History: A Walk on Columbia Street, by Tina Portelli

A 1946 Carroll Gardens Wedding

If you never saw Columbia Street before 1960, you missed a lot. The street is still there; the sidewalks, the street sign, but the stores, the people, the charm are all gone. That strip of avenue is unrecognizable, now lined with barrack type housing and no character at all.

The house where I was born no longer stands. 11 Woodhull Street. Next door at 9 Woodhull Street was my grandfather’s candy store, Ralph’s. I can still picture him in his canvas Daily News apron and metal changer hanging from his belt, a Camel cigarette dangling from his mouth.

Columbia Street was colorful, with old stores, old people, and lots of kids. It was a neighborhood of Italian and Puerto Rican poor people, produce, poultry and petty gossip; And everyone we encountered knew our names. My Mom might be known as Ralph’s daughter or Lefty’s niece, or Christina.

On the corner of Columbia and Summit Street was Mr. Bell’s Pharmacy. This is a vague memory, I was very young. But, I do remember Mr. Bell’s shock of white hair and the glass counters with old medicine bottles lined like soldiers. And the big scale, which cost a penny to use.

During a typical grocery-shopping afternoon with my mother, we’d first stop at the chicken market on Sackett Street, right off Columbia. As a kid I thought it was a pet store, hearing those live birds squawk, until my mother would walk out of that store, one hand holding mine and the other carrying the bag with a freshly killed chicken.

On the corner of Columbia and Union Streets was the open fruit market. The produce crates covered half the pedestrian sidewalk, skirting the entire corner. With her hands full of bags, my mother would squeeze the fruit and inspect the vegetables. She would meet a dozen other women going through the same drill.

Our next stop was on Union Street, to the original Mastellone for some fresh cut bologna and American cheese; orange, not white. Thick and delicious, slapped on Wonder white with mayo, it was our Saturday lunch routine. I grew up on it, no baloney.

On occasional Saturdays, my mother’s youngest sister Sophia, an aunt who is four years older than myself, would sometimes take me to the Happy Hour Movie House. We’d buy brown soft chocolate licorice, the kind with the two holes down each side. I’d suck the flavor right out of them. The concession stand was oddly located – down by the screen, just to the right. The matron was mean and you couldn’t make a sound. After the movie, we’d stop next door at Izzy’s for a Charlotte- Rouse. At  a dime apiece, it was mini layer cake with whipped cream, topped with a cherry, wrapped in a white cardboard cylinder, easy to hold and wonderful to eat.

Everyone in the neighborhood eventually got framed. Anyone in the neighborhood who received communion or confirmation, got married and had a baby would all wind up hanging in Palmisano’s window, the local photo studio. I hated seeing my face up there, white veil, crossed eyes, and buck teeth framing a forced smile. The most beautiful photo to grace his window was that of my youngest aunt and future uncle, their engagement picture. Blue eyes sparkling right at you. Diagonal to Palmisano’s was the competition, Natoli Studios. Each of these two stores had their own loyal following of customers.

In those days, no one had money, at least not my family. My parents furnished their entire apartment from Sokol Brothers Furniture Store. Furniture on credit, a month, no interest, no contract, just an agreement kept track on a 3X5 lined index card. This was real old fashion mahogany, not the pressboard stuff passed off as furniture today.

There on Columbia Street near Union Street stood the BIG Clock. If you ever had to meet anybody, it was always under “The Big Clock”. That’s where the Shoe Box shoe store was located. Every end of August my mother would take me in for school shoes. I would always wind up getting smacked because I wanted loafers and she insisted on ugly laced oxfords. I never won, but I do have a closet full of shoes today, and none of them have laces.

My Easter outfit was always purchased at Mrs. Summers’, a small clothing store run by an elderly Jewish lady. Hers was another store I often got smacked in. I hated hats and every Easter my mother would insist I wear one, the most ridiculous assortment of bows and fake flowers. I looked goofy enough without that straw upon my head. On Easter Sunday, with my young aunt, we’d be on our way to Mass at St. Stephens Church, but when far enough from the house, I would pull the hat off and replace it with a tiny lace chapel cap.


  1. JoAnn Maisto Marinelli

    So true I remember those memories but my memory was the last stop slice of pizza and coke . Of course logging all the bags of grocery fruits vegetables cold cuts and material from Il Mamaun (who was the Jewish merchant selling all sewing needs for the immigrant woman) Good wholesome times of life.

  2. I used to live on 64 Woodhull after they started digging the ditch. Remember the storm of ’47? It was something.

  3. Enjoyed your writing.. brought back many memories of visits to cousins living there. My mom born and raised on Carroll st. and Columbia street. And yes, used the photographer you mentioned as I think the family was friends with them and they lived above the studio. I forwarded to my cousin who lived on Carroll street..her family beer and soda distributor in the neighborhood. Attended many weddings at St.Stephen, including my brother..Aunt and uncle lived directly across the street and uncle Jack was an usher on Sundays.

  4. This was so beautiful! Thank you! My grandmother lived on Woodhull Street, but first she lived at 299 Columbia Street.
    There was Packers Supermarket on Columbia Street, too!
    Next to 299 Columbia Street, was Sam & Roslyn Rozalski, who owned the dry goods store. Lovely people.
    Again, thank you for these beautiful memories!

  5. Renee Shahwan Marchese

    Chicken market still there!

  6. Anthony saraceno


  7. Anthony Saraceno

    What great memories I remember it well. The world was a better place back than and family was the most important part of our lives. With less we were so much richer something this generation will never know.

  8. My mother and her brothers all worked in the Happy Hour .i went to Sacred Hearts grammar school and St Stephens HS I still live on Union st. But its not the same neighborhood we grew up in.

    • Bobby, never knew your Mom Lucy worked at the Happy Hour years ago. The things we learn about people we know and respected all our lives shows social media sometimes is a good thing…….God Bless…….Turks younger brother Phil.

  9. Joseph A. ortato

    I remember those wonderful Year’s and St Charles Chapel on President St. Benavennto Florist

  10. Christine Mannino Tutone

    Is this the same Tina that lived on Degraw St?

  11. Ruth De Jesus


  12. Tina, I have the same memories, We also share uncle Lefty, He was your grandmothers brother and aunt Anna was my mother’s sister..Aunt Dada pierced my ears twice, the last time was 1959 when I was 7, I laid across her lap she got a needle and thread, iced my lobe and sewed the thread through it, Funny how I remember that..Toni and I went over aunt Dada’s all the time…. I was flower girl in 1955 for Carmela and Zick (Frankie)….I remember the cobblestone on Columbia St…and so many other things…Thanks for sharing your wonderful memories”’

  13. I remember the chicken market . My mom would go there to get fresh meat and yes I also thought it was a pet store. Lol.

  14. Joseph A. ortato

    Great memories.

  15. I loved the story.

  16. I wish you had written more!

  17. Elizabeth delfino

    Loved reading your story. Although I was born in 1959 I remember the candy store Ralph’s you mentioned in yr article. My mother would take me there often. I believe we might be related believe it or not. Please email me if can garganoliz@yahoo .com. Thank you.

  18. Rose Marie Johnston

    Hi my name is Rose Marie Nastro Johnston. You brought back a lot of memories. I live on President Street. On the same block was the Chapel were we went for Sunday mass Well it now gone It’s a little park. There is so much to tell. I’m sitting at work. thinking of the great old times. Too much to write ….let’s talk……

  19. Robert Alvarez

    Good old times miss does days

  20. Wow my mother and grandmother talked about those same memeories. My grandparents owed a bakery on Columbia street! Still love hearing about it. Thanks for
    Reminding me how wonderful it was.

  21. Josefina Antequera Irizarry

    Wow…Awesome memories…My grandmother lived on Columbia St, near Warren and as a 5yr old ..I remember walking along Columbia St..pass the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel to the Red Hook Projects..
    On our way home..My Mom would pickup her fresh chicken, fruits & vegetables from Union St..Also I remember eating the Great Pizza on Union St..where the Trolly Bus would go by…I also had my Baptismal, Communion & My Wedding pictures at Palmisano Studios…Those were Beautiful Memorable Days……..

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