NORSE CODE in Bay Ridge

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Scandinavians have largely disappeared from Bay Ridge and Sunset Park, just as other neighborhoods have radically changed over the years. Immigrants from northern Europe first began arriving in Brooklyn in great numbers in the 1890s, and work was readily available in the great port city New York was at the time. The Brooklyn Navy Yard, also a major employer, reached its peak when the Second World War made a lot of construction jobs available.

 

At the peak of Scandinavian influence in Brooklyn there were as many as a hundred thousand people who traced ancestry to Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland living in Bay Ridge and Sunset Park, including 60,000 Norwegians. Most have now moved on.

My family and I went to a restaurant called the Scandia; bought bread at Lund’s Bakery; our super was Norwegian (he was followed by a Jamaican); Nordisk Tidende (Norway Times) was on every newsstand; and I was regularly bullied by guys named Bergstol and Hedberg.

ABOVE: Norwegian Day Parade on 8th Avenue, Sunset Park, May 1961

 

The Norwegian Day Parade commemorates Norway’s adoption of its constitution on May 17, 1814 (it dissolved its union with Sweden in 1905). As you can see from these archival pics the parade used to be a much bigger deal than it is now; throngs lined 8th Avenue and Fort Hamilton Parkway and New York State governors (Nelson Rockefeller, left, expostulated from McKinley Park in the 1960s) and other politicians attended; even whoever was king of Norway would turn up in some years.

8th Avenue was formerly the Main Street of “Little Norway” and was colloquially called Lapskaus Boulevard after a traditional stew. Norwegian bakeries and specialty stores lined 8th Avenue from 45th to 60th Streets. (The last, Signy’s Imports, closed in 2004; Chinese and Asian immigrants replaced the Norwegians beginning in the late 1970s and have made the 8th Avenue area a new Chinatown.)

These days the Norwegians still parade in Bay Ridge, but it’s a much smaller-scale affair on 5th Avenue. I lived in Bay Ridge between 1957 and 1993 and, other than a couple of times with my father when I was a kid, I never paid much attention to the parade. Now, of course, all these years later I’m playing catchup.

There was absolutely NO coverage of the parade in newspapers or online (and I alerted a couple of online sites about it) before or after the parade; it seems now to be a forgotten parade. The same day there was a Puerto Rican parade of some sort in Manhattan (do they parade several times a year or what?) that warranted a few pictures. Not this one though.

In the USA, at least, it’s been neighboring Sweden that has enjoyed more pop culture success from Jenny Lind to Ann-Margret to ABBA (Norway’s response is a-ha) but Norway can claim it is the home of more sophisticated work from its best-known brilliant lights in America: essayist/playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906) (Emperor and Galilean, Hedda Gabler, The Master Builder, A Doll’s House) and composer Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) (Peer Gynt Suites including Hall of the Mountain King). I counted at least two “Ibsens” in the parade (the one on the left gave a rousing speech in character at Lief Erickson Square, 6th Avenue and 67th Street, after the parade (left). (When I first heard of Ibsen as a teenager, my first reaction was: “Henry Gibsonfrom Laugh-In? He wrote plays?)

 

The All-City High School Marching Band played Jungle Boogie. In the Norwegian Day Parade? Why not? The band is composed of many talented student musicians from many high schools around town.

 

Blue Man Group. OLPH Ridgemen Alumni Drum & Bugle Corps.

 

FDNY participated as always. During his speech, “Henrik Ibsen” claimed that the Vikings never wore horns on their helmets.

 

A remaining bastion of Scandinavian influence in Bay Ridge, the Norwegian Christian Home recently celebrated its centennial. Norwegian Lutheran Deaconess Home and Hospital, now Lutheran Medical Center on 1st Avenue and 55th Street, founded by Elizabeth Fedde in 1883, is another. Many Scandinavians are Lutheran.

 

Sons of Norway

The fraternal organization Sonner av Norge was founded in January 1895 by 16 Norwegian immigrants in Minneapolis, MN, as a means of protecting families of members from financial hardships and other difficulties in their adopted country, the USA. The purview of the organization was later expanded to promoting Norwegian cultures and customs; it has grown to become the largest Norwegian organization in the world outside Norway itself. There are 70,000 members worldwide including 60,000 in the USA, distributed in 400 “lodges,” many of which were represented in the parade…

 

Most of the banners featured some representation of a longboat.

Don’t ask me how, but I recall Sunset Park’s Fredheim (or Friedheim?) Restaurant, located on the second floor of an apartment building on 5th Avenue and 48th Street. I think it closed sometime in the 1980s.

 

Sporting Club GJOA, based on 62nd Street near 8th, is one of the (mainly Scandinavian members) soccer clubs still in existence in Sunset Park/Bay Ridge.

 

The Soccer Tavern, 6004 8th Avenue, is another soccer-themed venue in the area. The soccer theme is not coincidental; for decades, a dusty field, part of Lief Erickson Square fronting on 8th between 65th and 66th Streets, has been home to soccer matches. My father was an avid fan and spent many a weekend afternoon taking in games there. photo: shield 

 

The Danish Athletic Club, located on 65th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues on a block otherwise occupied by auto collision repair joints, is nevertheless convenient to the Lief Erickson soccer fields and served as the parade’s HQ, with refreshments available after the marching. The Club, by the way is open to the public and now one of the few places you can find home-cooked Scandinavian fare in now-heavily Chinese and Asian Sunset Park. It is also home to several soccer clubs as well as the Telemark Ski Club.

Around the corner, in the 1970s to early 90s at 7th Avenue and 64th Street, was the Crazy County Club (“warm beer lousy food” now on Bay ) on the old space occupied by the Bay Ridge Roller Rink; and a large 7-Up bottling plant on 6th Avenue and 64th.

 

When the Gowanus Expressway arrived in 1964 the DOT created a connector road along the expressway between 6th and 7th Avenues, naming it Eirik Place, likely for Leiv Eriksson, the 1st Millennium-era Norse explorer commemorated by Leif Erickson square. The road doesn’t turn up on most Brooklyn maps.

 

The Gerritsen Beach Marching Band was formed in 2006.

 

The Lutheran Elementary School, located on Ovington Avenue between 4th and 5th, was formed in 1957 when Scandinavians were much more of a local force.

 

BRAVO Volunteer Ambulance Service, 7th Avenue and 85th Street, was formed in 1974 by Hank Vogt; its name was inspired by the John Wayne/Dean Martin/Angie Dickinson Western, Rio Bravo. An acronym, Bay Ridge Ambulance Volunteer Organization, was formed.

I was beginning to despair of seeing any leggy majorettes in the Norwegian Day Parade, but then the Fort Hamilton High School Band rescued me. The school is located on a prominent hill overlooking the Narrows at Shore Road and 82nd Street, in a space formerly occupied by the Crescent Athletic Club.

 

The Irish were not to be ignored.

 

Neither were the Scots.

 

St. Olaf College, all the way from Northfield, MN.

 

From the 59th Street Lutheran Church

 

The Norwegian Folk Dance Society, and I bet you didn’t know there was one.

 

More Sons of Norway lodges. By the way, the long flowered jumper the women wear and the knickered men’s suit are traditional Norwegian outfits called, collectively, the bunad.

More on the bunad

 

There were about a half dozen longboat floats in the parade including the most impressive one by the Scandinavian East Coast Museum.

The Vikings ruled the seas of northern Europe between 800 and 1050. They came principally from what is now Denmark but also from Sweden and Norway; the Scandinavian aspects of the Faeroe Islands and Iceland and Denmark’s possession of Greenland are legacies of their influence.

The dragon heads on the longboats may be representations of the great sea serpent Jörmungandr.

 

For a time the Vikings held much of England, Ireland, France, the Low Countries, the Baltic area and other regions, but found Newfoundland and Canada unconquerable and so quickly gave up on settling there. It was likely that a population spurt and a diminution of native resources in the centuries before and after the First Millennium prompted the Norsemen of that era to take to their warships to conquer other lands.

After about 1050 Scandinavians were converted to Christianity, dropping wise Odin and the mighty Thor and abandoning bellicosity, except for the guys that bullied me in grade school.

 

After the parade

…I decided to shoot remnants of Bay Ridge’s Norwegian and otherwise Scandinavian community, after the inevitable rain shower, as well as other old or classic signage in the region. Leske’s is one of the few remaining Danish bakeries, and Scandinavian delicacies are available in Mejlander & Mulgannon. There are also a couple of delicacy shops on 3rd Avenue; most of them were in a 20-block stretch on 8th Avenue.

 

Old-fashioned ice-cream shoppes, such as Hinsch (5th Avenue and 86th Street) Jahn’s (Richmond Hill and Jackson Heights) and Eddie’s in Middle Village hang in there for decades. Hinch’s chief competition, Pohl’s, closed decades ago.

 

Kleinfeld, NYC’s premier bridal boutique, put Bay Ridge on the map with the Sex and the City crowd for decades. However, it decamped to Ladies’ Mile, West 20th Street between 6th and 7th, a couple of years ago. Its old space on 5th and 82nd, complete with signage, still remained, somewhat forlornly, in 2006.

 

Joe’s Appliances has something of a history. It began as JGE (Jamaica Gas & Electric) Appliances, a 40-branch outfit owned by the rather rotund Jerry Rosenberg, who would offer “That’s the story!” to the offscreen question, “What’s the story, Jerry?” JGE offered discounts to union members only, which I found somewhat discriminatory. It only lasted a year or so in 1973-74 but not before Rosenberg launched a JGE Jewelry store, whose TV commercials featured a production number starring Rosenberg feebly warbling “J-G-E jewl-er-ry” while dancing girls pranced. Ah the 1970s. JGE folded and this branch became Joe’s.

 

How does the name “Alpine” turn up so often in Bay Ridge? Was it a telephone exchange? The Alpine Theatre, now a multiplex on 5th Avenue and 69th Street (Bay Ridge Avenue) is now the only game in town for area moviegoers as one by one, its competitors, the Dyker, the Harbor, the Fortway, have died off one by one. The Alpine was originally a Loew’s and opened in 1921. Mutant Comics, next door, was Nielsen’s Furniture for several decades.

 

Alpine Real Estate, 5th Avenue and 84th Street, still has the same handcrafted wood sign it has sported for the better part of 50 years.

 

A pair of Scandinavian businesses, a deli and a bakery.

 

While Scandinavians dominated Bay Ridge for decades, these days Arabic and Chinese are the foreign languages you are most likely to hear on the street and see in signage Sometimes, on the same sign! Bay Ridge has had a lively Syrian community, even while the Norwegians held sway, and these days a stretch of 5th Avenue between Bay Ridge Avenue and Bay Ridge Parkway (69th and 75th Streets to the locals) is heavily Middle Eastern. Chinese eastern Sunset Park is also beginning to expand, while western Sunset Park remains largely Latino.

 

Who is this guy? This time I’m really asking. When the Gowanus Expressway was built the new 7th Avenue expressway overpass formed a triangle at 66th Street, which was named Henry Peter Square. The Parks Department historical signs website doesn’t list it.

 

Across the street, another mystery: this old house, of indeterminate age, does not quite square up with Seventh Avenue and looks like it could have been built on and older road that originally passed through. Or was it moved there when the expressway was built?

A series of apartment buildings on 57th Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenues in Sunset Park featured chiseled names with Scandinavian themes above their doors. Skansen is a celebrated open air museum and zoo in Sweden, while Upsala is Sweden’s oldest university.

Perhaps the builder was Swedish?

This page was photographed May 2006 and completed June 4, 2006.





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13 Responses to NORSE CODE in Bay Ridge

  1. websteward says:

    Scandinavians don’t assault French tourists in great enough numbers to warrant media coverage.

    • Stan Ellertsen says:

      This was a BEAUTFUL story ! THANK YOU, FYI my mother was Signe from Signes Imports. Thanks for the mention.

  2. Victoria Hofmo says:

    Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for the info and including us (SECM). I need to take umbrage with the words of our almost disappearance. Scandinavians are alive and well. Many of us part of dual cultures. I would say that all old neighborhoods of European heritage have changed or are changing. It’s actually amazing that the Scandinavians have been able to maintain so much so so long. The numbers are not the only thing to analyze. The strong sense of community that Bay Ridge was a gift from this group. It is still evident in the institutions they established and have maintained for over 100 years: Lutheran Medical Center, Sporting Club Gjoa, the Norwegian Christian Home & Health Center, the Danish Club, churches, etc… Also, we intend to keep the connection. In Vanse, Norway there is an American Festival. The SECM has a Sister Communities Agreement with them, The parade this year was covered by all the local papers and has been on cable quite a few times. It is attracting visitors from Norway. Leske’s just re-opened. So, I think we have a lot more left in us to give. And nobody can deny that the way Bay Ridge looks thinks and moves through the world was shaped by the Scandinavians. As for the history, we have been immigrating to Brooklyn since it was New Amsterdam, more than 400 years ago. But that is a story for another day.
    Thanks for all you do, V

  3. Frank R says:

    I and my family had a presence in Bay Ridge from 1945 to 2001. My mother, father and I lived on 69th St. between 5th and 6th Avenue from 1945 to 1963. We moved to 73rd St. & 4th Ave. in 1963. My father passed away prematurely in 1964. I got married in 1970 but returned every month to drive my mother to my house for weekend stays. I called her daily and was kept apprised of Bay Ridge happenings. My mother had to move out of Bay Ridge in 2001 because of health reasons.

    I skatted at the Bay Ridge Roller Skating Rink that you mentioned.

    I think that the “Crazy Country Club/Warm Beer and Lousy Food” spot that you mention was originally the “801 Club” and later became the setting for the “2001 Odyssey” discoteque featured in the film “Saturday Night Fever”.

    Went to Hinsch’s almost every Friday night. Sorry to hear that it closed for good.

    Some of the other movie theatres, besides The Loew’s Alpine, Harbor, Dyker and Fortway were the Loew’s Bay Ridge, the Stanley and the earlier Olympia

  4. What does lund mean in scandanavian? In hindi it’s a word that is best left to anatomy class…

  5. Pingback: "We Dreamed of America": American Dream and Vanse | Connective Visions

  6. Erik says:

    Just for your reader´s information Scandinavian / Nordic nations include Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, These Scandinavian countries share a cultural and linguistic heritage. Finland for example is not a Scandinavian nation but is a Nordic country as are Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and perhaps Estonia. Southwest Brooklyn `/ Sunset Park was home to about 10,000 Finnish Americans around 40th and 43rd Streets and Imatra Hall was their social meeting place. Brooklyn hooooooo

    • bill ware says:

      My grandfather helped build Imatra Hall and I am surprised that it is still there. in addition I was born in Bay Ridge and my family lived in a cooperative apartment that the Finns built across the street from Sunset Park. My aunt had an orchestra also that played in Imatra Hall. My mother came from Viipuri Finland when she was 5 which was ceded to the Russians after the winter war and supposedly one of my ancestors gave an island home to what is now the summer home of the Finnish president. My Grandmother and grandfather on my father’s side came from Rauma Finland. Lastly I had another relative that worked for the Finnish newspaper, the New Yorkin Utiset

  7. jim rumsey says:

    I played soccer for Sporting Club Gjoa in the 1965/66 season and was presented with a trophy (which I still have) as Leading Goalscorer in the New York National League. As an Engllishman I have many fond memories of the club during the winter Sundays. I was living in Valley Stream on Long Island for the year, so my visits to the club were usually just on the match days. I remember that herring featured a lot in the refreshments. My wife and I have been back to New York many times since (in fact, we will be there next week) but – as yet – we have never returned to the club. Archie Gabrielson was the man who introduced us and we used to travel in with John and Sylvia Bolands. Great pictures to view in your interesting article.

  8. Gary Andersen says:

    While Scandanavians dominated Bayridge and Sunset Park, back
    In the 1950′s and 1960′s, there were other neighborhoods, with
    Scandinavians, namely Throggs Neck/Castle Hill sections, of The
    Bronx. My Grandfather, a Norwegian immigrant, built a house there,
    which still stands, and other Scandinavians, built wooden houses,
    that still stand today. Scandinavian Clubs, on Eastchester Bay, over-
    Looking City Island, such as The Danish Club and The Manheim Club.
    While we always had relatives in Bayridge to visit, the Northeast Bronx was
    home to many Swedes, Norwegians, Danes and Finns, as evidence of the
    First Lutheran Church of Throggs Neck, where my Sister and I were confirmed
    and other young Adults of Scandinavian Descent. And while Brooklyn can claim
    Scandinavians in Dutch governed New Amsterdam, The Bronx, is the only
    Borough named after a Scandinavian; Jonas Bronck !
    A Viking North of Bayridge, Gary Andersen …….

  9. sunset parker says:

    are you sure the Bay Ridge Rink was on the Country Club site? I have a postcard that shows the interior and is imprinted with 62nd & 7th – it was in operation from 1940 to at least 49…maybe there were two?

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