By Alexandra Alper
The sign, “Welcome to Brooklyn, the fourth largest city in America,” hung on the Verrazano Bridge only for a few years, over three decades ago. But in that time, it became a national symbol for Brooklyn, seen on television screens across the country in the opening credits of the hit 1970’s sitcom, “Welcome back, Kotter.”
As of this week the sign has a new public home, on display in the lobby of Borough Hall. In a ceremony last week, current and former borough presidents Marty Markowitz and Sebastian Leone pulled off a red cloth to unveil the wooden sign, bearing Leone’s name in small black letters, 35 years after he ordered it put up on the Verrazano Bridge.
A fond piece of history from a period darkly remembered for urban decay and racial tensions, the sign reflects the borough’s revitalization.
“It’s a piece of Brooklyn history and really represents the great ethnic diversity of a borough,” said Markowitz. “Brooklyn has changed a lot since 1975.”
Leone commissioned the sign in 1975 and order it put where everyone driving over the bridge into Brooklyn would see it. He did it, he said, “to remind visitors and residents of Brooklyn that our borough would be the fourth largest city in America”
Would be, because of course Brooklyn was then and still is a borough. The fourth largest city honor, after New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, belong to Houston
The sign that appears in the sitcom credits amid outdoor scenes of 1970’s Brooklyn was slightly different, either an earlier version or the same one, lacking embellishments added for the 1976 bicentennial.
The sitcom starred John Travolta and Abe Kaplan and ran on ABC from 1975-1979. The story line revolved around a teacher, Kotter, played by Kaplan, who returned to his alma mater, fictional James Buchanan high school, to teach remedial classes to a new generation of mischievous kids, called “the sweathogs.” In an era plagued with race riots, protests and busing, some cities refused initially to air the show, but the sitcom put a positive face on urban youth culture.
“Those were not the best days in Brooklyn back then,” said Markowitz. “This show brought a smile to us and it still brings a smile to us.”
To get to its new home in the lobby of Borough Hall, the sign took a circuitous route. Leone first commissioned it in 1975 to welcome visitors across Hudson Bay from Staten Island and boost morale among Brooklynites. From its perch on the concrete southern wall of the bridge, it became immortalized by the sitcom. The sign came down in 1977 when a new Borough President, Howard Golden, took office, and wanted his name to appear on a newer version.
At Leone’s retirement dinner that year, the outgoing Borough President gave it to Russo, owner of one of his favorite restaurants, Garguilo’s, in Coney Island. There it was etched with dozens of customers’ initials until Russo eventually took it down and stored it in the basement.
In 2002, Russo showed it to Markowitz, the new borough president, who was attending a dinner for the Cyclones, Brooklyn’s baseball team. Markowitz asked for it, Russo initially refused, but eventually gave it to him last January after he had won a third term.
“I didn’t want to give it to him,” said Nino Russo after the ceremony. “I didn’t want to part with it. But then I said at least people appreciate it more here [in Borough Hall] than in the basement of my restaurant.”
Retired schoolteacher Jack Zukerman, 86, interviewed on the street, was happy to hear about the sign’s new home. He said he still identifies with the show’s main character. “What Kotter did, which was excellent teaching– trying to reach out to [the students] with what they knew,” he said. “[That] is what I tried to do.”
John Casella, 57, a realtor from Long Island City said the show’s use of the sign, “brought a lot of good attention to Brooklyn.”
Markowitz is known for his own love of signs promoting his borough. The signs, posted along Brooklyn gateways like the Williamsburg Bridge, Gowanus and Brooklyn-Queens Expressways, were inspired by the original Kotter show sign, he says. They include “Leaving Brooklyn? Oy vey,” or “Fuhgeddaboudit,” “heart of America,” and “believe the hype.” But the BP’s favorite among the signs he has commissioned is “Entering Brooklyn: How Sweet it is.”
“It’s from the Honeymooners, 1955,” he said. “And it was all themed in Brooklyn.”
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