On a Clear Day You Can See Flatbush

Memories Light the Corners of Streisand’s Old Neighborhood

Photos by Eileen Reynolds

By Eileen Reynolds

Published October 04, 2012, issue of October 12, 2012.
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Barbra Streisand has a doll shop in her basement. Part of an old-timey underground “street” — complete with clapboard storefronts and faux-stone walls — built beneath the dream home featured in her 2010 coffee table book, “My Passion for Design,” the showroom for antique playthings fills a void from Streisand’s childhood: “I never played with dolls as a child because I didn’t have any,” she wrote. “I used to fill a hot water bottle with warm water and pretend it was a baby.”

The water-bottle doll story is just one of a handful of chestnuts Streisand has tossed out over the years to describe her hardscrabble upbringing in the Bedford-Stuyvesant and Flatbush neighborhoods of Brooklyn: “Couches to me were, like, what rich people had,” she told Life magazine in one oft-quoted 1964 interview. In 1966, in Look magazine, she recalled: “I always wanted to be out of what I was in. Out of Brooklyn. I had to get out.”

Was the diva’s upbringing really as grim as she makes it sound? We’ll probably never know. But Streisand did “get out,” of course. In October, after a half-century spent performing anywhere but her native borough, Streisand returns to Brooklyn to perform at the Barclays Center, just blocks from where she was raised. Here, in honor of Streisand’s homecoming, is a tour of her old haunts — from the yeshiva where she sang her first concert to the Chinese restaurant where she first tasted moo shu pork.

There’s beauty in these streets, too, Barbra.

1. Jewish Hospital of Brooklyn 555 Prospect Place

Babs was born here! In their daughter’s birth announcement, on April 24, 1942, Emanuel and Diana Streisand took “much pleasure in announcing the rather expected and hoped-for arrival of Barbara Joan (a cute little trick even if they must say so, weighing 7 lbs. and 5 oz.),” so said the birth announcement her parents wrote. Note the second “a” in the first name: Streisand made the switch to “Barbra” when she was a teenager and had started to perform in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. As a newborn, she stayed in the hospital 10 days. It has since closed, and the building has been converted to apartments.

2. Streisand’s First Home 457 Schenectady Ave.

This nondescript brick building is where Streisand lived as a baby with her parents and her older brother, Sheldon. Her father, an English teacher at the Brooklyn High School for Specialty Trades (now defunct), had moved the family here from a one-bedroom apartment 10 blocks west (at 163 Ocean Avenue), in anticipation of her grand entrance. Eager for extra income to support his growing family, he also taught at a yeshiva at 656 Willoughby Avenue in the afternoons. The family’s happiness didn’t last long, though. In June 1943, Emanuel Streisand took the family upstate to Camp Cascade in Highmount, N.Y., where he had a summer job as head counselor. On August 4, he died in the hospital there after a doctor injected morphine into his neck to treat an epileptic seizure.

3. Philip Arms 365 Pulaski St., 3rd floor

After her husband’s death, Streisand’s mother took her children back to Bedford-Stuyvesant, the neighborhood where she was raised, and moved into her parents’ one-bedroom apartment. This was the place that Streisand later complained lacked couches: She shared a bed with her mother in the living room, while her brother slept on a cot in the dining room. It was also here that she met Tobey Wander Borokow, a kindly Austrian-born neighbor who knitted her clothes for her water-bottle baby doll. Streisand, who has always said that she didn’t receive a lot of love from her mother, spent her days downstairs in Borokow’s apartment, glued to the 7-inch television.


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