Remembering Downtown Newark in the 1960's

by Alfred Sonny Piccoli


Growing up as a young boy in Newark NJ during the early part of the 1960s, I began to realize that New Jersey's largest city provided many interesting things to do and places to enjoy. Eventually, I discovered at its epicenter in Downtown Newark, the busy intersection of Broad and Market Street, also known as Four Corners. This was where people of every race and religion, both rich and poor would mingle, playing their part in a great American melting pot experience. As I reminisce about some of my own nostalgic experiences, I realize how very lucky I was to also be there at this important time and special place in American history.

In 1960, I was 10 years old living in a North Newark public housing project. I used to earn money by finding empty soda bottles that I would return to local stores so I could receive the 2 & 5¢ deposit refunds. One day I met an older boy named Michael who told me about a place called, “Downtown.” He explained that there were stores filled with toys for sale, and even though we had no money to buy any of them, we could still play with the ones that were on display for free. That was all the convincing I needed for me to board the 10¢ independent #18 bus to the place that would become my frequent playground throughout the next decade. I felt a sense of awe the first time I stepped off the bus onto one of the Four Corners. In every direction I looked were vast numbers of department stores, movie theaters, commercial businesses, historical sites and places to eat.

We decided to head up Market Street to inspect a massive ten-story department store named Bamberger's. Upon entering, I was amazed by seeing an escalator for the first time in my life. It was fun riding up several flights on these futuristic steps to the toy department. There I discovered a giant room filled with shelves of toys. I felt like I had arrived in paradise! Later back at home, I was happy to have found an enjoyable place I could always go to, even in some of my darkest hours. The lyrics of Petula Clark's 1964 hit song Downtown expressed my sentiments when she sang: “When you're alone and life is making you lonely you can always go – downtown. When you've got worries, all the noise, and the hurry - Seems to help, I know – downtown. Just listen to the music of the traffic in the city. How can you lose?”

Sometimes my friends and I would play in Military Park on Broad Street. The park featured the bronze statute Wars of America, created by Gutzon Borglum. The colossal monument was comprised of forty-two humans and two horses set on a massive granite base. I remember we would have fun playing on the statute a form of tag called, “army.”

One of my favorite places, I used to love to go to was the pinball arcade on Market Street. The mesmerizing sights and sounds of the nickel a game pinball machines captivated me. And right down the street was a pizzeria with delicious 15¢ slices. On the corner was Nedicks renowned for their hot dogs and signature orange drink that I always found to be a treat.

On Market street was the Army & Navy store with a large selection of inexpensive clothes. Another store offering low-budget merchandise was fittingly named John's Bargain Store. Unfortunately, I hardly ever had any money at this time in my life. Nevertheless, I always enjoyed feeling like I was on an adventurous journey. I never got bored exploring the many department stores such as S. Klein On The Square, Haynes, Kresge, and Orbach. They competed with each other selling everything imaginable while keeping pace with the rapidly changing styles and trends. I still have vivid recollections of when iridescent pants and high-roll shirts became the latest fashion rage. Bright color Banlon shirts also quickly became a fad. I admired the stylish Italian knit shirts. They were expensive but still sold well because they helped make anyone wearing one look distinctly modern.

Thom McAn, a shoe store on Market Street began to sell Beatle-boots because the rock & roll group The Beatles wore them. These were an ankle-high, Cuban-heeled style boot with a pointed toe that I imagined would help to make me look cool too. Eventually, I was able to buy a pair with money earned selling Newark Evening News newspapers on McCarter Highway.

I will never forget being on Broad Street in Woolworth's, as part of a crowd, watching a demonstration of a new invention. The salesman was swirling eggs around in a Teflon coated frying pan. His, “never to stick” sales pitch claim convinced a lot of people to purchase this amazing $1.00 cooking innovation. A block away was McCrory's. The store had a photo-booth that my friends and I would cram inside to take fun snapshots.

At the free Newark Public Library, on Washington Street, was the fun, safe place where I began a lifelong passion for reading. There I discovered a huge endless treasure of books that sparked my imagination and curiosity for knowledge. From there I would take a short walk up Washington Street to The Newark Museum. I marveled at the major collections of American art and extensive art from around the world. I became fascinated with astronomy from exploring exhibitions in the museum's planetarium. Behind the museum, I would unwind in a beautiful garden with sculptures and then visit the historical Newark Fire Museum that I thought was interesting.

I was often drawn back to downtown Newark because of my love for the movies that were shown in the spectacular theaters built back during the Vaudeville era. They had ornate architecture consisting of high-lighted dome ceilings, balconies, brass railings, and huge curtains that would open before and close after each movie presentation. I recall paying 25¢ for admission to the Adams Theater on Branford Place, and 10¢ for popcorn. The show began featuring cartoon previews of Popeye the Sailor Man and Mighty Mouse. Then followed was a series of short films of the comedy slapstick team The 3 Stooges, Moe, Larry & Curly.
Another of my memorable movie experiences in Newark was at the Elmwood Theater. There I was spellbound by the striking visual effects of Jules Verne's, Mysterious Island science fiction classic. I was enchanted watching on the big screen castaways fighting giant crabs and birds while hoping to be rescued before the deserted isle volcano erupts. At the Paramount Theater on Market Street, I viewed Goldfinger, the third in a series of James Bond spy films. I still can recall the lyrics of the unforgettable 1965 hit song Goldfinger, sung by Shirley Bassey.

Throughout the 1960s decade, I enjoyed seeing dozens of extraordinary movies in the theaters throughout downtown Newark. In the RKO Proctors, I received an important history lesson of when Spartacus, starring Kurt Douglas led a gladiator revolt against the Roman Empire. The cinematic classic depicted a compassionate story of men who fought against being held in bondage and oppressive tyranny. The Bradford was another one of my favorite theaters where I would go to see blockbuster films such as The Great Escape. The compelling film was based on a true story of allied POWs escaping from a Nazi prison camp in WWII. I held my breath when Steve McQueen made a daring motorcycle jump over a barbwire fence. In 1967 in the Loew's Theater on Broad Street, I watched In The Heat Of The Night, the groundbreaking, thought-provoking film about race relations in America. Sidney Poitier portrayed Detective Tibbs, a black detective from Philadelphia, who becomes involved with a murder investigation in racially explosive, rural Mississippi. A bigoted, white sheriff reluctantly seeks his help to find the truth. In the process, Detective Tibbs gains the respect, and friendship of the southern police Chief. The film won the Academy Award Oscar for Best Picture that I believed it truly deserved.

Sometimes I used to walk up Market Street to sit on the bench attached to the side of the inspiring, bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln, overlooking the front of the Old Essex County Courthouse. The magnificent, larger than life sculpture, provided me not only physical comfort but, also uplifting my belief that courageous people with integrity did exist. While I sat in contemplation next to Lincoln, I felt I belonged, and was a part of this diverse, great city. This strengthened my faith in humanity, leading to my better understanding and acceptance of others.

As a young man, I was faced with difficult fundamental questions of what I should do in life. One day while walking on Raymond Boulevard my eyes became fixed on Newark Penn Station. The impressive Art-Deco designed major transportation complex seemed to beckon me toward it. I watched people bustling about in their rush to board transport upon the multiple train rail and bus carriers leading to any destination in the world. I began to realize with a calm clarity that my future was filled with endless possibilities too. Growing up in Newark prepared me with confidence and optimism for my journey in life along the roads ahead.

Written January 26, 2020 – February 18, 2020, by ALFRED SONNY PICCOLI Bloomfield NJ

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