If you lived in Brooklyn in the 70s, or visited, you’ll recall the famous sign that greeted motorists coming off the Verrazano Bridge onto the Belt Parkway welcoming you to "America’s 4th Largest City." Yes, Brooklyn was once a city, but what the sign, posted by then-Borough President Sebastian Leone, was really saying, in Brooklynese, is "If Brooklyn was a city, it’d be bigger than all them other cities, except four."
I grew up seeing that sign not only on the Belt but in the opening credits of the Gabriel Kaplan sitcom "Welcome Back, Kotter," which also included some shots from my own neighborhood of Bensonhurst that I could easily identify. The sign has since been replaced.
What prompts this post is the plan by nostalgia-lover Marty Markowitz, the current president of Brooklyn, to add the famous sign to his already impressive display of memorabilia at Borough Hall, an impressive building that once made a fine City Hall. Markowitz says there were three different versions of the sign that bore the names of Leone and his successor, Howard Golden, from the mid-to late 70s. The event on Thursday will also include a "message from one of the show’s creators," meaning "Welcome Back Kotter." Your blogger is seeking more details. I wonder if Kaplan, who fell off the planet after the show was canceled, was invited. It would be great to see him back in Brooklyn.
These days Markowitz has added his character to the greeting signs: The one on the Belt, channeling Jackie Gleason, says "How Sweet It Is." The exit signs say "Oy Vey!" and "Fuhgettaboutit." In my interview with him last June, he said those signs (which were resisted by the Bloomberg administration but erected around the time Markowitz endorsed the mayor’s re-election in 2005) "is all about branding Brooklyn … If you go around the world and you say Brooklyn, no one has to ask where that is."
I love Brooklyn, and even though I don’t live there anymore, I’m usually there twice a week. Driving from one end to the other can take an hour, and during that time you’ll pass through so many different bailiwicks, you get the impression that you’re in America’s fourth largest state.
I’ll look forward to seeing that iconic sign the next time I’m at Borough Hall. But I think the good president would be performing a much better service by putting it back on the Belt Parkway.
UPDATE: Here’s the scoop on the sign, courtesy of Markowitz press rep Mark Zustovitch: It seems that in 1977, when Leone was named a judge, the sign was taken down and used at a farewell party for the beep at Gargiuli’s restaurant in Coney Island. (While today it’s common to simply add new names of officials to road signs, in those days they were made of wood and frequently replaced.) It stayed at the restaurant, on display for a period of time, and eventually ended up in the basement. When Markowitz took office he relentlessly asked Gargiuli’s owner Nino Russo for the sign and eventually struck a deal: If Markowitz was re-elected to a third term in 2009, Russo would donate it for display in Borough Hall. No word on why it took a year to hand it over.
Zustovitch says there are three versions of the sign — one decorated with stars to celebrate the 1976 bicentennial — and that "Kotter" producer Alan Sacks, who created the show with Kaplan, actually had the opening sequence re-shot to include a new one in later seasons after Golden became president. It is Sacks who sent a video greeting for Thursday’s event. Zustovitch said Kaplan, a professional poker player and investment manager, has been invited to attend. "We haven’t heard back from him," said the spokesman.
Another interesting note: In discussing the various signs on the borough’s borders, I pointed out to Zustovitch that there is no sign welcoming motorists to Brooklyn as they enter from Queens on the westbound Belt Parkway. As good a place as any to reclaim the rightful mantle of the Fourth Largest City.