Forest Hills Section - the Early 70s

by Jim Rosko


The Rosko family “escaped” from the projects on 7th Avenue around 1969-70 and moved to Lake Street, a “well to do” neighborhood near Heller Parkway. It was a big step up – just like the song goes from the sitcom, “The Jefferson’s” – we were “Movin’ On Up!”

While living in the projects, we were young and naive– it was a time of innocence, even though crime, drugs and such were running rampant. Landing in Forest Hills seemed like we hit the lottery. We were able to move there based on some government-subsidized program. My dad was a postal employee, so he didn’t make much money.

To set the stage, this is what was going on in the world at the time: Neil Armstrong of Apollo 11 walked on the moon; Woodstock occurred in nearby, upstate NY; Students of Kent State were killed by National Guard troops; Watergate; Israeli Olympic athletes were killed by Arab terrorists in Munich; Egypt and Syria attacked Israel on Yom Kippur; President Nixon was impeached and resigned. The Vietnam War was still raging.

In Newark, at the time, we were oblivious to World events. In our world, Tony Imperiale lived in the next street behind us. He was made to be a controversial figure, but his presence nearby instilled a sense of security for the neighborhood…and I know the ambulance system he operated was thought of very highly. The homes in this neighborhood were well kept and the people seemed tightly knit. Residents seemed to be upstanding and many had the better paying jobs.

On the other hand, I was “booted out” of Essex Catholic for lack of money and found myself at Broadway Junior High. This school had many problems…so much so I hated going (I had finished 8th grade at St. Patrick’s downtown while still living in the projects on 7th Avenue). But I endured the year required before heading off to Barringer High. Barringer was racially split, so trouble ignited at the drop of a hat (as causal remnants of the Newark riots still lingered). Non-students infiltrated the school to antagonize and incite. I remember cops on horseback patrolled the area to try and keep the peace. And it seemed we were one of the first schools in the country to have ID cards and security check points to enter. Barringer was a pretty good distance from Lake Street and Heller Parkway…buses cost, so walking or “hitching a ride” were among the few other options.

I hung around with two distinct groups – guys I knew from Broadway Junior High, and those who lived up the hill in Forest Hills. Both groups, though not gangs, were rough and tough in their own way…and were very territorial. Who I hung with (of the two groups) depended on my mood. The guys in Forest Hills were big into lifting weights and were referred to as “Muscle Beach” (the younger guys were called “Li’l Muscle Beach”). The guys down on Summer Avenue, near Elliott Street School, were poor, similar to guys in the projects where I had come from; they were real scrappers and hustlers, so I guess I identified with them more. Both groups seemed to live for the weekends and the summer months -- and displayed machismo at every opportunity.

Music of the early 70s was diverse, great, and set the tone for the times. At one end of the spectrum there was Led Zeppelin’s explosive “Whole Lotta Love” and a host of CCR songs to introspective songs like “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” “Lean on Me,” and “American Pie.” And then you had a continuation of the Motown sound with the likes of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On,” the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination,” and Stevie Wonder’s “Superstitions.” But there were many of us who didn’t want to leave the 50s and 60s. We’d continue to listen to the Four Seasons (of Newark), the Five Satins, the Drifters, and all the “Doo Wop” groups. We’d hang out at a big lot at the end of Grafton Ave, up near Franklin Avenue…friends with cars would come and go, booze was plentiful, music blasted, girls would sashay like they were on a runway in Atlantic City, and guys would discuss their plans for the evening.

Sports were still an important past time for the Rosko family. We’d play “B” ball at Elliott Street School or Ridge Street School. In the winter, half-lit, we’d play tackle on asphalt in the snow at Elliott Street playground. Then we’d go over to the library across the street, chug some beers or vodka (acquiring booze using adult “winos” came easy) and sing acappella like fools (or hoodlums that we appeared to be).

Saturdays in the winter were reserved for football at Branch Brook Park. We were rag-tag in our uniforms and equipment, but hitting was the name of the game. Vicious hits would be the source of conversation for the rest of the week – so one’s reputation was built in this fashion. I remember hitting “Dinky,” a guy who must’ve gone 6’3” and 250 lbs, square in the knees as he ran the ball. I put him down hard, got raves from my teammates, but remembering seeing stars for a week. No doubt I had a concussion – but continued to play. And, if my hit had any effect, it made the likes of Dinky more determined and mean.

Sometimes we’d play the black guys from the projects down near Broadway. If they were being beaten by us, they’d send in these guys who were in their mid-20s, dressed in exquisite leather coats, shark-skin pants, and the best dress shoes money could buy. Then they’d put on a helmet and run in like they were going to take over the game. I remember one such guy coming over the middle for a pass. Playing middle linebacker, it was like I was shooting fish in a barrel. Once the ball touched his hand, I clothes-lined him…to prove his pride, I think he mustered the strength to crawl off the field. His first play in the game was his last. For me, I boosted my reputation for hitting that would last for months.

Stickball was also a favorite pastime at Elliott St. You’d have a “strike zone” drawn on the school wall, use a rubber ball and broom stick (we didn’t use half-balls like NY), and commence to break windows when the ball went over the fence - hitting the houses behind the school. But some of the guys were good pitchers; the balls had great velocity and the curve balls were wicked…and, if I remember right, it was some of my Puerto Rican friends (like Carlos and Oscar) who lived around Summer Avenue who had the knack for such “hard-to-hit” pitching. Of course there were few, if any, Puerto Ricans up in Forest Hills at the time. Mt. Prospect Avenue was sort of a demarcation line for the Forest Hills group.

I owned boxing gloves (from money I earned from working at Branch Brook Cycle on Bloomfield Avenue), so the Rosko brothers (there are 5 boys and 2 girls in the family) would invite the guys from Summer Avenue to come to our home to box in the yard. The yard seemed big at the time, but returning there a few years ago to look at the house we once lived, the yard appeared the size of a boxing ring. I can’t believe I had room enough to park my first car there – a 59 Chevy Impala. I bought it in 1971 or so (for a couple hundred dollars) before I even had my driving permit. I took it out on the road illegally a couple times, and I vaguely remember “side-swiping” a parked car my first time out. I had nightmares for weeks that the cops would show up at our doorstep.

Yeah, we had some good boxing matches in that backyard…fahgetaboutit! We all thought we were Jerry Quarry, George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper (“the Bleeder”), Oscar Bonavena, or any underdog fighting Mohammed Ali. I remember back in the projects I’d shine shoes in the Irish bars in Kearny and Harrison. The Irish guys would say, as I shined their shoes while watching the fights, “if Quarry knocks out Ali, you’ll get ten bucks, kid!” Well, much to my chagrin, my praying never paid off.

Like 7th Avenue (to a degree), food was pretty good in Forest Hills and down around Summer Avenue -- when you had the money. Me and my friend Tommy Casale, hooking school, hustled carrying groceries to cars at newly built supermarkets in Bloomfield just to have some dough for the weekend – enough for booze, good Italian food, and any mischief we could find. Parkwood Pizzeria on Mt. Prospect Avenue made great Subs. Pizza Time on Summer Avenue near Verona Avenue had super meatball sandwiches and pizza. A bunch of us would stop there on the way to, or back from, bowling in Belleville. As we got older and had transportation, we’d run over to Bloomfield Avenue for food. The hot dog trucks operated around the clock…and you can’t get those great red onions in many places outside Newark! Ting-A-Lings and Dickie Dee’s were also places to go for great Italian hot dogs on Pita bread.

Unfortunately, this area went to the dogs eventually as well – at least the area from Mt. Prospect Avenue down to Broadway. Drugs and drug crimes saw many of my friends and acquaintances die at such young ages. Even some who seemed the wisest among us succumbed to “the curse.” Others, I understand, are still under its spell.

Well, my dad, a Korean War veteran, died unexpectedly at a young age (42) and left 7 kids behind. My mom eventually moved south to Farmingdale, NJ. as the house in Newark got too hard to maintain. We just celebrated my mom’s 75th birthday in January. All 7 of her kids were able to be there, despite being scattered around the globe. Five of us 7 kids would eventually join the military.

I entered the Navy in 1974, after graduating from Barringer High School. I retired from the Navy at the rank of Senior Chief in 1996. I continued to work for the Department of Defense as a civilian in the Intelligence field until 2004. One of my younger brothers, John, is still in the Navy and is scheduled to go to Iraq with the Marines in August of 2005. My brother Bruce is a missionary, providing spiritual nourishment to our U.S. troops in Korea. Brother Dave got out of the Air Force and settled in Oklahoma; Sister Ruth Ann retired from the Navy and is a nurse – she is with her husband, an Air Force physician, and is about to leave Texas for Guam. Mary and Mark still reside in N. J.

Newark has always had the reputation for breeding toughness. Folks from other N. J. cities would treat you a bit different, maybe with suspicion or fear, once they learned you were from Newark. And we “Nickie-Newarks” tended to flaunt it and feed off it. Having endured the likes of Newark, I guess one can say the Rosko family did okay (by the grace of God)…and the proverbial “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” has some truth to it – I suppose.


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