bought Don Pedro is linked to the property firm Premium Management, which manages luxury condos. It no doubt has interesting plans for the building currently under construction. Luxury apartments would be a far cry from the tenement and DIY punk space of not so long ago. For Brooklyn’s Eastern District, it’s another chapter in change.