The Projects of 7th Avenue - Circa 1960s

by Jim Rosko


Columbus Homes Projects of 7th Ave.

Our family lived there from about 1958 until 1969. Those were the days (at least the earlier years)! What went on in the projects was more entertaining than HBO. Who knew we were poor? We didn't – everyone around us was in the same boat.

Those were the days of Mantle and Maris - Tom Tresh and Joe Pepitone. Sports, watching and playing, kept us happy.

The sights and sounds of 7th Ave, and what was left of Little Italy due to the projects, still linger in the recesses of the mind. No place on earth could you find better Italian bread, Italian bakeries, and penny candy. You had Pop’s, Mario’s, and so many places I can't remember, but I can visualize and see it like it was yesterday. And nothing compared to the smells and tastes and sights of the St. Gerard's Feasts at St. Lucy's…especially for kids (that we were). The excitement was akin to the movie Godfather II with DeNiro.

Yeah, the projects started out all right but deteriorated as time went on. We played softball and “baseball” with “pimple balls” on the asphalt between 7th Ave and Sheffield Drive. The projects were 12 stories high. A feat for a kid was to throw a pimple ball as high as you could. The best could put it on the roof! I remember coming very close.

Men played softball on the bigger “black-top” field (that ran East towards Broadway). Sometimes they would let us 10-12 year olds chase the fly balls. These guys hit pop ups about 12 stories! I remember once when I misjudged a fly ball, and when it hit me in the nose, blood spouted everywhere. Ah, those were the days.

I went to McKinley Elementary. My friends were Bobby Koval and Ritchie Minachelli. In 1966, in 6th grade, I won the MVP at McKinley for all sports. Victor Mesce, a dear friend, was the meanest competitor for that honor. I believe he won the 2nd highest honor. I wish I had that trophy now – I never knew what happened to it.

I remember most of my teachers at McKinley. I do remember the fall of 1963. JFK was killed. Everyone (adults) cried. As a 3rd grader, I wasn't sure what it all meant. I believe they let us out of school early. When I got home (Apt 3C at 74 7th Ave) my mom was ironing and crying.

We had 9 in our family. The Projects' lobby apartments were for the largest families. Therefore, we moved into the lobby apartments – 62 building on 7th Avenue. But we were a small family compared to most. Some had 13 kids! And these families produced some of the toughest S.O.B.s in the neighborhood.

I learned to swim at Rotunda pool located at the peak of 7th Ave at Clifton Avenue, near Branch Brook Park. We ice skated across the street in the winter (if we had the money). The old Italian guys played Bocchi Ball near by…never really figured that game out. The 25 – 45 year old guys played some game where they'd shoot out their fingers while screaming something in Italian – I understand it was gambling of sorts.

We fought (boxed), pitched pennies, played marbles, and found ways to entertain ourselves….if we were lucky and had the money, we might fly a kite or fly a wooden glider airplane.

Football was big. I once shook Y.A. Tittle’s (of NY Giants fame) hand at Bamberger’s downtown. I think I played hookie to do it. We played football around the projects, but later we played on grass at Sacred Heart Cathedral or the Park Police grounds across the way. Playing football inside the projects was tough because they had these huge flower boxes made of concrete in the way. I remember going long once, running full speed for an over the shoulder catch, when I was dropped dead in my tracks by one of these cement monstrosities. How I walked away from it, and wasn’t paralyzed, I'll never know. The Lord was with me, even then!

In '67 I went to Webster Jr. High. I got in a mean fight with a mean black dude there: Howard Graham. He was built like Joe Frazier. Up to that point, Howard and I were actually friends. In any case, the racial divide was very distinct that year. After school we fought. All the white kids ran home one by one. There I was, inside a circle of black guys fighting Howard. We punched; we wrestled. On the ground I took a lot of shots from the audience. I survived, but bloodied. Howard had some knots on his head. In the end, I was respected by those black kids.

Ironically, the summer of '67 marked the Newark riots. I have the Life magazine from that time focusing on the Newark riots. I remember segments of the riots vividly. Springfield Avenue wasn't too far – that was the focal site. It soon moved into the projects on 7th Avenue. It was like Beirut. Once the shooting started, my dad packed up the family car to head out of Newark. Cops and State Troopers were everywhere. Apparently there were snipers on the roof. As the oldest of 7 kids, I remember my dad sending me back into the apartment because he forgot something important…Paperwork, wallet? I can’t remember. All I remember is that I ran with everything in me. I ran zigzag because of the shooting. We ended up in Mt. Carmel, PA, at an Aunt’s house. The people there were oblivious to the riots of Newark! Some even said they had never seen a black person! When we eventually returned to the projects, some of our windows had bullet holes. Not long after, we moved to Lake Street in Newark – between Heller Parkway and Grafton Avenue….and a whole new episode for the Rosko family in Newark unfolded – stay tuned!

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