The real women of Bay Ridge: Civic leader proud of Norwegian roots

May 3, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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Editor’s Note: In response to the firestorm created by the Oxygen Network’s “reality” series “Brooklyn 11223,” which depicts women cursing, drinking and fighting in Bay Ridge and other Brooklyn neighborhoods, the Brooklyn Eagle is proud to present this feature profiling the “real” women of Bay Ridge and their accomplishments.

Bay Ridge — Looking for Arlene Rutuelo? You’ll probably find her behind the counter at Nordic Delicacies, the Norwegian food store she owns on Third Avenue. If she’s not there, you could find her at a meeting of the 17th of May Parade Committee, of which she is the chair. No luck? Then look for her at the Norwegian Christian Home and Health Center on 67th Street in Dyker Heights. She’s on the Board of Directors there.

“I like to keep busy,” Rutuelo said during a rare quiet moment at Nordic Delicacies on Monday afternoon.

In addition to her roles as a store owner, parade chair, and Board of Directors member, Rutuelo is also a member of the Merchants of Third Avenue organization and is active in her church, First Evangelical Free Church, on Sixth Avenue and 66th Street.

She described the church and its teachings as a main focus of her life. Her Christian faith, she said, “is the core of my being.”

It’s hard to explain faith to people, she said. 

“I’d rather live it. I try to be as honest as I can and live according to Jesus’ teachings. Treat people kindly. And try to help others,” she said.

The other focuses of her life are her three children. Rutuelo has two sons and a daughter. 

“And I’m so proud of each of them,” she said.

Rutuelo was born Arlene Bakke. (She took her husband’s name when they married. They are now divorced.)

She is not only a real woman of Bay Ridge, she’s a lifelong woman of Bay Ridge.

“When I was born, in 1964, my mother took me home from the hospital to 69th Street and Seventh Avenue and now I own a store on 69th Street and Third Avenue. I haven’t really left the neighborhood,” she said.

She is a graduate of local schools — P.S. 170, McKinley Junior High, and Fort Hamilton High School.

A proud Norwegian-American, she opened Nordic Delicacies at 6909 Third Ave. in 1987 and started selling imported food from Norway. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, Bay Ridge boasted a large Norwegian-American population. That population has dwindled over the past 40 years, but Nordic Delicacies is still going strong, thanks in part to Rutuelo’s foresight and planning skills.

The deli added T-shirts, coffee mugs, Norwegian flags and other souvenir items to its shelves a few years ago.

The store sells such dishes as Fiskepuding (a type of fish pudding), Kompers, (potato dumplings), Karnonader (meat cakes), Sandkaker cookies and other treats.

Rutuelo also does a brisk mail order business. 

“The mail order started five or six years ago. It has become a large part of our business. We ship food packages to places as far away as Seattle,” she said. 

“It started in a funny way,” she recalled. “Customers who had moved away from Bay Ridge called me and said they missed our food. ‘Send me a can of something,’ they would tell me. So, for fun, I would send people things. And it grew from there.”

During the Christmas holiday season, Nordic Delicacies ships out more than 1,000 food packages to customers all over the country, Rutuelo said. 

“People who grew up in Bay Ridge want a little piece of home,” she said.

Rutuelo works closely on the Merchants of Third Avenue with President Robert Howe and other business leaders. 

“The Merchants are a great group of people. A lot of diverse people come together to make Third Avenue better. I see my role as mentoring some of the younger merchants. The economy over the past few years has been tough on everyone across the board. The Merchants work together to help a storeowner who needs a hand,” she said.

This year marks Rutuelo’s first year as chair of the 17th of May Parade, the annual march celebrating the anniversary of the signing of Norway’s Constitution. The parade takes place each year on the Sunday closest to May 17. The march will be held this year on Sunday, May 20, 1:30 p.m., on Third Avenue. The parade was moved from Fifth Avenue, where it had been held for more than 30 years.

The theme of this year’s parade is “Celebrating Norwegian Women.” The event will include a tribute to Grete Waitz, the late marathon runner.

“There are a lot of strong Norwegian women. Norwegians have a lot to be proud of. They came to this country, learned English, built bridges and contributed to the community. Our belief is that you live here with purpose to make life better for your family and for the community,” Rutuelo said. “I’m looking forward to reaching out to other ethnic groups to show them what being Norwegian is all about and learning about their cultures too. Bay Ridge is so diverse. That’s one of the best things about it.” 

Rutuelo was also the chair of the 57th Annual Miss Norway of Greater New York Contest. Amanda Berntsen was crowned Miss Norway and will ride the 17th of May Parade route in a convertible and wave to adoring crowds. As chair, Rutuelo’s job was to round up judges, organize the luncheon preceding the contest, and calm the nerves of frazzled contestants.

The contest took place in a ballroom at the Norwegian Christian Home and Health Center, where Rutuelo serves on the Board of Directors.

She enjoys her work there. 

“The administration is doing an outstanding job. Part of our faith is to honor the older generation. We are also showing the younger generation how it’s done. We’re trying to bridge the gap between the two,” Rutuelo said. “That’s what I wish I could tell these girls on ‘Brooklyn 11223.’ It’s not about dollars and fame. It’s about having integrity.”

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