When I was young my world was defined by
the neighborhood. I remember two neighborhoods of my youth.
Primarily, I remember the one based on Vincent Street. The first
year after we moved, the neighborhood (for me) consisted entirely
of the west side of Vincent St, and the east side of Lentz Avenue
between Ferry and Horatio Streets. The next year, when I was able
to cross streets by myself, it expanded several blocks westward
to Hawkins Street and Brinsmaid Place. It also eventually expanded
to include a few more remote locations and the most direct route
connecting them to the neighborhood Hayes Pool [Hayes East on Waydell
Street], the library in the Projects [That branch of the Newark
Library was later closed and its books became the core of the bookmobile's
collection.], St. Al's [St Aloysius Church on Fleming Ave, and its
Parochial School on Freeman Street], and eventually Riverbank Park
and the Newark Drive-In.
The other was based around the Pulaski Street address at which
we lived before moving to Vincent Street, and where my grandparents
continued to live. Since most of my early friends had moved to other
neighborhoods just as we had, the core of that neighborhood did
not expand much beyond the one block, but it did develop some connections,
like the other East Side Park, the Van Buren Street Library, the
playground of the Ann Street school, the doctor's office at Elm
Road and Warwick St, the A&P on Wilson Ave., and later, the
stores on Ferry Street (the commercial area between Penn Station
and Wilson Avenue).
If one thing sets those neighborhoods of my youth from today's
neighborhoods, it's their accessibility. Everywhere a child needed
or wanted to be was within easy walking distance. Every block had
a corner store, what today, because of the Latin influence in the
cities, is called a bodega. The barber shop, deli, bakery, and drugstore
were, at most, two or three blocks away. If the park was too far
to visit every day, there was always the empty lot on the corner.
For the grown-ups the corner saloon was as close as the corner
store. And there were places that today's kids' barely know about
(not that we had too much occasion to stop in except while Trick-or-Treating
on Halloween, but we knew they were there and who ran them) the
funeral home, the cobbler, the dry cleaner. Many of the neighborhood
fathers had jobs in the Foundry or in Ballantine's and were close
enough to come home for lunch.
Dividing today's residential areas into "developments"
and "strip malls" may make the neighborhoods a little
safer for the children, but it is more sterile, and it makes them
more dependent on being taxied everywhere. They wind up spending
more time in the school bus or the minivan than what is left for
play. They don't learn the joy or the responsibility of running
to the corner store for the lady next door, or of using the extra
nickels and dimes ("Keep the change.") to buy a nice cold
soda or ice-pop on a hot summer day -- an unplanned for treat, but
one we'd earned.