Sands Street, Brooklyn – Diorama of Late 1940s Street Scene

On page 46 of Brooklyn Rumble there is a picture of Sands Street in the late 1940s.  Readers will recognize that Sands Street was part of the turf of the Sand Street Angels, a youth gang from the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Vinegar Hill and present-day “DUMBO”  that began sometime in the late 1940s and lasted until at least 1959. (If you are interested in learning more about Brooklyn Rumble, click on this link to order your copy).

In the picture you can see a cobble-stoned street that stretches from the foreground into the background, with a set of trolley tracks embedded in the middle.  The picture is full of other compelling features.  For those who lived during the 1940s and 1950s, scenes like this were a part of a life growing up as children of parents who Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.” This street scene could quite possibly be replicated in a hundred other spots in Brooklyn, the Bronx or Manhattan and so the appeal is not just for those who lived on Sands Street, but also for those who lived in other areas of the city during this time.

My sister Sarah, who is a very talented artist, (and the one who designed the cover of Brooklyn Rumble) decided to scratch build this scene by hand when I showed her the picture, which she loved.  After many, many hours of work, she completed the street diorama using the picture from page 46 as a reference.  There are a few artistic changes she made (adding a horse for example), but the end result is stunning and a testament to her skills in building miniature dioramas.

Some other features found in the diorama and/or the original picture that should be pointed out are:

1.)  It might be difficult to see in the picture, but the sewer cover has an inscription on it that shows it is a NYC manhole cover.

2.)  The fire hydrant is painted a two-tone color the way I think it looked back in the 1940s and 1950s.

3.)  The red box is actually a New York Fire Department call box.

4.)  Although the top part of the street light is not visible in the picture, she was able to find out what they looked like from other reference photos.  The street signs on the pole are a replica of the original photo.

5.)  On the right of the photo in the book you can see part of an ice/coal cart.  This was put into the diorama as an anchor piece.  Also added is a rat staring at the horse, no doubt with beady and glittering Templeton-like eyes.  The horse took 4 hours of work to build using sculpey clay; Sarah received assistance from another master artist, Grayden Laing (thank-you Grayden!).  Note the blocks of ice and the way the cart lifts higher as the horse rears up.  The ice blocks are almost falling off the cart!  The cart is scratch-built with vinyl letters applied on the sides showing the business name.

I suggested installing a rat into the diorama which appealed to Sarah.  So she wove that theme with the horse being either frightened or annoyed by the rodent.  I asked an old Sand Street Angel (Anthony, who is quoted often in Brooklyn Rumble) and who I am still in touch with, if rats were a part of the neighborhood.  His reply was humorous and nostalgic at the same time:

About RATS a big yes.  We lived not far from the docks and they had water rats.  The rats used to chase the cats (we had a lot of cats in our neighborhood), plenty of food because  the docks and freight cars had all kind of goodies for them and the men would sweep the box cars out onto the streets.  I took a sick water rat to a pet show one time in a bird cage that we found down the docks.  Mr Carvello and Mr Kavanour from the Navy Yard Boy’s club went crazy.

The incredible thing about all this is that Sarah gave this diorama to me for my birthday!  This is extremely generous of her because I know she put countless hours into this creation.  Thank-you so much Sarah.

I won’t be able to take possession of the diorama until December though because Sarah was recently asked by the art gallery in our town to display all her miniature dioramas (she has many) for the month of November and December.  This is a great honor for her, but to be honest I’m not that surprised as she has more artistic talent in her pinky than I do in my entire body (I’m fond of saying that).  Her opening on November 9 was a huge success and the room she had her displays in was jam packed with well wishers and admirers.

I would like to end off with another recollection from Anthony – this time about stealing ice from Tom the Iceman:

Living the street in the 40s–early 50s was a lot like I imagined how the old westerners lived. When you woke up from a nights sleep on a hot July morning sleeping on the nice cold refreshing cold marble tile floor of Mrs O’Connell hallway, your first task was to hit the bathroom (City Park), walk the street looking for signs like a water puddle (urine) from Tom the ice man’s horse and wagon – that would let you know if he’s coming or going by what side of the street it was on. 

If it was early meant he was going to Rhodes bodega type store.  He did not have refrigeration back then.  So you had enough time while it was still light to beat him there and wait for him to start unloading the ice.  He left the doors on the store open when he went in and out you could sneak in behind Tom on your knees and take what ever you wanted without anybody seeing you.

All images and text on this page Copyright © 2018 David J. Van Pelt