The ties that bind: Lister ladies explore Brooklyn’s Norwegian history

Photo: Ken Sturm Ellen’s Stardust Diner is always a hit with the ladies from Vanse.

Photo: Ken Sturm
Ellen’s Stardust Diner is always a hit with the ladies from Vanse.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

For the last seven years, Liv Lyngsvag has organized trips, geared to Norwegian women from the Lister area, to shop in New York. Highlights of the trip include attending the Christmas Show at Radio City Music Hall and dinner at Ellen’s Stardust Diner, the 1950-style diner where the wait staff belt out ballads, show tunes, and popular hits for your listening pleasure, as you eat.

Liv and her daughter Christina (with others) created Trunken—The Trunk, a popular store in Vanse, Norway, that celebrates all things American—food, clothing, and home goods to name a few. The idea was to be a place that would carry the type of things one would find in your Norwegian grandmother’s trunk—if she had lived in the U.S. The store truly is an American love fest, with every nook and cranny filled to the brim with delights to discover.

Vanse celebrates its U.S. connections, especially to Brooklyn, in many other ways. There is the 8th Avenue Supper Club, (named for the famous Brooklyn Norwegian street, also called Lapskaus Boulevard), Brooklyn Square, and their annual American Festival, held during the last weekend in June. And about five years ago, the area of Lister, which includes Vanse, signed a Sister Communities Agreement with the Scandinavian East Coast Museum in Brooklyn and Bay Ridge’s local Councilman, Vincent Gentile.

Liv wanted to continue this connection. She was already organizing a shopping trip to N.Y. for the Lister ladies. She thought, “Why not visit Brooklyn for a day as part of our shopping trip?” So, for the last three years the Lister Ladies have toured Brooklyn with Victoria Hofmo from the Scandinavian East Coast Museum—me.

This year, they came on Saturday, November 15, for the fourth time. We began at Nordic Deli with cardamom-filled boller or waffles, paired with black coffee, of course.

The tour began with an overview of what to expect. I explained, “Today, we will be exploring the area that was once the heart of Norwegian Brooklyn—Bay Ridge and Sunset Park. They had been one neighborhood, but were divided in the early 1970s. Some of what we visit will be obviously Norwegian, such as Leif Ericsson Park. In other places, you will have to look closer to uncover Norwegian roots. I also hope to tell the story of the many contributions this small group of people have made to NYC, especially Southwest Brooklyn. Lastly, I will relate how many government decisions negatively impacted this community and literally tore it in two, twice. Yet, through all of the turmoil and destruction, much of what the Norwegians built remains and many of their institutions have been serving New Yorkers for over 100 years and these have no intention of ending.”

This year the group had the chance to get inside many buildings with Norwegian connections. The first was Bay Ridge High School (now Telecommunications H.S.). It had been an all-girls school and was the only school in NYC to offer Norwegian foreign language classes. Inside are beautiful stained glass windows that highlight the best in women, including their work in the science and nursing fields. There is also a touching statue of Joan of Arc. It must have been a truly uplifting place to be educated.

We also visited the First Free Evangelical Church, a.k.a. 66th Street Church. This church was started by Norwegians under the Free denomination, which believes that individual congregations should control their destiny, rather than be governed by a hierarchy. Not all Scandinavian churches were Lutheran! In Brooklyn, Methodist, Baptist, and Lutheran Brethren Scandinavian churches can be found. The First Free Church’s story is one of resiliency, as it lost not one, but two sanctuaries to highway construction.

We meandered along Lapskaus Boulevard and visited the Church of the Lutheran Brethren. This congregation began around 1900 and moved several times before it settled into its present location. They were having a Yankee Swap that day. All items were up for grabs, gratis. Or you could swap an item for a different item. This was something new for the ladies. We then went up to the sanctuary—the older of its two, constructed in 1929. It is light and lovely—a place that encourages quiet meditation.

The tour then headed to Sporting Club Gjøa, where we had time to relax and chat. This club sports historic photos, trophies, and awards documenting its many victories over 113 years. It was founded by sailors in Brooklyn who were tended to by the Norwegian Seamen’s Mission. The seamen grew tired of the church’s proselytizing and warnings against women and liquor. Sporting Club Gjøa was founded by their organization, the Norwegian Seamen’s Association, as a way to give the men a healthy outlet.

The tour ended with a lunch at the Danish Athletic Club. They offered kjøttkaker or a Thanksgiving dinner plate complete with turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie for dessert. The latter offering, so specific to America, was a lovely touch, especially with Thanksgiving just around the corner.

I asked Liv Lyngsvag what she thought about this year’s tour: “It was very interesting. I have been here so many times. I like the repeats, to see things all over again—Gjøa, the Danish Club and Nordic. Now, Nordic was great because this time we had coffee and delicious homemade waffles. The other ladies loved the tour too. It’s always nice to come to Brooklyn and it’s a way to keep the Sister Communities Agreement with the Scandinavian East Coast Museum alive.”

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 12, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.