A Filipino restaurant in Brooklyn in 1938

September 29, 2010

Manila Restaurant on 47 Sands St, Brooklyn, NY, 1938

A Restaurant Legacy Uncovered


The other day, Liena Zagare of the Ditmas Park Blog sent me a link to a NYC photo archive showing a 1938 photo of Filipinos enjoying themselves at Manila Restaurant located on 47 Sands St., Brooklyn, NY.  I was flabbergasted to find such a document showing not only a thriving Filipino community in Brooklyn but that they had a restaurant which had music and dancing, too!  After some initial googling, I located Sands St. as somewhere near the Brooklyn Navy Yard which made a lot of sense as Filipinos often joined the Navy and worked as stewards and cooks and later worked for the Merchant Marines.

I posted this on FB and called for research assistance and our two friends, Alan Benenfeld and Dan Sarmiento came up with some quick research showing that the photograph was a product of the WPA (Work Progress Administration) which was set up by the FDR administration to provide employment to people including writers and photographers who set about documenting cities and towns of the US.

I could not escape the irony that we are now experiencing another depression and how much we need our own WPA assistance.  And what better way to spend govt resources on human needs like jobs and documenting lives of people in this country!

This is an excerpt of what Alan was able to dig up from the WPA Guide to NYC (complete with misspelling of Filipino food):

Brooklyn Navy Yard

From the (1939) WPA Guide to New York City:

The Navy Yard District, spreading south and west of the yard from the East River, is a shapeless grotesque neighborhood, its grimy cobblestone thoroughfares filled with flophouses, crumbling tenements and greasy restaurants. It is bounded on the west by the Manhattan Bridge; while beyond the dull waters of the East River looms the New York sky line, like the backdrop of a stage set. In the nineteenth century the region was a residential district known as Irish Town, because of the predominantly Irish population. After the turn of the century, business and industry took over parts of the neighborhood and the pleasant homes fell into neglect. The population now is largely composed of laborers from local factories and the Navy Yard.

Sands Street is the principal thoroughfare, extending westward from the Navy Yard to the head of Brooklyn Bridge. Once this street, with its saloons and gambling dens, came close to establishing itself as New York’s “Barbary Coast,” and during the Prohibition era parts of it were patrolled to keep Navy men away. Today Sands Street still caters to sailors and Navy Yard workers. Shop windows display outfits for sailors; bars and lunchrooms, quiet during the day, become alive at night as their customers arrive. The area north of Sands Street toward the river is crowded with industrial plants, warehouses, and factories which charge the air with their mixed aroma of chocolate, spices, and roasting coffee. Scattered among them are ramshackle frame houses–notorious firetraps of squalid appearance. South of the Navy Yard is a residential district of only slightly better character.

Around Sands and Washington Streets is a colony of Filipinos; native food, extremely rare in the eastern part of the United States, is served in a Filipino restaurant at 47 Sands Street. Among the favorite dishes are adabong gaboy (pork fried in soy sauce and garlic); sinigang isda and sinigang visaya (fish soups); mixta (beans and rice), and such tropical fruits as mangoes and pomelos, the latter a kind of orange as large as a grapefruit.

Note: I googled “mixta” and came up with Paella mixta which means a mixed paella, a free style combination of rice, meat, seafood, vegetables and sometimes beans.

Below are some remarks that Alan sent me.  I had originally thought that this was a photo of writers as the tag on the photo said WPA  Writers, but he corrects me on that.

The WPA is the Works Progress Administration, a massive federal program at the time of the Great Depression, that put people back to work through extensive infrastructure-construction projects such as buildings, roads, bridges, and tunnels. WPA projects also funded work for historians, artists, and photographers to document the social conditions of that era all across America. Many iconic photographs came from such projects. The WPA Writers Project, among other activities, created a massive set of travelogues/histories for each state.

In the photograph and associated information that came to Amy’s attention, the WPA Writers Project refers not to the people in the photo but to the federal program that funded the photographer. While it is possible that a writer or two might be among those photographed, it is unlikely.

The restaurant location given in the photo caption as Sand Street may be a typographic error and instead should be Sands Street, near the
(then) Brooklyn Navy Yard, an area at that time home to a Filipino community in Brooklyn. See the Navy Yard District paragraph in the link below, which even names (perhaps not always correctly) some of the dishes served at the Manila Restaurant.

The Navy Yard link said that the Filipino community was centered around Sands and Washington Streets, which is at the Cadman Plaza end of Sands Street, away from the presumably steamier Navy Yard end.

Who knew Filipino cooking in Brooklyn had such a long heritage!! A
Filipino grandma’s kitchen, back in the day, even in Brooklyn!!


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