Nostalgic photos of New York City's café culture in the '70s

Nostalgic photos of New York City's café culture in the '70s

In a new book and exhibition, Marcia Bricker Halperin captures the glory days of Dubrow’s Cafeteria and the characters who defined it.

Hailing from Flatbush, Brooklyn, photographer Marcia Bricker Halperin grew up in the neighbourhood back when it was a predominantly Jewish-Italian-Irish enclave. Like Eugène Atget, who chronicled the changing landscape of early 20th century Paris, Halperin decided to photograph the world she knew best reflected in the storefront windows lining Kings Highway, a popular shopping thoroughfare.

While photographing “The Highway” in February 1975, the bitter winter temperatures became entirely too much. Seeking sanctuary, Bricker stepped through the revolving doors of Dubrow’s Cafeteria – and suddenly found herself in Wonderland.

Built during the heyday of Automats, Dubrow’s was a throwback to a golden age that was slowly fading away. The expansive restaurant glittered like crystal ball; the mirrors lining the walls added a touch of grandeur while the water fountain set against a mosaic tile wall was positively theatrical.

Needless to say, the elderly Jewish clientele held their own within this spectacular backdrop. Over the din of conversation and the clinking of silverware, Halperin saw a cast of characters ready for their close-up. Between the leopard print, blonde bouffants, three-piece suits, fedoras, and cigars, Halperin had struck gold.

Dubrow's Cafeteria, Brooklyn, 1975.

Over the next decade, Halperin became a regular at the 24-hour, family-run establishment, getting to know a motley assortment of former prize fighters, vaudeville performers, taxi drivers, bookies, and Holocaust survivors – all of whom were eager to share their stories and pose for a portrait over a plate of kasha varnishkes, noodle kugel, or blintzes.

“I remember feeling ‘special’ at Dubrow’s. Everyone asked why I was taking pictures – was I from a newspaper?” Halperin recalls. “Celebrity was a valued commodity and most of the people wanted attention, especially the older people. I gave out the imperfect silver gelatin photographs that I printed in my darkroom – that made me very popular and I was rewarded with quite a few pieces of cheesecake.”

With the new book and exhibition, Kibbitz & Nosh: When We All Met at Dubrow's Cafeteria, Halperin brings together over 100 photographs inside this beloved eaterie, creating a singular history of New York life just as it was about to disappear.

“When Dubrow’s [in Brooklyn] closed in August 1978 the news media covered it as if a dear friend had died,” says Halperin. “For the older people who would find respite there from solitary apartments, it was a tremendous loss.”

Dubrow's Cafeteria, Brooklyn, 1975.

Halperin began frequenting the Manhattan Dubrow’s, located in the heart of the Garment District, until it too closed in 1985. “Looking back I was so lucky to have met these people and made photographs of them,” says Halperin. “I kept a journal for a number of years and I was aware that I was documenting something that would soon be gone.”

A few months after her fated first visit, Halperin wrote in her journal, “I was a celebrity at Dubrow’s.” But in the end it was the people themselves who proved to be the true stars. “Take my picture,” they called and Halperin gladly obliged.

Kibbitz & Nosh: When We All Met at Dubrow's Cafeteria is on view through June 25, 2023 at the Edward Hopper House Museum & Study Center in Nyack, NY. A second exhibition runs May 15–August 25, 2023, at the Garment District Arts Alliance, Kaufman Arcade in New York, NY. The book is published by Cornell University Press.

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