by Harry T. Roman

Whenever I have one of my many nostalgic Newark memories, somewhere in those memories my mind’s eye sees trees.

Very often, if it’s a memory of my first house on North 4th Street, I think of this old maple tree, we kids used to call “The Old Shady Tree”. It was our neighborhood meeting place, and one year we made a miniature golf course under it, complete with homemade golf clubs and a spongeball (remember those) for a golf ball.

It was under the shady tree where we gathered in light summer rains, the thick interlacing branches and leaves keeping us perfectly dry---those same branches almost always snared our balsa wood airplanes, or other objects…..but only for a short time, as the gentle old tree always gave back its booty in a day or two.

One summer Arty Keyes, my next door neighbor rigged a rope swing in its branches and we all took rides in a slow, but very big arc that ran the length of the sidewalk beneath it, alongside our little golf course and later horseshoe pitching area. Somewhere in my basement I still have those green and red rubber horseshoes and the battered red wooden stakes. Don’t ask me why I kept them all these years, but whenever I take a look at them, I can smell that old maple tree, feel its cool shade, and hear my friends laughing and talking.

Most cities planted the same kind of tree on each block or length of street. In fact, just about every medium size city has a Maple, Oak, Chestnut, Sycamore, and Linden Street.

North 4th street had maples, a rather popular variety. The maples had those little whirly-bird seeds that came down like squadrons of helicopters. We would try and catch them and re-launch them in big handfuls.

Sometimes we would open the funny shaped seeds and put them on our noses. We called them Pinocchio noses. And oh the red and yellow and orange colors with the maples every Fall. All that free entertainment from your neighborhood trees. My later North 5th Street home had tall, shag bark maples, complete with the little whirly-bird seeds.

Roseville Avenue had sycamores. Now there is an interesting tree, the first to start dropping its leaves; and the only one I remember that shed its bark come late summer. It has these little round seedpods about the size of golf balls. What always intrigued me was the sweet gummy smell the trees exuded during a soft Spring or Summer rain. My cousin Jimmy lived in Belleville on a street lined with mature sycamores, and the smell under those trees as a Summer storm came up was just intoxicating. It was the same on Roseville Avenue.

Just a block or two away from my East Orange home are two streets lined with enormous sycamores, with trunks that must be close to 5 feet in diameter. Walking down that street brings back my Newark memories, so much so I once wrote a poem about the sycamore trees of my youth:

Black city streets
scrapped skin off my knees
warm Summer nights were my youth;

Sweet smelling sycamores
wept down on me
after each quick passing storm.

As I recall there were some rather nice sycamores next to the old St. Francis church, before the building was razed, making room for the convent and the completion of construction and renovation of the area in the early 1960s. Funny how you remember such things.

First Avenue by the old Coca-Cola factory and down to Roseville Avenue and on to First Avenue School had oak trees, white oaks as I recall, with those tiny little acorns that came down like rain in late Summer and early Fall. These trees were one of the last to lose their leaves and gave us mischievous inhabitants a handy supply of ammunition for tossing at passing trailer trucks and of course neighborhood girls.

Red oaks were better providers of acorns, dropping the larger green ones that had a greater heft to them, and could give considerable distance to your toss. But if it was tree ammunition you desired, then it was off to Peck Avenue where picturesque chestnut trees grew. Now there was the perfect, naturally grown, urban hurling object. There is nothing like bouncing a well-shaped chestnut off a street stop sign—with that rewarding “Bonk” sound. We used chestnuts as grenades (and sometimes pine cones too that we got from Branch Brook Park) when playing army with the gang.

Can you recall the kinds of trees of that grew near your Newark home, or remember the colors they rewarded you with every Fall?

My Uncle Luke supervised Newark shade tree gangs. He knew his way around trees and probably could tell you by heart where the different varieties of trees grew in the city. Seemed like the city had many more trees than it does today. There is nothing sadder to me than to see some stately trees growing worse with time and ailing. It seems to foretell the coming decline of a neighborhood.

Maybe as part of the re-birth of Newark, they will remember not to spare the tree budget, and restore the natural touch that I think folks really enjoy. Let’s have many different kinds and flowering trees as well……and don’t forget those aromatic sycamores. I never will.


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