I often get the opportunity to interact
with Newark youth, visiting their schools and meeting their teachers.
Recently, I was out doing a careers talk at Newark's Technology
High School, over on Broadway. This immaculate school is now housed
in the former Newark Teachers Normal School, where many of our old
teachers got their educational training so many years ago.
After I gave my “spiel” for the seniors at Technology
High, I drove up 4th Avenue to Summer Avenue, made a left turn,
and took Summer out to Bloomfield Avenue. Crossing the busy road,
I noticed the ubiquitous old Hi Hat Diner was gone, replaced by
a rather large gas station.
Continuing along Summer Avenue, across Park Avenue, through tall
Sycamore trees now shorn of leaves, I made my way out to 7th Avenue,
right where the old Columbus Projects used to be. Happily, the projects
have been replaced with the most beautiful single-family homes.
What a difference! St. Lucy's Church once again stands out, no longer
shadowed by those horrid brick behemoths. Whatever possessed people
to put those terrible structures up in the first place?
Looking around at the once vibrant heart of Newark’s Little
Italy, I noticed many of the old shops were gone, including the
venerable Arres Bakery. Not much to remind anyone that from about
1870 to the 1950s much of New Jersey’s bulging Italian population
came through this tight-knit community.
Webster Jr. High functions still, appearing to be in good shape.
I went there since Barringer High had no 9th grade at the time.
For a moment I could see our favorite History teacher, Mr. Simon,
playing basketball with the kids at lunchtime, wowing them with
his deadly hook shot. I could feel kindly Mr. Patrick’s reassuring
hand on my shoulder encouraging me through his mechanical drawing
class. I remember taking the 30 or 82 bus there from Ting-a-Ling’s
on Bloomfield Avenue, using the old pink bus tickets to ride those
tightly packed buses back and forth every day.
As I drove west up to Clifton Avenue I recalled this year is the
100th anniversary of my grandparents Sabino and Rosa Melchionne
coming to America. They married in St. Lucy’s Church in 1904.
For a brief moment I could feel their warmth. How many times did
they walk those very streets, along with their many “paisani”---the
grandchildren of whom I knew and went to school.
It's a very different place now, but there is still an echo of
home along that main artery. You can sense that heartbeat pulse
of a hungry and anxious-to-make-good immigrant community—constantly
urging their children to pursue The American Dream. “Get your
education!” I can still hear my mother telling us.
I swore I smelled tomato gravy cooking on a hot Sunday afternoon
as my car made its way up the hill toward Rotunda Pool, near where
Drift Street would have been…..the location of our ancestral
A hundred years is a mighty long time in America, a country not
even 300 years old itself. It will take some time for my grandparents’
echoes to disappear, but by that time some other ethnic group will
be making its own sounds. And someone, somewhere in the distant
future, will ride through that area just like I did, on a chilly
overcast November day, remembering where he came from---perhaps
also wishing he could see and talk to his grandparents, hearing
their broken English, just one more time.