Elizabeth Forum 2009
The City Neighborhood As Urban Oasis
The Historical Society of Elizabeth NJ would like to express its deepest thanks to several individuals who contributed substantively to this project:
Rev. John Howard, pastor of Siloam Hope Memorial Presbyterian Church; Rev. Kevin White, pastor of New Zion Baptist church; Leyde and Gisella Calle, Cecelia Cabera, Pedro Cruz and Brian Lopez, all HSE staffers; Jeremiah Davis, HSE technical consultant; Nancy Smith, historical specialist at the Elizabeth Public Library, and Linda C. Epps, CEO of the NJ Historical Society. In addition, our particular thanks go to neighborhood individuals who sat for oral interviews and shared their historical memories with the Society and the city: Pearl Cooper, Katie Hall, Rev. Patricia Nowicke Schwoebel, Elizabeth Smyth, and Nancy Trembley
THE NEIGHBORHOOD, 1882
Neighborhoods are nearly always resident creations. They may begin with a community leader’s concept or even a designer’s blueprint, but its citizens eventually determine whether a neighborhood takes root, create supportive relations and constructive memories and find ways to link themselves to adjacent entities to form a working city.
The neighborhood under scrutiny here – one bounded by Spring Street, later Routes 1&9, by Division St on the east and Bond on the neighborhood’s southern border had its origins in the mind of an early Elizabeth entrepreneur and realtor, Edward N. Kellogg (1816-1867).
His father Elijah Kellogg, had been a prominent city merchant and Presbyterian congregant in the early years of the century. His religious and civic-mindedness prodded him into a split from First Presbyterian Church to form the Second Presbyterian Church in 1820.
He and his fellow trustees engineered the call to the Reverend David Magie (1795-1865), a graduate of Princeton (1817) and Princeton Theological Seminary, who would minister to this body until the end of the Civil War. In his way Elijah laid the foundation for a major building block of early Elizabeth, the Second Presbyterian church.
Elijah’s son, Edward, had a still broader vision, one of creating domiciles and facilities that would attract commerce and manufacturing. He wished to take advantage of Elizabeth’s water access not only to New York City but its harbor and international trade. About the 1840s Edward N. Kellogg began buying local farms, especially the Woodruff Farms of about 300 acres.
On these land parcels he laid out streets to cultivate the northern sections of the city’s farms into “attractive cottages, spacious warehouses, extensive manufacturers and elegant mansions.” (Rev Edw Hatfield, History of Eliz NJ , p686) In his and his supporters’ initial enthusiasm there is no hint that these distinct entities might at some point be at odds in creating urban neighborhoods. Some of the streets in the original Kellogg design assumed particular names: Julia, Mary, Louisa and later Anna, Flora, Emma and Olive.
First Presbyterian Church
First Presbyterian Church
First Presbyterian Church
Later residents noticed that these streets crossed those named after presidents: Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Van Buren. Local lore often assumed that the streets with female names must be the wives of these presidents.
But if so these early streets should bear the names of Martha, Abigail, Elizabeth, Dolly, Rachel, Hannah, etc. In actual fact, the street names found their origins in Kellogg’s family, with his immediate sisters, Julia, Louisa, Mary and later seemingly from the names of working-class servants in Kellogg households: Emma Schmolka and Anna Morgan, for example, in the household of Edward’s grandson, James C. Kellogg, whose house still stands at 236 West Jersey Street.
By the time the Kellogg family had moved away from the neighborhoods they brought into being, trafficked roadways, and trucking warehouses had begun to ring at least one neighborhood and indeed to cut it off from easy traffic with the city of Elizabeth. Since the accommodation of residential and commercial structures had begun to clash by the end of the 19th century, later inquirers wanted to know how disruptive these so-called modern “advancements” were actually thought to be. Were they signs of progress, like Edward N Kellogg once thought, or had they become distractions from residents’ efforts to build a supportive neighborhood?
This neighborhood of female names was flourishing by 1910, though there were still spaces for new homes.The residential development had begun before 1900, and many first owners or renters had emigrated to the United States since the mid 1880s.
The Kellogg Residence
215 West Jersey
We can see that in this 1910 sample 62 percent of neighborhood residents were foreign-born and over half of them were skilled laborers.
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN
(WI, OH, MA, CT, MD, DE)
One illustrative case would be that of August Eisenhauer, who immigrated from Alsace, in 1882 a part of Germany, and in 1900 lived on nearby Division Street (#145). By 1910 he had moved to (955) Olive street where he raised a family and worked his way from “Laborer-Machinist” to “Machinist,” sometime at the Gas Works, sometimes elsewhere.
His three sons all entered the skilled workforce and raised families, not far from their base neighborhood (August, a toolmaker, on East Grand, Jacob, a roofer, on Franklin Street, William (no longer Wilhelm), a Plumber, on Emma, on the other side of Spring Street). The Olive street home would remain in the Eisenhauer family until the 1960s.
The key features of August Eisenhauer’s neighborhood was not simply the ethnic cultures of recent immigrants – he had that in his native Alsace, so beleaguered with French-German tensions after the Franco-Prussian War – but the absence of any critical dominance by any one ethnic culture.
Eisenhauer’s Olive Street gave him as immediate neighbors on one side, a New York born but second generation Bohemian family and on his other side recent (arr 1897) Irish immigrants . Sprinkled though this urban oasis one found in, say, 1920, many New Jersey born individuals who had immigrants for parents.
While the native population continued to rise into the 1930s, many of these families remained highly conscious of their ethnic traditions but seldom did they flaunt them, as one resident testified. “We didn’t come to Elizabeth,” Patricia Nowicke explained, “because other Polish families were here.” Seldom would one find concentrated clusters of a common ethnic group. The key feature was the wide distribution and intensive interaction of different cultures throughout the entire neighborhood.
Ironically this patchwork quilt of ethnic and later racial cultures provided an essential counterpoint to the physical features of the Spring-Division-Bond neighborhood. These streets became boundaries for commercial and urbanizing reasons. Bond became the last residential bastion, once the freight railroad to Singers erected a powerful barrier on the neighborhood’s southern perimeter. On the east Spring Street became transformed in 1927-28 when state planners responded to increased traffic by expanding the thoroughfare from two to six lanes and providing a forbidding impediment on the neighborhood’s western side.
Division, initially separating the neighborhood on the north and east from the meadows, became a conduit to the Singer’s plant for both car-owning workers and truckers. Indeed, one interviewee reported the family lore, calling Division Street the “rat race” not because of rats but because of the traffic intensity and speed. Urban modernization encircled this neighborhood physically but also gave its residents a sense of collectively, imposed experience.
Railroad at Singer’s
The formal social organizations of this neighborhood for much of its history were churches. The large Irish population became the bastion of Sacred Heart church on Bond and Spring street, and their parochial school became a convenient local resource, much closer than the public schools, Madison-Monroe or Lafayette, which required a crossing of the formidable Route 1 & 9, once Spring Street had expanded.
On the other side of Spring Street, Hope Memorial Presbyterian Church provided one alternative to the Roman Catholic option. The memorable dinners at their pastor’s residence included bright, white lien tablecloths and plenty of chicken. In addition, a number of German families, even those who owned automobiles, took the #30 bus on Sunday morning to Elizabeth Avenue and Reid Street (site of Grampp’s Hardware) and exited for a block walk north to St Mark’s Lutheran church on East Jersey. Afterward, a powerful cultural memory, pastries at the Dietrich’s bakery for streusel, crumb cake or raisin buns before returning home. Much later (1976) New Zion Baptist Church (f. 1917) would provide still another option by erecting a handsome church on Flora and Anna Streets, thereby becoming a latter-day anchor for African-American residents after World War II.
Sacred Heart Church
A further spur to social and cultural interest was the 21st century opening of the Stephen Sampson Senior Center, organizing gatherings on site as well as chartering buses for travel and special events outside the city.
Besides the churches for organizing the neighborhood’s priorities were the factories themselves, especially Singer Sewing Machine Company. Since the late 19th century its plant was functionally a garden-like campus, with manicured lawns and flower-beds. Postcards from the turn of the century always highlight the elegant, natural features of the manufacturing environment. Never shown on the postcards were the saloons and boarding houses directly across Trumbull Street. The facilities serviced the large Singer workforce with lunch and “growlers” of beer during the workday. It was not uncommon for a busy tavern to sell 18-20 half-kegs at the noon break alone at 5 cents the 16oz glass. The Trumbull Street taverns and boarding houses – Grampp’s, Hergert’s, Peters’, Hoffman’s, Deuchman’s and Meise’s and around the corner on First St., J Logan Fay’s, the one non-German proprietor but a prominent Democratic politico – also provided not just a respite between home and work; they often organized family parties for workers on major holidays. In the 1930s Mayor Joseph Brophy worked hard to provide park and playground space in this area, one area of which is now Brophy Field, where Singer-sponsored teams played each other. The factories then were economic drivers for both neighborhood and city but, more, became engines of social organization. At their best the factories sought to create a special workplace culture, although, at times, this intent was a self-conscious counterpoint of labor union resistance.
Singer Sewing Machine Company remained the centerpiece of the Elizabeth economy since the 1870s, but its importance went beyond the making of its famous, globally known product. Much like other manufacturing cities, the prevalence of “machinists” in Elizabeth not only formed the backbone of sewing machine production, these skilled laborers, an unsung resource in historian Herbert Gutman’s eyes, became a powerful incentive for other companies to locate here and produce a great array of modern industrial goods: industrial parts, electrical devices, oil refining techniques, gas house apparatuses, furniture and mattress companies, etc.
Like Paterson, Newark and other NJ manufacturing hubs, Elizabeth became a vibrant center for production because of its labor force’s skills.
When the federal census recorded the range of such workers – metal polishers, tool-makers, machinists, welders, iron molders, etc – they documented the essential common ground that connected the city’s multiple, seemingly unrelated manufactured goods. One might also note that company founder, Issac M. Singer, was himself originally a machinist with German origins and one of the select few workers who rose to company ownership in the 19th century, giving some historical substance to the usually fictionalized rags-to-riches mythology.
Similarly the common ground of an ethnically mixed neighborhood, like the Spring-Division-Bond oasis – was the fundamental daily routine that every resident faced, whatever their ethnic or racial inheritance: food on the table, shelter from the elements, living wages, productive crafts, engagement with city and environmental resources. These pressing demands, according to several of our oral histories, overrode the potential barriers of ethnic and racial differences. All residents of the neighborhood faced the basic necessities and quickly, almost unconsciously, determined to face them together. The documented differences of the federal census, it turns out, became secondary to issues which bound neighbors together. Children recall, now in retrospect, almost in disbelief, that they walked in and out of each other’s houses as if they all were blood members of each family. Lifelong friendships were forged from the routine patterns of walking to school, caring for younger siblings, sharing meals, enjoying the financial or occupation advances of one neighbor or another. These patterns held through the 1950s, as Linda Caldwell testified, lunchening every days with her Polish neighbors, the Nowickes, who became life-long friends.
Even before the Depression years, our oasis neighborhood experienced a dip in skilled workers and a rise in 1930 to 40% in the unskilled category. Traditionally the unskilled presented drivers, peddlers, chauffeurs, watchmen, or individuals who simply put “laborer” in their occupation category of the federal census. But even by 1930 some in these categories would likely have been somewhat skilled but were cut off from advancement by depression layoffs. In addition, factories’ like Singer’s would in wartime convert from sewing machines into munitions producers. In Singer’s case, during World War II they retrofitted their equipment and manufactured 75 mm cannons and 45 caliber automatics, subsequently collector’s items. More significantly, a substantive economic shift occurred by midcentury, eroding the relative autonomy of skilled workers into mere industrial employees, more mechanized, less discretionary work. The regimentation of factory work , especially setting ever higher standards perceived as “speed-ups,” also threatened the value of living wage and immediately after World War II gave rise to a surge in the ranks of organized labor and labor actions to retrieve both wages and workplace autonomy.
In May, 1949 workers who had worked long and efficiently in war-time dynamics expected substantive gains in the victorious, post-war economy. However, new managers were slow to raise wages and more dramatically imposed higher “standards” of production along with other demands. For the first time in 76 years, the Singer workers went on strike, some 7000 strong, costing profits to Singer’s and erasing an estimated $500,000 from worker spending in Elizabeth. As the summer wore on and resources depleted, the workers’ union, Local 401 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Works of the CIO, began to lose momentum. Local merchants pressured Elizabeth Mayor James Kirk and NJ governor Alfred Driscoll to intervene and engineer a settlement. In the Autumn 1949, Singer management made a few token concessions and on Oct 17 thousands of workers returned, more than a little demoralized, to Singer’s. In the very first month of the strike, Singer’s long-time (1905-49) president, Sir Douglas Alexander (1864-1949), a Canadian knighted for his leadership of the company’s earlier wartime contributions, died. His successor was Harvard-educated company counselor, Milton C. Lightner, (1890-1968), a generation younger than Alexander and with no roots in the work-a-day aspects of the production. For many the strike, the confrontational struggle and the changed leadership marked an end to Singer’s paternal, even familial, image in Elizabeth and the beginning of a new profit-oriented, industrial pattern.
In Elizabeth the workforce remained resilient as these plate tectonic shifts occurred. One employee of Singer’s during one of their intensive post war layoffs, simply shifted to bartending at Hart’s Tavern (where political knowledge was more important than the experience of mixing and serving beverages). Similarly, throughout the city, when economies fluctuated, many small proprietors of butcher shops, groceries, taverns, etc experienced a downturn; they all viewed Singer’s as a safety net and took whatever was available, whatever their skills. In the interwar period many walked to the plant to save the trolley nickel,] so tight were family budgets. On the one hand, these serendipitous jobs might argue the workforce’s ingenuity; on the other hand, as shifts from skilled to unskilled occurred, family budgets and expectations lowered, threatening an older notion of a living family wage. The full employment of the industrial sector during World War II had its downside in the heightened, occupational stratification of plants like Singer’s, setting the postwar stage for employer-employee confrontations. The upshot made it more difficult for a “deskilled” laborer in midb20th century to thrive and advance, the way skilled factory workers did at the turn of the century.
After World War II, the intensive mixture of ethnic and racial traditions continued. Pearl Cooper had joined Hope Presbyterian church after moving to Elizabeth in the 1940s but in the 1950s sent her two children to Sacred Heart elementary school, the first African American students there. Irish-American Sr Marion was so influential on her daughter’s education that Katrina Cooper took the name Marion at her confirmation. Mrs. Cooper recalled other interactions, like her husband, a machinist at Edgecomb Steel (Hillside, NJ), Whirley Cooper, sitting on their front steps with their neighbors, the McGuires, working through local issues. Or Hope Memorial Presbyterian minister, Rev. John B. Crowell (b.1900) openly supporting racial integration in spite of some parishioner resistance. With his assistance the Coopers became the first African-Americans to join Hope memorial Presbyterian Church in 1958. Similarly Katie Hall perceived the neighborhood as diverse but supportive and recounted her many community-minded experiences and neighbors. However, it was actually in the postwar workplace that ethnic and racial tensions made themselves apparent. Her husband, James Benjamin Hall, a World War II veteran, took a job as machinist with Hyatt Roller-Bearing Co in Clark, the first African-American employee in that company founded in 1892. The night shift there often spiked his machine, so that in the morning he would spend valuable time repairing his equipment and thus jeopardizing his quota standards. How did he feel about that, she was asked. “He didn’t like it. It affected him.” Did he keep his composure? “O Yes,” Mrs. Hall replied with feeling. Clearly in these years, the continually tested example of Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers had a major influence well beyond baseball.
In the neighborhood itself, even as African-Americans achieved a critical mass in the 1950s, some neighbors refused the overture of realtors trying to use to race card to produce house sales. Elizabeth Smyth’s father face down a realtor by insisting he respected his neighbors and was not going to sell for reasons of race alone. Ms Smyth still lives today in that house, 934 Flora. She is even more aware of her neighbors and their supportive behavior now that she has retired and spends more time in the area than she did as a working adult. She recalled with fondness her own porch and rocking chairs on Anna street in her childhood, where the major entertainment was chatting with neighbors passing by. Before TV and movies pre-empted people entertainment time, they found it among themselves and – for the Smyth’s with her father’s railroad pass, a great family adventure involved train to the ferry, ferry to Manhattan and the subway, a visit with a Brooklyn aunt, hours on the beach, and a return trip in the evening. Today, TV, the shopping mall and suburban conveniences have introduced another order entirely and has reduced the first hand experience of neighbors unlike oneself.
Most interviewees explained that, though initially worried about Spring Street expansion, increased road and air traffic, and the accompanying dangers to walkers, they have grown used to the noise. If they visit relatives in the suburbs, the quiet become disturbing. When they return to their own neighborhood, they are surprised at the noise level. Eventually they block out the noise, ignore the air quality and wish for older days when they could look forward to tasting the water. Every person had stories about crossing routes 1 & 9, cautionary tales even from childhood, stressing the need to be always on the alert. If the initial expansion raised the specter of homes being appropriated through a process of eminent domain, eventually they too were put to rest and people settled into their cozy, residential enclave, a kind of oasis. Whatever the inconveniences, from the viewpoint of one Brooklyn family tired of ubiquitous concrete, Elizabeth’s backyards and even unpaved roads made it seem like “country.”
In recent years Latino and Portuguese families have begun to displace African-Americans. The corner groceries have already shifted to cater to these new arrivals and older converted homes like Rooney’s Grocery, active from 1917 to 1969 on Olive Street, have once more become mere residences. More importantly, Latino and Portuguese residential patterns, at least in the near term, tend to cluster together rather than intermix throughout the community. They find their means of assimilation proceeds with a conscious solidarity, unlike that in the early decades of the 20th century when no ethnic or racial group dominated this area. Since the transformation of Sacred Heart Roman Catholic church into Our Lady of Fatima in the early 1980s, the Portuguese congregants have become an important and solid presence in the southern sector of the neighborhood. Indeed the church and its activities, both religious and social, – seldom a presence at the neighborhood Stephen Sampson Senior Center – have reinforced the ethnic sensibility of both self-help and mutual protection, a different assimilation mode than that of earlier in the century.
The history of this neighborhood well reflects the variability of Elizabeth as a MIDDLE LEVEL CITY, an accessible urban rather than a metropolitan experience. It has experienced familiar forms of class (because most were solid working class), and racial segregation did not flourish in this oasis; these neighbors also did not conform to insular expectations that they feared moving far from their home base and travel the city. Indeed in one exemplary case, the solidarity of the neighborhood is graphically captured by a group of Olive Street neighbors – including a Kalisar, a Powers, a Generro and a Schmidt – who continued their coffee klutch for decades, even after they moved from the neighborhood to Roselle Park, Clark and Linden. This neighborhood’s residents did not look to city hall for benefits or support in trade for votes; they did not seem to have been activists during labor actions against the factories and remained more worried about global dynamics removing factories elsewhere. The obvious differences and roadway boundaries were functionally secondary to other features that required family lore and oral history – the intense cultural mix and the strategic majority of skilled laborers. Indeed the very presence of family lore testifies to the continuity and stability of this “oasis” culture. At some point one has to consider that the “barriers” that made this neighborhood a resident-generated oasis, also repelled some disruptive forces that adversely affected other neighborhoods and enclaves like influx of drugs in the 1960s or the segregated public housing policy of Pioneer Homes and Mravlag Manor. In the end, as one interview reported, Elizabeth never seemed to be a big city but rather was much more town-like, accessible and familiar like the community its residents wanted and created.
LINDA EPPS, COMMENTS ON “THE CITY NEIGHBORHOOD AS URBAN OASIS” 2009
“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times; it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief; it was the epoch of incredulity; it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was he spring of hope; it was the winter of despair; we had everything before us; we had nothing before us; we were all going directly to heaven; we were all going the other way”
I think most of you recognize these words from Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.”
Living in Keighry head for me was the best of times and the worst of times. I lived in Keighry Head for the first twenty-two years of my life. Even though I have been gone from Keighry Head and Elizabeth for almost thirty-five years, Keighry Head, olive Street in particular, is still the place I think of as home. I have good and bad memories about living there. It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. It was the neighborhood that shaped my vision of the world. It is the neighborhood I call home.
My years there corresponded with the past WW II period, the conservatism of the 1950s and the liberalism of the 1960s and early 1970s. The Korean conflict, Cuban missile Crisis, Viet Name War, assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and other urban riots – including Elizabeth’s – the shrewdness of Richard Nixon, Newark Airport and its many different phases of development, the many social ills that are a result of working class living – debt, young men and women gone wrong, drug infiltration, alcoholism, spousal and child abuse were all parts of Keighry head – were the worst of times.
The freedom provided by the Civil Rights Movement, Woodstock, Beatles, New York Work’s Fair, the eloquence of Martin Luther King’s speeches, colorful and loud parades on Elizabeth Avenue, jumping double Dutch, playing hopscotch, weekly assembly programs at Lafayette, chicken dinners with blueberry shortcake at Hope Memorial – now Siloam Hope Presbyterian Church, picnics in Jefferson Park, Broad Street on Thursday nights, collecting trash and going to Young’s broke and leaving with a few dollars in your pocket, building a club house and picking fruit off the abandoned orchards and picking punks to ward off mosquitos in the meadows, watching the Budweiser bird flap its wings on a clear day, seeing friends on the #30 bus, and going to high school with championship basketball and football teams were the best of times. Richard Wood and Gil Chapman, both who went to University of Southern California and the University of Michigan and then on to play for the New York Jets, Tampa Bay and New Orleans Saints respectively, were products of Keighry Head. We all celebrated their accomplishments, just as we celebrated the accomplishments of others who played sports, made the honor roll., went to proms and found jobs – all representing the best of times.
A Tale of Two Cities is characterized as historical fiction. I think my talk here tonight could be termed as historical nonfiction, but there are some here tonight, from Keighry head, who might disagree with my perceptions and place this more in the line of historical fiction. Again, you be the judge.
We heard from Dr. Mattingly that Keighry Head really had its genesis in the mind of Elizabeth entrepreneur and realtor, Edward Kellogg, who died in 1867. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens was published in 1859, and it was set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution. The book depicts the plight of the French working class under the brutal oppression of the ruling class during the years leading up to the French Revolution, and the corresponding savage brutality demonstrated by the revolutionaries toward the former wealthy in the early years of the Revolution. The story follows the lives of several lead characters through these events.
Edward Kellogg would be considered one of the aristocrats. He built a community for the proletariat or working class. He thoughtfully built a neighborhood- construction of Keighry Head. A pamphlet designed to attract workers to the city described Keighry Head this way: “In 1880, 300 acres of farmland was purchased for the express purpose of constructing low cost and attractive housing for the industrial class. The Keighry Head neighborhood was easily accessible to the major town shopping complex, a suitable distance from the more expansive upper class dwellings, and close to the major industrial area. Construction of the neighborhood acknowledge the popular city design theories of the time and was constructed with intentional open spaces, an easy-to-follow street grid, recreational facilities and a diversity of single family and two-family low rise dwellings. I guess Mr. Kellogg wanted to be sure there would be no uprising of the proletariat in Elizabeth – maybe he had read
A Tale of Two Cities
And indeed, those of us who lived in Keighry Head in the middle of the twentieth century were all proletariats. We were all working class, sometimes verging on welfare class. We formed a community or a neighborhood that had not quite all the intrigue of A Tale of Two Cities, but we managed to have our fair share of drama – we had our best of times and our worst of times but through all of our times, there was a certain camaraderie in Keighry Head.
Although growing up in Keighry Head, I never thought of my growing up experience as unique. I never thought of it as an experience. It was just life. We felt we were living in an ordinary neighborhood. We were well aware that our lives were not like those portrayed on Leave It To Beaver or Life with Father, or Donna Reed, but, we did feel safe. We did feel loved not only by our families but by our neighbors as well. Parents took responsibility for all our children, and I was well aware that I had to be respectful of all adults.
I am going to discuss my recollections of the neighborhood within the framework of the Wikipedia definition of neighborhood – the good and the bad.
Wikipedia states that 1. Neighborhood are common and perhaps close to universal, since most people in urbanized areas would probably consider themselves to be living in one . . . .” I do not know if we ever thought of ourselves as urban or suburban. We just knew that we were people living close together – doing the best we could to make life decent. We all had yards and most of us had little patches of grass in the front of our homes. We all had a porch, and the porch was used more than the yards. The porches served many functions. Mother peeled potatoes and snapped green beans on the porch. Kids Played checkers; fathers read newspapers and drank their beer there. But, of course, the number one function of the porch was to keep up with what your neighbors were doing. I managed to see one of the teenaged boys kiss a friend of the girl up the street – the first time I witnessed young lovers. I managed to see another neighbor, one by one, throw the dishes out of her window at her husband. No one liked her, and we gossiped about her all the time. She would often argue with her husband, and one day when they were arguing – him on the porch, she in the house. Every time the arguing would end, five minutes later she would remember something else and throw another plate out the window. While walking to Rooney’s store up the street one hot summer night with a girlfriend, said husband was standing on this porch and while saying hello to us, lifted his arm, fell down the steps and lay at our feet. Immediately a large circle of people surrounded him. We knew mothering about CPR or any way they we could help. The word spreads and by the time an ambulance arrived, there was a large circle of neighbors around him praying. He suffered a heart attack and did not recover. But because of the drama of his “porch” death, he became a legend and a neighborhood that intensely disliked his wife was able to offer support and kindness to her because we felt we were all a part of a very personal life event. His porch steps became his shrine, a reverent place. One never played in front of that house or ever again said anything bad about his wife.
2. Wikipedia state “Neighbors are convenience and always accessible, since you are already in your neighborhood when you walk out the door.” And in Kierghy Head, the neighborhood was home. You knew who lived in every house. You knew who would let you stay when you forgot your key and you knew who would have Oreo cookies – which neighbor put sugar in the iced tea and who was always on a diet and drank unsweetened. That is the house we stayed away from.
3. “Successful neighborhood action frequently requires little specialized technical skill, and often little or no money. Action may call for an investment of time, but material costs are often low.” While the community was intact, we did not have crime. Troublemakers, real troublemakers, were known to us all and were taken care of swiftly and punitively by the neighbors. Drugs were not tolerated during my early years there and did not infiltrate the community until people started moving in significant numbers in the 1960s. We took watch over the neighborhood and only accepted certain kinds of behavior. This is not the place to go into it, but I di have firsthand knowledge of what my Mother and some of the other neighbors did to a father who was found abusing his daughters. Let’s just say he disappeared. Last I heard he was thought to be living out west.
4. “With neighborhood action, compared to activity on larger scales, results are more likely to be visible and quickly forthcoming. The streets are cleaner; the crosswalk is painted; the trees are planted; the festival draws a crowd.” Who had the cleanest walk, the best flower garden was always the talk of the neighborhood. But, I think what best illustrates this is the aluminum siding wars. Who could put the best color combinations together and get the cheapest price of aluminum siding on their home swept through the neighborhood in the early 1960s.
5. “Visible and swift results are indicators of success; and since success is reinforcing, the probability of subsequent neighborhood action is increased.” Last week I witnessed the conversation about the dangers of crossing Route 1 and that children do not have to cross Route 1 to attend their neighborhood school. I am not sure how that was worked out but it is a good thing. I did not have to cross Route 1 to attend school and church on a daily basis. My memory takes me back to the days when one could make a left hand turn on Route 1 without a left turn signal. Of course, there were countless accidents. But it took the death of a mother with a new-born baby and a toddler to stop the left turns on the highway. It seemed like it was just a matter of days when the law was changed, and left hand turns were no longer allowed, and a school crossing guard was put on the corner of Olive and Spring during school hours. After all, in those days of going home for lunch, one would cross Route 1 at least four times a day. Traffic might be a little heavier now but it was always a well-travelled highway.
6. “ Because neighborhood action usually involves others, such actions create or strengthen connections and relationships with other neighbors, leading in turn to a variety of potentially positive effects, often hard to predict.” Vickie and Luigi often fought with their Sicilian neighbors whom they considered to be below them. The arguments between the two families were intense, but the outcome was good for us. Every time they had a public argument, both families would make an Italian treat to win over the neighbors to their side of the argument. There are few things as good as homemade pizza, cannolis and zeppoles. I can also remember the pressure that was exerted when one of the neighborhood store owners used faulty judgment and paid dearly for it. One of the neighborhood children found a substantial amount of money on the floor of a local store. The store owner kept the money for himself and gave a pittance to the child who found the money. The neighbors were irate and let’s just say there was a collective boycott of the place. I am sad to say it did not take more than a month or two for the sting to take effect and the store went our of business, much to the pleasure of his competition that made it a point to be very generous to the kids in the neighborhood.
7. Wikipedia says “Over and above these community advantages, neighborhood activity may simply be enjoyable and fund for those taking part.” Who can forget hot summer nights when everyone was outside catching lightening bugs, waiting [patiently for the ice cream man, and playing hide and seek? I was never good at playing hide and seek, never cagey enough to find a good hiding place. I was always one of the first discovered, and being a slow runner, I could never run fast enough to escape being tagged. But I remember one night I got lucky. I hid behind my Mom who was sitting on someone else’s porch. I was not discovered and unhid myself to run to the home tree before I was tagged out by the best runner on the block. I remember this clearly some fifty years later. One of my best memories of the really coming alive is the circus. Every May, a traveling circus would set up in the meadows. We would walk through the woods to get there. It is the only time I can remember that adults would travel through this territory, normally relegated to hobo camps and kids at play. We would go as a block to the circus – father and mothers and grandparents and kids. The walk to the circus was fun, but the walk home was even better for we all left the circus a little transformed, lighter, giggly, with the music of the performances stirring in our hearts.
8. “But in addition to these benefits, considerable research indicates that strong and cohesive neighborhoods and communities are linked – quite possibly causally linked – to decreases in crime, better outcomes for children, and improved physical and mental health. The social support that a strong neighborhood may provide can serve as a buffer against various forms of adversity.” I have often told stories of how the multiethnic/multicultural nature of the Keighry head neighborhood is responsible not only for the extra pounds that I carry from eating that homemade pizza, but also for my understanding of other cultures. You see, what we had in common is the struggle to make life the best it could be. We share and cared. We often ate together, sharing whatever we had. I know what it is like to have neck bones in tomato gravy from the Faella’s, in sauerkraut from the Kolkers, with dumplings from the Novickie’s and in black-eye peas in my own African American home. We shared food but we also shared stories of our culture. We share out best of times and our worst of times.
The neighborhood gave me confidence and strength and a respect for people who, in many ways, were different from me. I can remember conducting a diversity appreciation workshop for some of my students. It was amazing for me to discover that all of the black students thought that all white people were void of problems and that they did not have financial worries. How stupidly naïve I first thought. The I realized that my experience in multicultural and multiracial Keighry Head prepared me to look at people a different way. The physical appearance says so little. You must take time to know the interior, a lesson learned on Olive Street. So I have never forgotten those years of living in Keighry Head with old friends, sor Ecclesiastes 9:10 states: “Forsake not an old friend, for the new is not comparable unto him. A new friend is as new wine: when it is old, thou shalt drink it with pleasure.”