Just who was Uncle Ben? And what do the initials “BL” stand for?
If you have driven down Front Street in Schenectady at all in your life, either recently or as far back as 1946, you probably noticed the signs and maybe asked yourself those questions. Uncle Ben’s Tavern and BL’s Tavern and Grill are located at 213 and 208 Front St., respectively, just a few short steps from the old American Locomotive Company plant. Learning the origin of their names is interesting, but it only scratches the surface of all the wonderful history connected to the two establishments and the East Front Street Neighborhood.
“When I was growing up, this neighborhood was booming,” said Mary Anne Ruscitto, who has lived at 205 Front St. all of her life. “I can remember when they would let out ALCO in the 1950s, you couldn’t get out your front steps there were so many people walking by. They were all blue-collar workers, and it was a good neighborhood.”
Many of the men very likely stopped in at Uncle Ben’s or BL’s for a drink. Before 1946, BL’s had been called Julius’ Grill and Restaurant as far back as 1917. Uncle Ben’s, meanwhile, was Al’s Tavern after Prohibition up until 1936, when it became the Wagon Wheel for two years and then sat vacant until it opened as Uncle Ben’s in 1940.
They were just two of the many bars that popped up in the neighborhood soon after Prohibition was repealed in December 1933. Just east of the railroad overpass and encompassing the area between Front Street and Erie Boulevard, including the side streets John, River, Jefferson and Monroe, and Mohawk Avenue, it was a neighborhood filled with Italian and Polish immigrants who found jobs working at ALCO and General Electric.
“You couldn’t get into the street when it was quittin’ time,” said Vince Carlino, who was born in 1930 at 307 Front St. and has lived at 305 Front since he was a small boy. “There were a few places that made sandwiches, but mostly guys would stop for a beer in one of the bars. I’d guess there were probably 10 bars on Front Street just from the railroad tracks to the ALCO plant.”
According to the city directory, eight bars opened up on Front Street in 1934. There were four more taverns on Jefferson Street, and three more on Erie Boulevard in that same vicinity. And, before Prohibition began in 1920, the 1915 city directory listed 17 bars on Front Street alone between College Street and Nott Street. A handful of them, including BL’s when it was known as Julius’, were speakeasies, places where alcohol was served illegally.
Julius was Julius Bucci, who, along with his brother, ran the tavern at 208 Front. A relative, Nicola Bucci, sold the place in 1946 to Benny Lencewicz, who wanted to name it Uncle Ben’s, but that name had been taken by Bronislaw Kuczynski and his wife, Agnes, back in 1940 when they took over the property at 213 Front.
Going with initials
The English translation of Bronislaw is often Benjamin, so Lencewicz, not wanting to start trouble in the neighborhood, went with his initials, B.L. He and his wife, Theresa, ran the place until Benny died in 1979. Theresa died six years later, but by that time the current owner, Frank Yates, was in charge of the place.
“I basically took over in 1979, but I had been coming down here since 1962,” remembered Yates, whose low-key, subdued personality is reflected in the neon sign in his window that reads, “sorry, we’re open.”
“Benny had wanted to name it Uncle Ben’s, but there already was Uncle Ben’s across the street. I’m not gonna change the name now, and I told Theresa I would never change it. That’s who we are. We’re BL’s.”
Al Iovinelli owns and operates Uncle Ben’s across the street, and he also sees no reason to change the name of his establishment. When Bronislaw (Uncle Ben) died in 1954, his son Joe ran the place until the 1980s. Iovinelli purchased it in 1990.
“It was Joe Kuczynski’s place as far back as I can remember,” said Iovinelli. “Somebody had it for two or three years before we took it, but they didn’t change the name and we saw no reason to change it. It was in the Kuczynski family for so long. Everybody knows it as Uncle Ben’s.”
The building that houses BL’s was built in 1902, and within two years Tony Sokolinski was operating a tavern there. In 1917, Joseph Martini ran the bar until Bucci took over. According to the building’s history put together by Yates, Bucci ran the place as a speak-easy throughout the Prohibition period.
The 1904 structure housing Uncle Ben’s, built by Third Ward politician Peter Dente, was initially owned by Julius Albright, who opened a tavern there in 1905. Other owners included Nicola Pirrone, Nick Bucci and Louis Paolello before the Kuczynskis took over in 1940. Both BL’s and Uncle Ben’s are three-story brick structures with four apartments making up the second and third floors.
Among the other bars that opened up in the East Front Street neighborhood after Prohibition were Joe’s Tavern, Jack’s Grill, Lew’s Grill, Sabatini’s, Samuel’s Grill and Columbus Tavern.
One big family
“The neighborhood was like one big family,” said Ruscitto, who is one of the organizers of the Polka Paloosa and Barbecue set for Sept. 8, an event sponsored by the East Front Street Association. “There were the Galkas, the Barones, the Napolitanos and the Volpicellis right next to us on Front Street. When somebody was sick, everybody chipped in and helped. My father worked at GE and my grandfather worked at ALCO, and it was like that for just about everybody.”
“There was a liquor store and a funeral home in the neighborhood, and next door there was a dance hall where all the Polish people went to dance on a Saturday night,” said Carlino. “Then, across the street there was a place where all the Italians danced. It was a lot of fun and we all got along pretty well.”
Joe Mangino, who lived in nearby Goose Hill, went to work at ALCO in 1936 when he was 18 years old and remembers the neighborhood.
“There’d be a sea of people leaving at the end of their shift, and there were bars all over the place,” said Mangino, now a Glenville resident.
“I can remember one day, it was payday, I commented to one of the older guys how wasn’t it nice that there’d be so many wives there with their kids waiting for their husbands. He said, ‘Yeah, you know why they’re there? They’re grabbing their men before they end up in the bar.’ ”