Dayton Street Projects

by Ralph J. Chin


I can’t remember the reason but one day Mom and Dad decided to move from the barracks in Weequahic Park to the Dayton Street Apartments that were just down the street. At age 4 these were huge monoliths of brick, steel and concrete to me. Rising out of the ground like a huge concrete pillar boxes of World War II and it easily dwarfed me at 4 years of age. Unlike today, the apartment complex was relatively shiny new. No graffiti or broken windows were apparent at this time. The grounds were kept clean and people actually played baseball on the baseball diamond that was in front of my apartment complex. The buildings were arranged so that they formed two sides of a triangular armada around a huge open field in its center. The field was surrounded by a chain link fence that stretched for many hundreds of feet around its entire perimeter. It was all intact without any broken links and in this field was a baseball diamond, a football field and uncommitted open field so people could do whatever sports or activities that they were inclined to do. On the third side of this triangle was a school, the recreation center, building maintenance and a series of smaller apartments that were only 4 stories tall compared to the 12 or more stories in the opposing monoliths. I can’t remember how many of the large apartment buildings there were but I would guess there was at least four on each side of the triangle.

Despite the reputation of the projects being a bad place to live even back in these times, I have to say that there were many good families living there just because they didn’t have the money to live elsewhere. It seems that the post war era was a rough time for a lot of people. Many were still trying to readajust their mindsets to the peace time mentality and getting on with their lives. We were all survivors in one way or another and many families were struggling to survive, mine included. When I think about it, it is very humbling to me and makes me proud that my parents were always trying to bring our family to a better level of living.

In 1954 these apartments were vibrant centers of different nationalities that were thrown together by the economic conditions of the times. People were always hanging out in the front of the building where there were some benches that people could sit down on. The tallness of the building would, in turn, provide shade for the area making it a nice place to past the time. In this mass of humanity very few people showed me any animosity because of my Asian heritage. When a black kid did call me a “chink”, another black person that was much older stopped him and said how he would like it if I called him a “nigger?” The kid looked at me and didn’t say anything and walked away. I never heard anyone in my building ever call me a “chink” again.

The apartments had small elevators that made moving of a large or heavy item very difficult but somehow, people always managed. They also had multiple stairways but the hallways were so narrow that you could easily get claustrophobic when climbing them. When you got to your floor the first thing that greeted you was the smelly incinerator that accepted all your trash but the smell was very localized to within a few feet of the incinerator. There were approximately 8 apartments on each floor. Our apartment was located on the third or fourth floor and was the furthest from the incinerator. I often wondered if this was by choice or just the luck of the draw. I’ll never know!

Walking straight into our apartment you would see a small living room that seemed big to me at the time but, of course, it wasn’t. Next in the parade of small rooms came the dining room and kitchen. If you kept walking straight you would see my sister‘s room that had the only bathroom in the apartment to its left. Turning right and then left a short hallway would greet you. At the end of the hallway turning left you were heading towards my parent’s bedroom and on the way you would pass my bedroom door. In each room they had these huge radiators for heat in the wintertime that would emit steam through a pressure relief valve when they got too hot. I found that I could easily melt my wax crayons on it when it got like that!!

The hallway proved to be quite a recreational site for my sister and I. We would set up some toy bowling pins and knock them down with the balls that the game provided us with. There were a lot of games we made up and they always centered on the hallway. They included games like miniature soccer; hit a stick that involved a rubber ball and a popsicle stick, a baseball game where you got a base for every time the opposing player lets the ball bounce on the floor when you hit it back to them, and many others. When we would tire of playing games with each other I would take out my wooden top, wrap my string around it and throw it down to the floor and watch it spin. I would then try the many string tricks I saw the older kids do but was never very successful at this. No, sorry, there were no videos games here! It’s still the 1950’s! The only other personal games available at the time were yo-yo’s. I wasn’t very good at that either so I stuck to my wooden top and baseball cards. I didn’t think of flipping for baseball cards as a form of gambling back then but I guess it was if you really thought about what we were doing. Farsies was a game that was won by having the card that was thrown farthest. That person would win all the cards that on the ground. This sounds like a simple game to win but the catch of it was that the cards would bounce off the wall that it was played against. Now depending upon how hard you flipped your card against this wall determined how far back that it bounced. Sometimes the difference was hard to see so in that case, depending upon who you were playing with, a tie was called and we would all re-flip our cards. If you weren’t among friends then there would be fist fights over the results. I stayed away from those games because I didn’t have a need to be in a fight every single day at this stage of my life. Then there was Topsies. Ultimately this was a card game of strategy. In the first round all the kids would flip their cards so they would land a good distance away from each other. If you were skilled enough and wanted a card that was in the first round, you could flip your card so that it landed on top of any card that was flipped and you would win all the cards and that round. Most of the kids waited until the third or fourth round to top a card so that they would win more cards. Then there was the old standby game of marbles but I never played it much because I didn’t like losing my marbles!!!!

My room had a window that overlooked the apartment parking lot and further out across the street that bordered the parking lot was a cemetery. It was really kind of spooky at night especially when some of the older kids would break into the cemetery and I would see them moving around. Not my favorite memory!

Anyway Dad had a Jewish friend by the name of Al that also lived in the projects but in a different building. I became friends their youngest son Jeff and his three sisters called Leslie, Janis and Shirley. Leslie was the youngest, Janie was the middle child and Shirley was the oldest. Cookie was the oldest son but I hardly saw him because he was old enough to be out on his own at the time. Their mother’s name was Irene and she worked in a factory and Al was a long distance bus driver. I would see our new friends quite often either at my house or theirs. We would always play games or just joke around to pass the time. I once had a fondness for the youngest girl, Leslie, because she was close to my age and a lot of fun to be around. Both families became very close through the years but the glue that held this friendship together was definitely our father’s friendship. When Al passed away followed by his wife Irene this friendship was never the same after that. Jeff, since he was a long distance bus driver like his Dad, helped my parents in their move down to Florida by driving them down, a trip he had made dozens of times on his bus routes. Mom remarked that his experience as a bus driver made the trip a much more pleasant one. Jeff remained in contact for a number of years even after Mom passed away but by then his sisters had no contact with us whatsoever. Jeff continued to keep in contact via cards in the mail and by an occasional visit in person. The last time I heard from him he was living in South Carolina with his new wife and I wrote to him to inform him that Dad had passed away but never received a response. I am hoping that he wasn’t miffed by not being invited to Dad’s funeral but my sister and I wanted a very small funeral and even had to tell my father’s brother to stay home. The viewing was short and the burial was even shorter. He lived a good life despite his humble beginnings. We both paid our final respects and he now lies beside my mother in a west Orlando cemetery.

I would go food shopping with Mom and my sister while Dad was at work. Mom had a basket that had wheels on it and she would load it up and then some. That’s when my sister and I would help. We would carry the extra bags of groceries while Mom pulled the basket which was too heavy for either my sister or I. I remember that we would pass a toy store on the way home and Mom would let me window shop and ask me which toy I would like. When I picked out one she would say “Oh, I thought you would like this one” My response would be “Yes, I like that one too!” and so I would know which toy I would be getting for my next birthday or Christmas! Sometimes when I expressed a desire to have a certain toy and we didn’t have the money for such things Mom would try to appease me. One time all the kids had these balsa wood glider planes that were very popular at the time. I wanted one very badly and with the help of my sister’s friend whose name was Eddy; my Mom made me a custom airplane! She copied the plane that Eddy had and actually cut the wood out. Eddy put the plane together and drew the lines that his plane had on it. It didn’t fly but I was a happy camper because my Mom had made it! This single incident was a great influence on my own creative side and I will always keep that memory with me.

The recreation center of the projects was a great attraction for me because they had some neat games like Nock Hockey, checkers and assorted other types of games for us kids to play at no charge! They also had craft classes that taught us how to make neat items from craft paper. Nock Hockey was the most popular game and the one that I liked the best. It was a table with a wood border around it. In each corner it had piece of wood that was mounted to the corner of the table at a 45 degree angle. The purpose of this was to enable you to hit the wooden puck on it so that the puck would bounce off it in such a way as to enable you to score points on your opponent. The table had slots on each opposing end and these slots were the goals that you were supposed to get the puck into so you can score your points. It was also marked up so that it looked like an ice hockey ring. Two small sticks served as hockey sticks and gave you the means to hit the puck into your opponent’s goal. The trick of it was to get around the wood block that was in front of your opponent’s goal by hitting the puck and using the sides of the table to make the puck bounce into his goal. Your opponent was not allowed to block the puck. It was so much fun that one time I lost track of time because I was winning and was late for dinner. My Mom had to come down and saw me crossing the field on my way home. I was surprised to see her and in a moment I knew I was in deep trouble because she rarely came down onto the field. I tried half heartedly to run past her but she caught me and proceeded to scold me for being late. I tried to make excuses but Mom was not letting me get away with this. I was never late again!

And then there were the rock fights that I had with other kids. This was a potentially lethal type of warfare but most of the kids did it anyway. I would always stand behind the nearest chain link fence when these types of fights broke out. The fence would provide me some protection from being hit but most of the time nobody got hurt despite the hail of rocks that were flying though the air. We were kids and our aim wasn’t all that good but one time I threw a rock and it bounced off the wall that a kid was standing in front of and to my horror, it hit the back of his head and opened a big gash in his head. He was crying and he put his hand on his head where the stone hit and it came away all bloodied. I was so scared that I ran home and swore I would never throw another rock at anyone ever again. My rock fighting days were now officially over! In the winter, when there was lots of snow on the ground, my sister and I would go out into the field and build our own snowman. I didn’t have the strength then to lift the big snow boulder we made for each section of our snowman so when one of the older kids offered to help, we gladly let him. There were a lot of kids doing this and it was fun to see all the different shapes that were created as the snowmen were built.

When the spring time came everyone was playing on the huge field and having a good time. My sister was talking to her new girlfriends when one of them took a liking to me and gave me my first kiss on the lips through the playground fence. I was kind of embarrassed because a couple of my friends and I were playing football at the time but they never said a word to me and so I was relieved. I had not yet started school at the time but I was playing around in that immediate area with my friend Jeff when we spotted this red box on the pole outside of the school. Jeff wondered what it was and I suggested that he boost me up so I could see it. I saw an arrow pointing downwards on the box so I pushed the handle in that direction. The alarm that rang was so loud that it startled both of us. We came tumbling down from my perch and both fell to the ground in the confusion. Jeff looked at me and I said “We better run!” and so we did. When we got to the field side of the fence, we were standing there when we saw a fire truck pull up. The firemen were running all around asking where the fire was in loud voices. Well that was a lesson that I learned the hard way. I never went near another fire alarm again and warned many other kids not to touch them.

On the first day of Kindergarten my Mom accompanied me since I was scared of this new adventure that awaited me. She stood by the wall with the other parents while the teacher conducted the class. My attention was so taken that I didn’t even notice that my Mom had slipped away but she was there when school got out and I remember being happy and excited when she looked at my work that I did in school. As the days went by, the novelty of attending school wore off and it was at the end of one of out rest periods where we put our heads on our desks that I learned that I had a problem that would follow me throughout my life. I didn’t hear the teacher calling an end to the rest period and kept my head down on me desk. I wasn’t asleep, my eyes were wide open when I finally heard the teacher’s voice speaking to another teacher very close to me “I think he’s sleeping” she said. I immediately raised my head and said “No, I’m not” with a smile on my face. They both just looked at me and walked away. From that day on, I would look for the teacher ending the rest period rather than listening for her. I never told my Mom that I did this but what does a 5 year old know about hearing loss? The first grade experience started by moving the entire class to a different room in the school and we had a different teacher. I remember that we also had a student teacher that was very pretty and I used to leave her one of my graham crackers as a gift during one of our break times. When she found the cracker she smiled and said “Thank you” to me because I was the only one that was smiling at her!! She never did anything except to listen to the class so I assumed that’s what student teachers do.

From there it was off to the big school which was about three blocks away and in a different building altogether. Mom walked with my sister and me on the first day of school and then we were on our own. I remember doing crazy things after school on the way home like playing with the tar bubbles that formed in the street when it was hot out. I would always get a spot of tar on my clothes no matter how careful I was while I did this. Mom would get angry at me and I promised her that I wouldn’t do it again. A couple of times after that I broke my promise but luckily I managed to find a longer stick to poke the bubbles so I wouldn’t get any tar on my clothes!

Then I had a couple of acquaintances that walked part of the way home with me when I spotted this neat swing in a tree. The property it was on belonged to a house that hadn’t been occupied for a long time so I decided that I didn’t need anyone’s permission to take a ride on it. Under the protest of my walk home buddies, I jumped on the swing and began pumping my legs to get it to swing higher. Just as I reached the highest point of my back swing the rope broke and I came crashing down on my butt. Boy, was I in pain! My butt was hurting big time and my acquaintances just stood there and looked at me in horror. I asked them not to tell anybody about my mishap and then, for some reason, they laughed. I never did get that one but just the same, they didn’t stay around for too long.

Another incident was when it rained heavily and I had to wear my rain boots to school. Little did I know that one of the boots had a hole on its side! Tromping through all the puddles I was confident that my feet wouldn’t get wet. I was in for the biggest surprise of my young life when I got to school. My feet felt kind of wet and when I took off the rain boots I saw that my shoes and socks were soaking wet. When I wiggled my toes, I could feel the sloshing of the water between my toes so I knew it was bad. I spent the early morning in the nurse’s office drying off my feet and waiting for my mother to bring me dry socks and shoes. When Mom arrived she was a little annoyed. “Did you go stomping through the puddles again?” she asked me. I hung my head and said “Yes, Mom” With that she looked at the nurse and smiled. The nurse smiled back and then walked away. I hurriedly put on the dry socks and shoes and gave the wet ones to my Mom. I kissed her goodbye and then got back to class.

I didn’t know what it was like to be scared until the rumor about a monster man started to circulate around the neighborhood. I chuckle at this story now but when you’re 6 years old it wasn’t funny. I was told by a number of my classmates that he had purple skin and smoked green cigarettes. Yikes! No one under the age of 6 was laughing at this because the monster reportedly like little kids and ate them for dinner!! It was then that our neighbor, who was a teenager at the time, came over and talks to me mano a mano. He had heard the rumors and told me that they were false. He asked me whether I had actually seen this monster and did so without the slightest trace of a smile on his face. I replied “No” “Has anybody else you know seen it?” he asked once more. Again I said “No’ “Then it doesn’t exist!” He admonished me. I remember this vividly because he had freed me of the fear that had been gripping me for what seems like weeks but it was only a couple of days. His nickname was “Gooner” and he lived in the apartments on the same floor as my family. We would see him sporadically and he would play games with us when he was bored. He was always teaching us the right thing to do in different situations. Common sense always marked his approach to problems and I respected him for this characteristic. My sister and I never found out why he was called “Gooner” but we never laugh at this odd name but just accepted it as his nickname.

When I was promoted to the second grade, I met a little girl named Marilyn that seemed to hold that mysterious key to my attraction. She was in the same class as I was and we sat next to each other. Her father was the milkman that delivered our milk in the morning and her family lived in the apartments that were next to the school. The only thing I remember about her was walking her home one day when one of our classmates came running up to us and snatch the hat that Marilyn was wearing right off her head. He wouldn’t give it back and just as I was about to catch up to him, he did the unexpected. He threw the hat up into a tree and it got stuck on one of its limbs. Marilyn was visibly upset and told me she was going home which was just a short distance away. I proceeded to climb the small tree and manage to get her hat. It must have been winter because I don’t remember any leaves on the tree. The brat that had tossed it up into the tree took off running and I let him go because I felt it was more important to get Marilyn’s hat back to her. I brought it to her house and knocked on the door. Her Mother answered the door and I explained what had happened and gave her Marilyn’s hat. She said thank you with such indifference that even as a young kid, it was a message that I recognized and she closed the door. I never saw Marilyn outside of school again.

And then I was promoted to 3rd grade and I’m now 8 years old. For some reason I was assigned to an extension school that was located further away from home. It was actually in the basement of an apartment house and there was only one class there where we had the same teacher for the entire day. I remember that someone wrote a curse word on the boy’s bathroom wall and the janitor told our teacher. No one owned up to this misdeed and so we were all punished by having no recreation time. Then I was walking home from school one day and I crossed a street in the middle of the block to get to the main school playground. Well one of the school crossing guards saw me jaywalking and told me to stop. I was kind of startled and instinctively began to run. To my great surprise he began running after me! I then led him on a chase through the neighborhood until I ran out of breath and let him catch me. He was only a year or two older than me but he brought me to the school’s office where I was reprimanded and sent home with a note to my mother that told her what I had done. Needless to say, my Mom was furious with me and told me under no circumstances should I ever jaywalk again. I never saw that kid again because I took a different way home to avoid him. The school year had ended and my family moved to the Weequahic section of Newark.

I know that today the Dayton Street projects stand in ruins with all the windows broken and the apartments empty. The fences are all down and the buildings are graffiti ridden to the point of being more than obscene. I would imagine that it would be cheaper for them to demolish the buildings instead of trying to renovate them. Yet another place where my memories will be erased by time.


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