My grandparents bought our house in 1943 and it is where I grew up and continue to live to this day. All of my friends I grew up with have left the block, so I’ll do my best to remember way back to the 50’s and 60’s. My mother and father both grew up in Maspeth. Mom’s parents came from Germany, and dad’s from Hungary; both came here in the 1920’s, so I heard plenty of stories from the 30’s and 40’s.
Dad lived in the heart of Maspeth. He loved to tell stories of all the characters he knew, the gypsy camps, the sandlot baseball games, his gang, the Wolves, being a pin boy at the Lithuanian Hall bowling alley, the horse drawn wagons, the trolleys (his father worked on them at the Woodside Car Barns), being an altar boy at Holy Cross, his uncle Nick’s candy store and seeing the funeral of the gangster, Legs Diamond, at Mount Olivet Cemetery. He attended PS72, graduated Brooklyn Tech H.S., and then joined the Navy in WWII.
Mom grew up on 75th street by the railroad tracks on the hill when it was part of old Maspeth. Some of the homes still had “out” houses and it was called Nanny Goat Hill. Her father was a house painter and her mom was a homemaker. She and her sister went to dances at Clinton Hall. She attended PS73 and then went to Newtown H.S. after which she did office work.
After the war dad went to school on the G.I. Bill to learn television and radio repair. He and mom built a TV in 1947, and it was the first one on the block. They were married in 1948, and I came along in 1949, and my sister in 1950. They opened Gene’s T.V. & Radio Repair in 1952 and worked there together. Years later, when color television came along, my father took a course and bought a color television to learn the technology. All my friends had to see what color TV looked like.
We lived on 73rd street, a quiet, dead-end block. That is, until the Long Island Expressway came through Maspeth in 1954. I watched all the homes being knocked down and some were jacked up and moved by big trucks to other locations. It was a massive construction project and we had front row seats to history. Watching all the giant earthmovers, bulldozers and pile drivers was pretty exciting for a little kid.
On Sundays all work stopped, and once my family walked along the dirt road to Queens Boulevard and back. Soon it would be the busiest highway in America; the infamous Long Island Expressway, and some would call it the biggest parking lot. One thing that most of the old timers would agree on is that Maspeth wasn’t the same after the LIE cut through its business and residential areas, ripping the community apart. Neighbors and businesses they once knew were gone.
After the LIE was completed, they made green spaces and sitting parks with trees and benches and they became our playgrounds. Our favorite spot was Grass Hill at 74th street and 57th Avenue. During the year we played ball and other games, and when it snowed the whole neighborhood would show up with their sleds. When we got a little older it was a good place to go with a girlfriend.
A big event in those days was when the presidential motorcade would pass through on the way to the United Nations or the airport. Traffic was held up and when we heard the sirens we would run up, the hill to the railing and wave to the president. Once from our second floor window, my mother was pushing out the storm window (so we could see) with a broom stick and a helicopter appeared in front of our house and we saw men with machine guns looking us over. My father told my mother to get away from the window real fast!
We were the first television generation so, while my parents worked, my grandparents let us watch TV. Our favorite cartoons were Farmer Gray, Koko the Clown, Popeye, Heckel & Jeckel and Tom & Jerry. Favorite shows were Andy’s Gang, Abbott and Costello, Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, Dead End Kids, Superman, Sky King, Rama of the Jungle, Howdy Doody Show and all the old westerns like Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.
At first we all played in the yard and on the sidewalk, and before long, we graduated to the street and played with the bigger kids. There was a lot less traffic and parked cars back then. As kids we never telephoned or even rang our friends’ bell, we’d call out their names; we didn’t want to disturb the parents.
There were a lot more kids in those days; we were the Baby Boomers, the biggest age group ever, and we were everywhere. We played in the streets, hung out on the corners, and gathered in the parks at night. Life was much more dangerous for a kid then. You could get beat up just for walking on another block, or if someone didn’t like the way you looked. We were sometimes with our friends from morning until night. We even pin-pricked our fingers and became blood brothers; it was something we saw in an Indian movie. We all made fun of each other’s nationalities. We called it ranking on someone. That was OK to do back then, but just don’t say something bad about someone’s mother, that was interpreted as “fighting words!”
We played all the street games, hide and seek, ringalevio, Johnny ride the pony, a card game called War, Scully (see below), box ball, punch ball, slap ball, stoop ball, wire ball, football, king of the hill, handball and stretch, a game that involved throwing a knife. We were very athletic-minded and had races around the block on foot, on bikes, and on milk boxes mounted on roller skates which we decorated with bottle caps. On our bikes we attached baseball cards to the spokes to give it a cool sound like a motorcycle. The girls played house, jumped rope, played hopscotch or drew on the sidewalk with chalk. There was a division of what boys and girls did. The boys played war with toy soldiers or with toy guns. We had every gun there was and they all looked real. After all most of our fathers were in WWII and the Korean War was still on our minds. We all had baseball card collections and with our doubles or least favorites we would either trade or challenge someone to a flipping contest. Some flipping was for distance, some were flipped against a wall or you could just top the other guy.
When Safeway (later to become Finest) was built in a big vacant lot that was a lumberyard, we had a place to play stickball against the back wall. They had a big parking lot and most people didn’t park back there. On Sundays, when the store was closed, people learned to drive there, and kids drove go-carts around till the police would take them.
At night the older kids drank beer there and the bottles they didn’t break we took to the store and cashed them in; 2 cents for a small one and 5 cents for a big one. We called it bottle hunting, and we used to go to the industrial sections or to the parks to find bottles. With the money, we could buy a soda at Frank’s or Lum’s candy store for 5 or 10 cents, or buy a ball. A Pensy Pinkie rubber ball cost 15 cents and the better Spalding cost 25 cents. We used old broomsticks for bats, but sometimes we bought one for 75 cents. If a ball went down a sewer we fashioned a piece of wire to the bat and pulled the ball out, or we put some gum on the stick and that would work.
When Frontera Park opened we could get basketballs, shuffleboard sticks and knock hockey from the Parkie. An added bonus was the bathroom, we didn’t have to run home anymore. We also played in the schoolyard of P.S.73 and during the summer the Police Athletic League had a program, so we kept busy. Also, my friends played baseball with St. Adalbert’s so I went to all the ball fields at Juniper, Maurice Park, St. Mary’s Winfield, Farmers Oval and Victory Field.
We also played in places we shouldn’t have like the railroad tracks. I knew to stay away from the third rail of the LIRR because a classmate in the 5th grade was burned real bad and missed lots of school. The freight trains didn’t run often and they were slow. We made clubhouses and explored the wild places where you could find snakes, frogs and grasshoppers. We would bring food in our backpacks and roast potatoes in a fire and we called them “mickeys.” It was dangerous there and some of the kids did bad things like start fires and put things on the tracks to stop the train. The railroad would patrol the tracks with a special car and they would shoot salt pellets that I heard hurt real bad.
You always knew where to find the police back then. The 112 Precinct was where the Maspeth Town Hall is today. There were lots of police cars coming and going and also paddy wagons which were used to transport prisoners. Bad car wrecks were towed there and placed in front of the station house. We would have a morbid curiosity and go look at the twisted wrecks of broken glass and blood. If a kid committed a crime and was taken to the station house they could get a JD card, short for juvenile delinquent, and that was pretty serious.
All my friends went to school at PS102 or St. Adalbert‘s. I went to PS102 in Elmhurst; it was a nice school with good teachers. I especially remembered the Spring Festival when we danced and performed for the parents. The big schoolyard with all the trees is gone now, and in its place is an additional building.
When I graduated in the 6th grade I went to PS73 only a short walk away and I could come home for lunch. I was there when the city started busing kids from other areas. I remember the protests and some of the kids were prepared for a fight with weapons. It became a racial issue with the majority of the school being white and the kids coming in were black from Corona. There were minor scuffles but nothing serious that I was aware of. You could also see the first signs of teenage rebellion; kids disrespecting teachers, even fighting with them, and kids smoking cigarettes and doing drugs like cough medicine and sniffing glue. Sad to say but, in a few short years, drugs and alcohol would claim too many of my classmates.
Everyone in Maspeth knew when it was 12 noon; the air raid siren would go on from the top of PS73. It must have been installed for WWII but we were in the Cold War now with Russia and there were nuclear missiles pointed at us. We learned to duck and cover under our desks. In school we learned that all the nuclear nations tested above ground and that radioactive clouds traveled around the Earth. In the popular culture at the time there were science fiction and monster movies and also serious movies about the unknown dangers of radiation; people even built bomb shelters in their homes.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 the feeling among my friends was that we might all die if war broke out. We all hugged each other and said our goodbyes. Everyone sighed with relief when it was over. I was in school when we got the news of President Kennedy being assassinated and we were sent home. We all felt the sadness and confusion of the nation. I remembered seeing him on the highway waving at us as he passed through our neighborhood.
It was in science class that my teacher told us that by living near the Long Island Expressway was equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day because back then there wasn’t any pollution controls and gas had lead in it. My mother and father were both smokers, and just about everyone else too, so I’m amazed that after 61 years I’m still here.
Talking about pollution whenever there was a bad smell in Maspeth we would say, “I guess it’s low tide at Newtown Creek,” which was an open sewer and dumping ground for all the industry in the area. They say the creek carried more tonnage than the Mississippi River during WWII. It is still considered the most polluted waterway in NYC, and who knew there are millions of gallons of oil in the aquifer from all the years the oil companies refined oil there? I think a lot of the smell came from Van Iderstien’s; they collected fat from all the butcher shops and processed it. The sanitation incinerator at 58th street was another source of pollution. Every once in a while it snowed ash on the neighborhood. Years later the city closed all the incinerators because of toxic ash.
Some teenagers liked to gather in the schoolyard and in the doorways of the stores on Grand Avenue and sing harmonies to Doo Wop songs. One of those groups became Randy and the Rainbows and they were the biggest group to come out of Maspeth and are still performing today. The Music changed with the Beatles. I first saw them, like millions of others, on the Ed Sullivan Show and heard all the screaming girls. Even my grandmother liked them. In school all the girls had Beatles buttons and pictures on their books. It wasn’t long before the first boy got a Beatle haircut, which looked strange.
Guys started learning to play instruments and form bands. I bought Beatle boots and the boys put taps on the bottom of their shoes. This made a lot of noise in the halls and must have driven the teachers crazy. We also wore tight pants, so tight you couldn’t put anything in your pockets; just the tips of the fingers. On Saturday nights the P.A.L. held dances at the Lithuanian Hall, which is now the Maspeth Senior Center, and local bands supplied the music. Teen dances were also held at St. Adalbert’s gym and Our Lady of Hope Auditorium. I even think the Young Rascals and the Yardbirds played at Our Lady of Hope but I didn’t go.
Besides collecting bottles to make money we shoveled snow and ran errands for our neighbors. I worked at my parents’ store carrying the toolbox and running errands. I got my pay plus tips; I think my biggest tip was $5.00, which was very generous. I worked all summer to buy a 3-speed English Racer at Grand Bicycle and I kept it real shiny with wax, my sister took it without my knowledge and left it in front of Bohack and it was gone. Yes there was crime in the good old days.
Some kids delivered the Long Island Star Journal from an office on Mazeau Street. They had to fold the papers and put them in a big canvas bag and deliver the papers in all kinds of weather. It wasn’t an easy job. My friend worked at a pizza place on Grand Avenue when slices were 15 cents. There also were a few boys that shined shoes on the avenue. There were also plenty of stores to get work.
It‘s true what the old timers say, “you could get whatever you needed on Grand Avenue.” It was a much more vibrant business strip than it is today with three supermarkets – the A&P, Bohack’s and Safeway – and a small Key Food where Joey’s Pizza is today, all within walking distance. We had three hardware stores – Griff’s, Nueman’s and Sontag’s – which is where the library is today.
Ben Franklin & S.E. Nichols were your classic 5&10 cent stores that had everything for the home, Nichols even had a food counter, and it later became Lamston’s Pharmacy. I recall Nash’s, Weber’s, Whalen’s and Stanislaus where dad’s old teacher from PS72, Mrs. Yablonski and her husband worked. Maspeth Melody Shop sold appliances, TV’s and records, and before you bought a 45 RPM record, they would let you hear it. My father got his hobby of developing his photos from getting all the equipment and chemicals from his friend, Tony, who also fixed televisions and radios.
The men’s clothing stores were Fishers, Frankels, Lodico’s and Henry’s where I went. In these stores you could buy everything from socks to suits. For women I can remember Macrae’s but there were others and kids’ stores too. Leberfelds had clothes for the whole family and housewares. There even was a John’s Bargain store, sort of like the 99 cent stores we have today. I bought my shoes at Leo’s where he and his wife sold Buster Brown shoes.
Across the street there was Rainbow Shoes. My closest candy store was Frank’s where he and his sisters, Jenny and Mary, worked. You could get everything there from sodas and ice cream to toys, newspapers & comic books, which were 10 cents. The Daily News was 5 cents. My parents sent me there to buy cigarettes and they even sold loose ones. Lum’s Candy was where Papavero’s Funeral is today. He sold mainly soda, ice cream and candy in big jars.
Leo’s Candy Store was next to the movies and had the best selection of magazines and newspapers. Some of the nearby butcher shops were Conte’s, Mercals, Karl Ehmer’s and Hilbigs where they always gave me a slice of baloney. As a kid the closest deli was Maggio’s and my friend’s father owned it. The nearest bakery was Tony’s and he made sandwiches we loved to eat. My first Italian ice was from Occhiograsso’s Bakery. A small ice cost 5 cents and a large was 10 cents. My first slice of pizza came from my friend’s grandmother on the block and to this day it was the best. Most everyone in the neighborhood was Italian, Polish, German or Irish, and these stores reflected that heritage. Many of the storeowners either lived in the back of the store or upstairs.
There were more bars back then on Grand Avenue, some of the names were Prince’s Tavern, Sportsman’s Lounge, Tumble Inn, Buerkes Pub, Grand Tavern and Wally’s. My friend’s father used to bring beer home in containers that I think were called growlers. Spartans Restaurant had a bar and many big affairs and political dinners, we watched when the movie Goodfellas was filmed there. Pete Chahales and his wife, Ethel, owned that restaurant, Pete was the unofficial Mayor of Maspeth. He always stopped and talked to the kids, and he and Ethel used to drive around in an antique car. He also organized the Gay Nineties Parade in 1960, which had storeowners dress up in costumes from the 1800’s, and there was a big parade of antique cars and trucks. If you got a wooden nickel that would get you into the movies or get a beer.
The movies was everyone’s favorite place to go especially on a hot day. Not many places had air conditioning back then, and for 50 cents we could see two movies and some cartoons. There was a matron there named Clara and the kids made fun of her and called her Clarabelle, and if you caused trouble she would shine her flashlight at you and make you leave. The last film to play at the Maspeth Theater was “Help” by the Beatles in 1965.We would also walk to the Elmwood Theater. In fact, PS73 held graduation ceremonies there.
Fairyland was across the street from the Elmwood on Queens Boulevard where we would go for a few rides from time to time. I don’t know if it was that we were boys or that our parents trusted us but we had a lot of freedom. I just had to be home for supper or I might get the strap or the wooden spoon. OUCH!!! Back then no one ever talked about child abuse!
Since my father grew up in the neighborhood, he knew many of the storeowners as friends and they bowled together and sponsored teams. I was the mascot and kept score for my father’s team at the Maspeth Bowl, which had 38 lanes. Those days it seemed everyone smoked either cigarettes, cigars or pipes and the air was so thick you could cut it with a knife. We spent a lot of time there either bowling or just hanging out. There was a jukebox and a snack bar, and we couldn’t wait to be 18 so we could go to their bar. The manager’s name was Freddy Botie.
The trolleys stopped running the year I was born, but I remember the Flushing Line buses that had overhead wires that would send out sparks as it rode by. Some buildings used coal; the coal truck would send the coal down a chute to the basement. Stores that got ice got them in big blocks from a truck. There was a chicken market on 57th Drive where live birds were slaughtered. Each day or so a truck would come down Mazeau Street and the chickens’ heads would be sticking out of crates. There were always a few chickens running around the yard and street. Talking about birds, the Maspeth sky always had big flocks of pigeons flying overhead and that’s something we don’t see anymore. The two pet shops were Luduex and Tutties and they had pigeons, dogs, cats, lizards, fish and turtles, which were my favorite. I kept turtles and bought them to release them. Once I bought a big Diamond Back Terrapin and let it go in Jamaica Bay.
I have two memorable celebrity sightings. One was Jack Palance the movie star who used to come to Maspeth to see his sister who lived here and worked at a beauty parlor on Mazeau Street. He once threw a football around with the kids in the street. He always played a tough guy so we were impressed. The other one was Ron Hunt who played second base for the brand new Mets. He moved into a place on 74th Street and we used to wait around to see him and try to get an autograph. I was a St. Louis Cardinals fan because my father was one since he was a young boy.
Some of the other big changes I remember is standing at Caldwell Avenue and 74th Street and seeing the open lots to Eliot Avenue. Years later, when the homes were being built, my friends and I played in all of them. There was an old house with a barn on Caldwell Avenue and 75th Street that had two horses, goats and chickens in a big yard. Mrs. Marmalito lived on 74th Street and had a ranch house with a big yard and she had two horses. There were greenhouses and nurseries run by the Thom Family along 74 Street. On 72nd Street just past the police station there was a place called Cherry Alley, which was five acres of woods, and there was a bar there called Bowden’s. It was like the country.
Most of the open lots are gone, and my favorite one was right out my back gate where we played baseball and kids ice-skated in the frozen puddles. Someone bought it and put up a fence to keep people from dumping there. Yes, Maspeth is more congested, and all of the old gang is gone, but it’s still a good place to live.
I married a Maspeth girl, Linda Wedding, who grew up on 72nd Place, and we raised our daughter here in Maspeth. Every so often I’ll gripe about living in New York City and long for some open spaces, but a lot can be said for the place where you have your roots, your memories and community.