Down Neck Neighborhoods

by Tom Murphy

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.


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