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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Back on Cortland Street

When it comes to nostalgia, not much beats the internet. Over the holidays I wrote about buying our Christmas tree, from a guy named Whitey up the street from us, when we were growing up in "Down Neck" Newark. Whitey's son Michael soon stumbled across that post, and he left a nice comment, filling in some details that I had left out and properly correcting me on a few points.

More recently, I got an e-mail message from Mike in which he explained that he still drops into the old neighborhood every now and then. Best of all, he sent along some recent photos that show what the place is like now.

Here's how Whitey's old home looks these days:

There's the driveway where the cat spoiled our tree:

The gate has been pushed back a bit -- it used to be flush with the front of the house -- and that porch-like thing with the wrought iron wasn't there back in the day. There used to be some greenery -- I'm thnking maybe rose bushes or a little garden -- along the drive next to the house. And that's a huge recent addition in the back -- Mike referred to the remodeled version as "a house on steroids."

Here's another angle, looking south. Our four-plex was on the same side of the street, but it would be one of those waaaay down on the right edge of this photo:

One thing you don't see much of there is trees. Mike explains:

When we were growing up, the street was tree-lined, providing a shady canopy in summer. There was a huge maple tree in front of my house at 20 Cortland Street. It is gone now. The Portuguese and Brazilian immigrants have a very different view of greenery than the former Ironbound residents. They have a tendency to pave over their small backyards, creating a walled-in concrete palazzo. Most trees are ripped out -- even the ones they do not really own out in front....

Portuguese/Brazilian culture has many other things to recommend it. For one thing, their restaurants are great, they have a strong family ethic and the music is wonderful. They are a vibrant addition to the neighborhood and the city owes them a debt of gratitude for keeping the Ironbound section a step above the rest of Newark.

Michael also took a couple of shots of the schoolyard of the public Hawkins Street School across the street. It was here that we kids whiled away many after-school hours and hung out all summer long, even though most of us attended Catholic schools. He writes:

Turning right onto Cortland offers a mostly familiar scene with Hawkins Street School on the right where we used to play paddle ball, touch football, basketball and that quintessential urban game so popular in New York City and Newark -- stickball, which, for the benefit of all the "outlanders" on the west coast, is played with a broom stick as a bat, a pink Spalding Hi-Bouncer for a ball and the strike zone represented by a rectangular box drawn in chalk on the side of a building. In our neighborhood, since stickball was such an institution, the strike zone was painted permanently on the side of Hawkins Street School brick wall facing Cortland Street.

The schoolyard is smaller, and not just because I am bigger than when I was 12 years old. They have added onto some of the buildings over the years crowding out the main play area.

Here's a part of the schoolyard that, except for the security camera and the paint on the building (which was plain brick in our day), hasn't changed in 50 years:

This narrow area, on the edge of the school property, was excellent territory. I still have a scar on my knee to show for an evening when I was tearing around that corner of the building (running toward the camera in this view, and turning to your right). I hit some loose dirt near one of the drains in the blacktop, and dressed as I was in short pants, I left a chunk of knee skin behind.

Although the main after-school activities were centered on another part of the yard, many a game was played here, including some that Mike did not mention. For example, this side of the schoolyard, which the supervisors didn't frequent, was a good spot for the forbidden game "Hide the Belt," which mostly involved kids whipping each other.

Someone had also invented a sanctioned game called "Hit Off the Point." This involved the slate ledge that ran along the side of the building, just below the windows at ground level. One kid would be offense, and one would be defense. The offensive player would stand next to the wall and slam a Spaldeen against the "point" at close range. It was the defensive player's job to try to catch it on the fly, which would be an out. If he failed to do so, the ball was a single, double, triple, or home run, depending on how high or far it went. As you can see, on this side of the schoolyard the house next door was mighty close, and so a safe hit was judged a single, double, etc., based on how high it hit off the house or fence. Of course, it was legal for the defender to catch the ball off the house or fence for an out, so long as it didn't hit the ground first.

Another interesting thing we did was play stickball on a little "auxiliary" court down at the end of this stretch of schoolyard, along the wall in the background of this photo. The yard actually extends a little to the left around the corner down the far end of the cyclone fence, and there was just enough space there for a narrow little stickball court next to a fire escape. (The main stickball action was in another part of the yard.) The hitter stood in the back there, facing right to left, and the pitcher was throwing from outside this photo, left to right, with his back to the building, just inches away. This was another spot where you couldn't hit the ball for distance, and so the game was to see how high you could hit it. Onto the roof of the three-story building that the pitcher stood in front of -- that was a home run.

By the way, there was no running bases in "Hit Off the Point" or our version of stickball. It was all hitting on offense, and all pitching and catching on defense. We did have some games that involved baserunning, but not in this area of the yard.

Anyway, there were several hazards to playing on the auxiliary stickball court. One was that there was a single-story portion of the school building all along the court right next to the pitcher's spot and the batter's box, and so many a foul ball wound up on the roof of that part of the building. If your ball got stuck up there, you'd have to climb up the outside of the building and get it, which was way against schoolyard rules. But most of us kids were already practiced in climbing the fence to get into the schoolyard when it was closed, and as I said, the teachers didn't get back here much, and so somebody always braved it. There were cages on the windows and a little pipe of some kind to hold onto. I think I may have done it once, but generally I left that task to others. Although I hopped the fence hundreds of times to play in the schoolyard when it was closed, I never did like climbing that wall. (If no one was brave enough to go up there and there was only one ball, that was the end of that game. The next kid who climbed up would find two.)

Another hazard was that fair balls often landed in the yards of the folks who lived on the west side of Cortland Street, and you'd have to hop their fence or ring their doorbell to retrieve those. I believe it was one such fair ball that provoked an incident that is still discussed within my family to this day.

One of us boys had hit a Spaldeen or a sponge ball into Joe Browarski's yard. That was quite a hit, because he lived way down across from us at no. 35. Mr. Browarski was known to most neighbors as "Dziadzia," meaning "Grandpa" in Polish and definitely at that time and place pronounced "JAH-jee." Now, Jahjee was, shall we say, more than a wee bit territorial. For example, he had a homemade sign on his front gate that said "No Parking or Turning in Driveway." O.k., we could all see the no parking part, but no turning? That was Jahjee.

He, like Whitey, also had a big, snarling dog who didn't take to strangers. And so if a kid hit a ball in Jahjee's yard, there was no sneaking in to get it out. You'd need a grownup's help. When we rang the bell, hoping against hope that Mrs. B. would be on sentry, instead out onto the porch stepped Jahjee, who when informed of our predicament, replied -- and I quote -- "If you want your goddamn ball go get your goddamn mother."

Here's a slightly different angle from roughly the same vantage point:

This view saddens me a bit. That van parked inside the fence next to the building is sacrilegious. There used to be a basketball hoop up on that wall, and another one down the wall to the right as well. In front of each basket were painted 15 little circles, where we used to play a game called "numbers." The object was to shoot a basket from each of the 15 spots, in numerical order, before your opponent did. You took turns. If you made a number, you got to go on to the next. If you missed, you stopped and it was your opponent's turn. For beginners, when you missed on a number, you started at that number when it was your turn again; for advanced players, when you missed, you had to go back and start at no. 1.

There was a second "point" game played along that wall as well. At the base of the schoolyard fence, there is a little curb, and we used stand in front of that curb and bounce off it at close range a brown ball about the size of a basketball but with a skin more like that of a soccer ball or volleyball. One's opponent would stand in front of the wall and try to catch the ball after it flew up from the curb but before it hit the ground. It was just another version of "Hit Off the Point," but the ball was bigger, and there were bonus features. For instance, if the ball hit that painted vent you see on the wall near the security cam, that was 5 runs, as opposed to the 1 run you'd get for a simple uncaught hit off the wall. (The vent there is attached to the girls' restroom; there's another one down to the right, just out of range of this shot, and it is attached to the boys'.) If your opponent caught the ball after it hit the vent, I think you'd still get 2 or 3 runs, but it would be an out. When the ball hit that thing, it would make a satisfying, mildly destructive sound, not unlike a dropped metal garbage can.

If the ball was hit hard enough to hit the wall and make it all the way back to hit the fence, that was 2 runs. If it hit the wall and flew back over the fence, onto Cortland Street -- which a few of the big kids like Mike's oldest brother could do -- I think that was 5 or 10 runs. A hit off the loud aluminum basketball backboard was another bonus (I forget how much), and actually placing the ball in the basket was something like 15 or 20 runs. Actually, the game was a little better down at the other end of the building, just to the right of this shot, where the curb is a little higher and we aimed for the boys' room vent, but you get the picture.

Michael also included a present-day photo of nearby Hayes Park East Pool, known to us kids simply as "Hayes Pool." If you were a "youth" in our part of Down Neck, this was the place to hang out all summer, every summer, unless you were in the schoolyard or down the shore. (It is also the scene of the famous raid in which we stole a large loudspeaker, only to discover that we didn't want it.) The place is looking pretty forlorn these days, although it always did in winter:

In the foreground is the the "kiddie pool," and the lighter-color pool (the two were the same color in those days) is what we used to call the "middle pool." The latter is about 3½ feet deep around the edges and around 4 in the center. In the background, there used to be a third pool, the size of the kiddie pool or even larger, called the "diving pool." It had four diving boards -- two low and two high. The high boards were pretty darn high -- a good 20 feet -- and the pool was very deep -- probably 25 feet at the deepest. That third pool is gone now, done in by liability concerns, no doubt. In our time, it was open for only brief periods each day, and our friends who were lifeguards were always pulling people out of there would couldn't swim. (It was also a great place to stash beer on hot nights.) I wasn't much of a diver, and so my only moves "off the high" were cannonballs and can openers. Those are the locker room buildings over on the right -- women in the foreground, men in the back.

Way in the background here, across busy Raymond Boulevard, is an old gas station at which I spent many, shall we say, formative evenings in my early adolescence. It was called "D & L" or "Dave's," and a couple of my bigger, stronger buddies worked there as mechanics. Right behind it, some highly toxic substances, mostly dioxin, were being released into the environment on a regular basis by some chemical companies, but we were blissfully ignorant of all that at the time.

Finally, here's a familiar view for me. This photo is taken looking west on Ferry Street, just as it approaches Hayes Pool:

Some of my best friends in grammar and high schools lived in a large three-story walkup that used to sit just to the left of this photo. 625 Ferry was headquarters for us as teens. We used to lounge on the big brick front porch night after night, listening to the radio, smoking cigarettes, making out, hanging out. Their building is gone now, and I don't recognize a couple of those structures on the right, where the fire extinguisher place used to be, but that relentless one-way traffic in the distance, just launched from a traffic light, is the same as ever. This was where we watched the National Guard drive out of Newark after the race riots. And back there on the left is the steeple of our old church, St. Aloysius, where all the choir and altar boy action went down.

Thanks, Mike, for bringing it all back to life.

Comments (18)

Thanks for sharing: it sounds like a plot synopsis for the Wonder Years, Jersey Style.

Memories, like old friends, are to be treasured.

Reading about "your" unique places triggered fond memories about "my" unique places - which had quite a few similarites. (I'm thinking about neighbors yards where you wouldn't want your ball to land, and our own version of "the Point!")

Very cool. Thanks.

Fantastic, Jack. And, thanks to Mike (whom I probably met a zillion years ago).

As I recall, we used to be able to hop the Hawkins Street School fence, cross the school property, then hop another fence to get to the next street, just about where there was a little candy-type store, where the lady sold potato sandwiches** and the "illegal" pea shooters.

**A Potato sandwich was an Italian hot dog, but without the hotdog. It consisted of fried chunks of potato with fried peppers and onions on an Italian roll. You bought potato sandwiches, because they were cheaper than Italian hot dogs.

Jahjee reminds me of Mr. Burke, who lived next door to us in Colorado when I was a kid. We used his split-rail fence as goalposts, but then would have to sneak into his yard, grab the ball, and run back into our yard. Let me tell you, the adrenaline was pumping for that. One day, our nerf rolled up to and lightly bounced off of one of Mr. Burke's beloved cars. He saw it, ran out, and yelled at us...but then squeezed the ball and just let us off with a warning. Incredibly, at least according to real estate records my wife showed me on line, the guy is still alive. Crotchety ones seem to make it the longest.

Anyway, Jahjee and Mr. Burke remind me of a Thomas Lux poem called "The Man into Whose Yard You Should Not Hit Your Ball." Part of it says: "But if a ball crossed his line,/as one did in 1956/and another in 1958,/it came back coleslaw--his lawnmower/ate it up, happy/to cut something..."

The whole poem is here:


If the Land use Liberals get their way Portland will be like Jersey..not a yard in sight. Now the row houses and later brown stone. I can see why Portland is your city of choice.


Thanks for posting this. I don't know where to begin and it's likely I wouldn't know where to end, so I'll just say I remember all of that, and more. Fondly. What a time it was.

I miss the trees. I remember looking at them and through them, sitting on the front porch of your house with your brother - with a transistor radio, listening to the WABC "countdown" for the week.

High time I took a ride up that way again, just to walk around and remember. Thanks again.

Tom Walukonis
St. Aloysius, class of '68

Do you remember Jimmy Buff's joint?
For those who don't know, it's a great sandwich, made with a dog, potatos , green peppers on a Italian roll
Years ago I spoke with the 'Wing Commander' in SE Portland about the one and only Jimmy Buff's (Wing Commander) used to be a ex-patriot hang out for Jersey boys.
Sorry for the typo's.... Way to much Disaronno today.

Why am I not surprised that readers' thoughts have turned to Italian sandwiches? Here was Mike D.'s take:

I spent many a summer day at Hayes Pool swimming in the morning and learning as much as I could about girls in bathing suits. Once the pool closed for lunch, I would change in the locker room and sometimes stroll across the street to get an Italian hotdog or potato sandwich at the joint on the corner. Again, to translate for our brethren on the rive gauche, an Italian hot dog is a long hot dog on semicircular Italian roll with grilled onions, peppers and french fries -- mustard and ketchup, a must -- along with a sprinkle or two from the salt shaker.

Italian hot dogs were generally deep-fried in the same grease as the potatoes. You could tell they were good if they made an audible squeak when you bit into them.

with a transistor radio, listening to the WABC "countdown" for the week.

Dan Ingram, the 2-6 p.m. DJ, broke out the new survey every Tuesday. He was a truly funny character.

Hi Jack,

I'm glad you liked the trip down memory lane - Cortland Street. Your post on my photos was great reading - as usual. Your memories sparked some more from the deeper recesses of my memory banks. As I recall, the hit-the-point game was actually named "stoop ball". In Newark your front porch was "the stoop". The photo of Hawkins Street Schools A-Frame brick facade jogged another memory from a dark time in the city - the summer of 1967.

In July 1967 I was 12 years old. My family lived on 20 Cortland Street, a side street off Ferry Street, in the Ironbound section of Newark a couple of blocks east of the old Ballantine Brewery. It was a polyglot mixed-ethnic neighborhood with Polish, Irish, Italian, Black and Hispanic people all living together in homes, apartments and low-income projects. With the extra money my mother made from working as a seamstress, she usually managed to scrape together enough disposable income to afford a week-long summer rental for the family down the shore at Belmar. Rates were actually affordable back in those days (about $70-$90/week), especially if the rental location was a mile from the beach off 18th Ave around Pine Street. Our idyllic vacation that summer of 1967 came crashing to a halt with the news of the riot breaking out in Newark.

The scenes on TV of buildings on fire, armored vehicles manned by the New Jersey State National Guard rumbling down the city's avenues, gunfire, police beating, arresting and shooting looters and demonstrators filled me with fear. Was our house destroyed? Were any of our friends and relatives hurt or killed? My grandmother and two uncles lived on Chapel Street across from one of the projects. Are they OK? As a twelve year old kid, I could not understand the anger and frustration that had built up over decades in the black community in Newark. The two hour drive back home up Routes 35 and 1 & 9 filled us with anxiety and fear. By the time we reached Newark Airport we could still see some smoke wafting over the center of the city. Exiting on Delancy Street, we were somewhat heartened by the lack of signs of destruction in the Ironbound. Even as we drove past the projects bordered by Hawkins and Horatio Streets, all seemed to be normal and calm.

We turned onto Cortland Street and approached our house, which was opposite the backside of the Hawkins Street Grammar School. Our sense of relief vanished as we noticed the sidewalks, street and schoolyard strewn with red brick debris. "Oh my God, we thought, "the rioters blew up the school!" The truth was somewhat more prosaic. Apparently, there was a violent summer thunderstorm that same week and lightning struck the peak of the multi-story 19th century A-frame red brick schoolhouse facing Cortland Street knocking out an 6 x 8 foot section from the top peak of the brick facade, raining bricks down on ground below. My father, who worked as a truck driver for Igoe Brothers hauling steel, had to work that week and he did not accompany the family on vacation. Coming home from a long hot day on the road he decided to take a nap. The crash of the lightning strike on the school across the street literally 'knocked" my father out of bed and he rushed outside in his underwear armed with his hunting rifle ready to shoot the mad bomber. Thank God, no one was around. In the photo you poosted of the b rick facade you can still see where the chuck was knocked off by the lightning strike

Walking around the neighborhood that day, it was apparent that the riot had not really had much of an impact on our section of the Ironbound. The only damage caused by local residents was a single broken window at the "Martinizing" drycleaners on Ferry Street between Cortland Place (the alley behind our house) and Cortland Street. Later we would learn that all streets running under the elevated train tracks along Route 21 were blocked off by the police preventing any movement of would-be looters eastward into our neighborhood. Despite the lack of damage, things were not the same for awhile after the riots. The neighbors on my block formed an ad hoc neighborhood-watch that week - the men staying out on the porches, guns within easy reach, for a couple of nights afterward. Of course, looking back on it, this was an over-reaction on their part. It did not seem to be at the time.

That fear filtered down from the parents to their children. White kids and black kids who used to all play together alternately in the Hawkins Street School yard and the local projects' play areas, now kept more to their own kind. We felt that we needed to not be alone on the streets. We started to hang out more in groups, go together as a group to the Hayes Park East Pool on the summer mornings. As time passed the fear subsided and kids in my neighborhood began to re-establish contact with each other and began to play together again. With the last vestiges of the innocence of youth, I guess that we were able to do that more easily than the adults could. My family stayed in Newark for several years afterward. My father died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 59 in 1973. My mom finally moved us out in 1975 to South Plainfield.

My family never really lost its attachment to Newark, however. My father and most of my uncles were WWII vets and belonged to the American Legion Hall Post 408 on Cortland Place. My brother, Dan, just recently retired from the Newark City Fire Department. I graduated Cum Laude with a B.A. Degree in Economics from Rutgers Newark College of Arts and Sciences in 1977. One of my favorite elective courses that I took at Rutgers was the "The History of Newark", the first year it was offered as taught by the eminent Dr. Clement Price, who often comments on Newark city affairs and history in the media. I wonder if he ever kept a copy of my paper I wrote for his course. I still remember the title, The Polish Community in Newark - An Ethnic Enclave" - I got an "A" for it. Dr. Price remains on my list of the top five teachers I had in my academic life. I recently re-established contact with Dr. Price via email promising him to get together and treat him to a tour of "my Newark" one day. Although I moved to Palmer Township, Pennsylvania, in 2004, I still return on occasion to my old neighborhood and favorite haunts in the city, namely Mc Governs Tavern, the Portuguese and Brazilian restaurants and, of course, my most recent local passion for the past several years - the Newark Bears. I just went to a game on Friday June 29 this year. The Bears won and the fireworks were great! I'm dying to ride the light rail system - just for the shear fun of it.

Although I believe that things are getting a little bit better in the city, Newark's problems still remain after all these years. I wish the Booker administration well in their quest to improve the City of Newark - he deserves the support of the city residents, the people that work there and former residents, like myself, who never lost their love for the city. I'll continue to do my part by supporting the local Newark economy during my visits "back home".

"Stoop ball" was still the game up river at West Point and Highland Falls in the early seventies. If you had more than three kids a game of street hockey or lacrosse was likely to break out.

No hockey or lacrosse Down Neck.

Jack, nice piece about Hawkins Street School. My buddy is the principal of the school (and godfather to one of my daughters)I remember you wearing a neat pair of white pants, when you spilled grape soda on them and ran home incensed! Remember the handball baseball games, where a rubber ball was used and you batted using your fist?

This brings back so many memories! I grew up in Jersey City and it seems as if we all had the same childhoods only in different locations.

There was nothing like growing up in "the city" and then going "down the shore" for the summer. Sadly, that time is gone now.

I feel my children have been cheated out of a rich childhood like I experienced. They will never know what it is like to know everyone on your block and their entire extended families that lived just a few blocks away or go around the corner for fresh lunchmeat every other day or to walk two blocks to grab a slice of pizza after school. Unfortunately they will be bussed and driven everywhere.

I am in the rural suburbs now and still can't get the city out of my system. I long to ride a bus but I can't seem to find one. Being in the "country" is harder on me than it will be on my children. They will have great but different memories. Like I said, the city is in me and I plan to show them all of it when they get older. They need to know where I came from.

Thanks for sharing where you came from.


PS. I still eat at Iberia Peninsula whenever I can!

Wonderful, Jack. I can see it all now, Aerial Imagined, zooming in to focus.

And I'll show you mine, as best I can do, (us 'out-landers' don't go by streets and avenues and house numbers, exactly). It's here, the house partly covered by the Hwy circle-'242' legendmark seen at the initial scale, (on zoom, the legendmark is removed). As usual, what there is to see is in the Aerial Imagery.

I fondly remember (and sometimes yet contact) a beautiful babe from Bayonne, and a perfect psych case from Princeton, and a creamy dreampeach from Camden, and a prince of a fellow from Patterson, and a heavenly summer in Beach Haven ... but, no, can't say as I've been Down Neck; I can kind of picture it, though.

(Have you ever been to Cherry Hill? I once did some 'lab work' there.)

... like someone said, "... likely I wouldn't know where to end," ... after seeing my old haunts again ... the address designation for any local to get to my house was "the old McCready place" ... heck, probably that would get the mail delivered right, too ... and if you zoom the Aerial Image 5 or 6 notches out from the initial scale, until the snowfields come into view, you see why they call it 'Sisters' and why I never quite felt "t' home" in the Garden State, something about 'purple mountains majesty' or something ... "Mountain Lakes," my aXX ....

WOW! Hayes Pool, hot dog and potato sandwiches, St. Al's, Hawkins St. School and Ballantine's lot? I remember my mom and dad, 4-year-old me and my older brother Louie, 5 1/2, living at 89 Hawkins St. running around and thinking the "projects" across the street was some huge brick city. Like everyone who posted, thanks for the memories. My Cuban parents, dad, a longshoreman at the Port and my mom, a seamstress at a factory (sweat shop) off Ferry St somewhere, scraped thier savings together and bought the ugliest most rundown apartment building up the street. It was 47 Hawkins Street across from Hawkins St. School closer to Jeans corner store near Brinsmaid Pl. It was owned by the Rivers family at the time and it was a real dump. My dad worked night and day on it and added light green aluminum siding from Sears (there was a smaller two story house in the back). What a great childhood I had growing up there. I'm sitting here in my new home in Venice Beach, California (for the last 20 years) and I tell you I think growing up Down Neck was what formed me into the man I am today. I went to St. Al's (class of '77) and then went to Essex Catholic (class of '81) and then to NYC to "make it in showbiz" so I thought. Again, thanks for the great pics and stories. Rick Egusquiza

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