Bensonhurst is one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods, located in southwestern Brooklyn. Bensonhurst has the city’s second-highest number of foreign-born residents with over 77,000, second to Washington Heights. The neighborhood was named for Egbert Benson, a politician and prominent Brooklyn landowner.
The neighborhood began as Bensonhurst-by-the-Sea, or what is today Bath Beach, and it soon after developed into an Italian and Jewish enclave. The neighborhood has maintained much of its history and today is often referred to as Brooklyn’s largest Chinatown and Little Italy. The neighborhood has hosted some famous residents, and it also has some surprising hidden gems. Here are the top 10 secrets of Bensonhurst.
1. There is a pop culture-inspired Bensonhurst Statue House
Located halfway down 85th Street between 20th and 21st Avenues is the Bensonhurst Statue House, a surprising home with nearly 40 life-size sculptures of pop culture figures, including Superman flying out from a second-story balcony, the Statue of Liberty, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis flirting, James Dean staring at Humphrey Bogart, and Dracula peeking out from above the garage. There is an old phone booth, street signs for the Brooklyn Bridge, an archaic lamppost reading “Memory Lane,” and plenty of mid-1900s artifacts.
The statue home was created by Steve Campanella, a retired Marine who drew from his childhood and his strong Brooklyn pride. The driveway and garage were designed to mimic the approach to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, with two “lanes” for cash or EZ-Pass. Signs touch on Brooklyn’s history, including Ebbets Field, and the garage features thousands of collector items.
2. Bensonhurst has the largest population of residents born in China and Hong Kong of any New York neighborhood
Many New Yorkers have heard of or traveled to Sunset Park in Brooklyn, perhaps the best-known Chinatown in New York City after Manhattan’s Chinatown and debatably Flushing. Bensonhurst, which is actually the largest Chinatown in New York City with the highest population of residents from China and Hong Kong of any New York neighborhood, often flies under the radar. Chinese immigrants began moving to Bensonhurst in the 1980s and 1990s. Many Chinese restaurants, supermarkets, and clothing stores line 86th Street, with most Chinese residents living between 18th Avenue and 25th Avenue. Bensonhurst has grown quite rapidly over the last decade; from 2000 to 2010, the Asian population increased by 57 percent. Bensonhurst has also outpaced the growth and size of Avenue U Chinatown nearby.
The neighborhood is filled with dozens of eateries representing cuisines from across China. Residents of Bensonhurst often frequent spots like Hand Pull Noodle and Dumpling House, Mama’s Noodle House, Duck Wong, and Mr. Bun. Golden Bay Restaurant is a notable spot for special occasions and holidays, while Ten Seconds Yunnan Rice Noodle is one of the newer eateries. Along 86th Street are a handful of small Cantonese barbecue joints and bakeries, such as King’s Kitchen and Farmers Restaurant. Supermarkets along 86th often get extremely crowded, such as 18th Ave Supermarket and Mong Kok Supermarket.
3. Bensonhurst is also called Brooklyn’s Little Italy
Though a few neighborhoods in Brooklyn call themselves Brooklyn’s Little Italy, including Bay Ridge, Bensonhurst may have the strongest justification. Though Bensonhurst’s Italian community is shrinking, the neighborhood is still home to one of the largest Italian-speaking communities outside of Italy. Bensonhurst has for about a century had a large Italian population, as well as a sizable Jewish community, and while most of the Jewish eateries and shops have since closed, many Italian ones have survived. Centered around Cristoforo Colombo Boulevard (18th Avenue) is the heart of the Italian community, including lots of small family-owned shops and restaurants, many of which have been open for decades. In particular, the area hosts quite large populations of Sicilians and Neapolitans, many of whom plan the annual Festa di Santa Rosalia.
Some of the top Bensonhurst Italian restaurants include Villa Fiorita, Panino Rustico, and La Palina. Stores like Lioni Italian Heroes, Giulia’s Cucina and Desserts, S.A.S. Italian Records, and Pastosa Ravioli serve some of the most traditional and freshest Italian staples in Brooklyn. There are also a few remaining social clubs, including the Sciacca Social Club and Società Figli di Ragusa, which attract many of the neighborhood’s longtime Italian residents.
4. Lenny’s Pizza was featured in the 1977 film “Saturday Night Fever”
Lenny’s Pizza is a Bensonhurst staple on 86th Street, serving New York-style pizza since 1953. The pizza joint gained fame for appearing in the 1977 film Saturday Night Fever starring John Travolta. In the film, Travolta plays Tony Manero and orders two slices of pizza on top of each other at Lenny’s, eating the double-decker slice as he walks throughout Brooklyn. People still order the double-decker slice at Lenny’s, which has now become somewhat of a tourist attraction.
Lenny’s continues to pay homage to Travolta, from naming a slice after him to hosting a special ceremony in 2018 to honor his legacy in Brooklyn. Travolta portrayed Brooklyn High School student Vinny Barbarino in Welcome Back Kotter and portrays John Gotti in the film Gotti, scenes of which were filmed in Brooklyn.
5. Anthony Fauci grew up in Bensonhurst
Dr. Anthony Fauci, Chief Medical Advisor to the President who played a major role in the U.S.’s response to combatting the COVID-19 pandemic, was born in Bensonhurst. Fauci’s grandparents were mostly Italian immigrants who arrived through Ellis Island and settled on the Lower East Side and Little Italy. Both sides of the family later moved to Bensonhurst, and Fauci’s parents both attended New Utrecht High School. His mother Eugenia graduated from Hunter College, while his father Stephen graduated from Columbia University‘s College of Pharmacy. Stephen and some other members of the family opened Fauci Pharmacy, which was originally located in Bensonhurst.
Fauci lived in the Bensonhurst home until he was in elementary school, after which he moved to Dyker Heights. The family pharmacy moved as well, taking over a pharmacy that was previously called Coppola’s Pharmacy. The family lived upstairs in the second-floor apartment, and everyone in the family worked there; Fauci’s mother and sister ran the front, while Anthony delivered prescriptions via bike.
6. New Utrecht Reformed Church is one of the oldest in the country and houses perhaps the only remaining liberty pole in the U.S.
New Utrecht Reformed Church, located in Bensonhurst on 18th Avenue and 83rd Street, is the fourth oldest Reformed Church in America congregation. Dutch residents in the town of New Utrecht established the church in 1677, and the present church was built in 1828 using some of the original stones from the 1700 building. The church’s construction was overseen by Rene Edward De Russy, who also led construction efforts on Fort Hamilton. The church and its cemetery are both listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Gothic Revival church’s cemetery was consecrated in 1654 and was the burial grounds for over 1,300 people. During the American Revolution, the original octagonal church functioned as a hospital and riding school. Passersby may also notice a street named Liberty Pole Boulevard, which pays homage to the liberty pole that was constructed in 1783 to commemorate the American victory over the British. The present pole, the sixth one on church grounds, was actually exhibited during the 1939-1940 World’s Fair. According to the church’s website, it is the only liberty pole remaining in the original thirteen United States.
7. Magen David Synagogue is one of the oldest remnants of Jewish history in Bensonhurst
Magen David Synagogue, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is just over a century old, erected in 1920-1921. The synagogue was established as a Sephardic Syrian-Jewish congregation, reaching peak numbers during the 1940s and ’50s. The Romanesque Revival building, designed by Maurice Courland, includes many brick designs with round arched windows. The synagogue is still active today, though many Syrian Jews moved to neighboring Midwood and Gravesend.
Many Syrian Jews moved to New York from Damascus and Aleppo around 1907-1908 due to the shifting political landscape in Syria and threats of conscription. Many at first moved to the Lower East Side, working as peddlers and for the lucky few, shopkeepers. By 1918, the Syrian-Jewish population in New York reached about 5,000, and some who were more financially stable moved to Williamsburg. Another influx of Syrian Jews arrived in 1919, many moving to Bensonhurst thanks to the completion of the Sea Beach line of the BMT subway, which led many in the community to advocate for a congregation.
8. Milestone Park includes a replica of the oldest milestone in New York City
Milestone Park, a popular park and meeting place for the community, is named for having a replica of the oldest milestone in New York City. The original sandstone milestone is currently in possession of the Brooklyn Historical Society, though the current granite stone was installed in 1917. The original milestone was placed in 1741 across from Van Pelt Manor, which was built around 1672 and housed eight generations of the family.
The home was used as a military prison during the Revolutionary War by both George Washington and William Howe. It reads on one side, “8-1/4 Miles to New York and 2-1/2 Miles to Denyse’s Ferry,” while the other says, “10-1/2 Miles to New York Ferry 15 Miles to Jamaica.” A descendant of the original owners, Townsend Cortelyou Van Pelt, deeded the manor for one dollar, provided the site would maintain the historical milestone. Additional land was purchased by the Parks Department in 1924.
9. The murder of Yusuf Hawkins occurred in Bensonhurst
Yusuf Hawkins was a 16-year-old Black teenager from East New York who, with his brother and two friends, went to Bensonhurst one night in 1989 to inquire about a used car for sale. A crowd of between 10 and 30 white youths was waiting to attack a separate group of Black youths who were to attend a party hosted by a girl who may have had a previous relationship with a member of the group. Hawkins walked onto the block of the white youths, who proceeded to attack him and eventually fatally shoot him. Police stated that Hawkins was not in any way associated with the girl. The murder led to great racial tension in New York City, leading to a march in Bensonhurst led by Al Sharpton.
Joseph Fama, one of the two boys who led the mob, was convicted of second-degree murder, while the other named Keith Mondello was acquitted of murder charges; this led to more protests in Bensonhurst. Fama received 32 1/3 years in prison, while Mondello received between 5 1/3 to 16 years for a number of lesser charges. The light sentences and acquittals of others in the group led to even more protests and rallies in Bensonhurst. One march in 1991 resulted in the stabbing of Al Sharpton in a Bensonhurst schoolyard, though he later recovered. In 2005, it was ultimately revealed that the killers were present at the request of Joseph D’Angelo, a former member of the Gambino crime family.
10. Famous residents have included Larry King, Carl Sagan, Sandy Koufax, and others
Bensonhurst was the home of many famous residents and has appeared quite frequently in television and film. Larry King, the talk show legend who passed away last year, lived at 2136 83rd Street, where he was raised by a single mother on welfare. His mother Jennie worked as a seamstress and attended nearby Lafayette High School. Cosmologist Carl Sagan lived on Bay 37th Street and Bay Parkway, taking inspiration from his readings at the New Utrecht branch of the New York Public Library. The New York Times included an excerpt by biographer Keay Davidson about Sagan’s time in Brooklyn. Other famous residents included Sandy Koufax, the Howard brothers of the Three Stooges, and Abe Burrows, who wrote Guys and Dolls and Can-Can.
Bensonhurst has also featured frequently in pop culture. Bensonhurst perhaps first appeared in a major television show in The Honeymooners, and shortly thereafter, the neighborhood was a filming location for shows like Brooklyn Bridge and the movies The Warriors and The French Connection. A 1992 Saturday Night Live sketch called “Bensonhurst Dating Game” depicted Italian-American men who wanted to commit racial violence because of their views on interracial romance. Batman villain Harley Quinn is also from Bensonhurst, going home to see his family there in a comic from Gotham City Sirens.
Next, check out the Definitive Food Guide to New York’s Many Chinatowns!