Richard Goolsky's 1940's Jamaica Plain (Part 1)
A Stroll Around 1940s Jamaica Plain
One Man’s Recollections of Earlier Times
By Richard Goolsky
The streetcar tracks were still there, winding down from Dudley Station, following Roxbury Street to Columbus Avenue and under what we called “The Bridge,” the dividing line between Roxbury and Jamaica Plain. The railroad bridge carried the old coal-burning steam trains over Centre Street and along Lamartine Street out to New York or some faraway place that a pre-teen couldn’t comprehend. In fact, even South Boston was a distant place where my relatives lived.
To my right, where the Bromley-Heath Project now stands, was an empty field where carnivals would set up in the summer months. Next to the field before Bickford Street was a red-brick tenement with a row of stores on the street level, and a barroom, the Monte Carlo, which Tom Nardone owned. His hobby was showing movies, and that was the way his sign read in the window. Next door was an Italian food store, the Stella chain. I can still smell the aroma of olives, salamis and cheeses coming through the open door. Across the street was Rocco’s Barber Shop and a couple of doors up was Saleri’s Variety store, where, for a nickel, you could fill a bag with penny candy that would last through two cartoons and a serial - Superman, maybe. (Remember when a brand-new 1941 Buick would go off a cliff and the episode would end, and the next Saturday a 1928 Ford would crash in flames at the bottom?) All this could be seen at the Madison, a movie house where admission was nine cents. Dutchy was the old ticket taker. A few doors up was Hoffman’s Bakery, a great German bakeshop with some wonderful strudels and tarts.
On the other side of the street was Plant’s Shoe Factory, a large building that took up about four city blocks. It housed many industries, including Block’s Leather Jackets, where my mother worked as a stitcher. She would put together a suede jacket for me out of the best leather she could find. But the best part of the building was a very loud steam whistle that would blow at 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. and could be heard all over J.P. On snow days someone would give three or four blasts that echoed for miles. It meant NO SCHOOL! This was before television.
At the end of the factory was a park with benches that extended down to the Heath Street projects. A Stop & Shop supermarket was built there in the 1950s. On the corner of Walden Street stood a small Protestant church. I can’t recall ever seeing anyone enter that church. A row of stores extended toward Gay Head Street, including Helen’s Bakery and a men’s club that was housed in the basement and called the Jam-Rox Club. Us kids never knew what went on in there. Hanley’s Pharmacy anchored the block on the corner of Gay Head. It had the standard marble soda fountain for the time that Charley Hanley owned it and another one at the corner of Centre and Moraine. It was also the corner the big kids hung out on. But most were gone now, fighting in WWII.
Across the street was Mozart Street, where I lived for about 17 years. The Lowell School, a four-story brick structure with a slate roof and iron fire escapes clinging to its sides, had been standing there since the 1880s. The other corner was occupied by another Protestant church. Forgive me for not knowing the names of the two aforementioned churches, but being raised Catholic in those days it was almost forbidden to know such things - one of my first lessons in bigotry. I lived in the big three-decker, nine-apartment house next to the playground - third floor, middle unit. The John Holland playground was named after a WWI soldier who was killed in action. It was our ballfield and one of our hangouts. Every morning at 9 old Mr. McGregor would come out with his ladder and set up the swings under the “swing roof” as we called it. It was summer, and the days seemed to last twice as long as they do now. The playground was surrounded by seven or eight poplar trees then, very tall trees. In late summer, every time a big storm hit, one of the trees would be blown over. God, every kid in the neighborhood would grab his old man’s ax and those trees would be in pieces before the day was over. The city would send a truck around to pick up the pieces. I heard they built a school where the playground was, and built a playground where the Lowell School once stood. How about that!
I remember back in 1947 when my father died, my mother had his wake at the house, one of the last house wakes I had ever been to. It lasted three days and nights, not a dry eye in the place. They talk about Irish wakes but this one was Polish, and it wouldn’t have been outdone by any wearing of the green.
Back up to Centre Street there was Teddy’s Hardware Store owned by Theodore Levin, a fine man who treated everyone really nicely, and next to him was a little fruit store owned by a small Italian guy named Joe. Thinking back, we were a melting pot of nationalities: Irish, Italian, Jewish, Armenian, Greek, some American Indians, and blacks. And we all got along just fine.
Now, when we got a little too worldly for the playground, there was another hangout spot, the Busy Bee Spa. It was a soda shop, a meeting place with nickel cokes and six plays for a quarter on the jukebox. It was owned by an old Greek couple whose son fought in the war and later rose to the rank of general in the army. If we lingered a little too long, or Police Officer Davenport, the cop on the beat, was having a bad day, he would tell us in as few words as possible to get off the #@!%& corner. If we didn’t move fast enough, “Hubba-Hubba” Davenport, as some wiseguy would call him, would lash out with one of his size 11’s and plant his foot on the nearest rear end. He said he kept his shoes shined on our rear ends.
The Blessed Sacrament Church and what was then known as the Cheverus School was a big part of my life for over 10 years. The church was led by Monsignor Burke, Father O’Leary, Father Coyne and Father Clark. I’m still pretty sure that you have to be Irish Catholic to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
Depending on the politics of the day, Blessed Sacrament parish was split with Our Lady of Lourdes (over near Washington Street) for the presence of one of J.P.’s most illustrious citizens, James Michael Curley. Ever the showman, he would arrive for Mass five minutes late, march to the first pew of the church and get more admiring glances than if God Almighty was here for the Second Coming.
The school was run most efficiently by the Sisters of Charity, who, I am sure, taught the Marines how to fight the Second World War. But thanks to my mother’s homemade fudge and the fact that they couldn’t put up with me for another year, I escaped with honors in 1951. In June after school let out, the church held the Rose Festival, a fundraiser for the parish. A carnival was held on the grounds for about a week. Two cars would be raffled off. Can you now imagine a Buick and a Chrysler for 10 cents a chance?
Across from the church was the undertaker’s parlor run by Mr. Milely, who also was Santa Claus at the kids’ Christmas Party. Boy, I hated to sit on his lap. Half a block up was Estelle’s Bake Shop, where we would go after Mass to bring home jelly doughnuts the size of softballs for 50 cents a dozen. The next block up to Hyde Square, and the end of my neighborhood walk, was taken up by a five & dime store, Sawyer’s Drug Store, that was right out of the 1890s. A German deli, another barroom and a couple of package-goods stores were there, too.
The streetcar tracks went around the rotary, past the First National Store on the corner of Day Street, past the Angel Guardian Home for Boys and the Jamaica Theater, to connect to the tracks of the South Huntington Avenue line and go to the car barn on South Street, where a project was later built when the tracks were ripped up, the poles for the electric wire were ripped down and some of my childhood was paved over.
If anyone I once knew wants to get in touch, please write: Richard D. Goolsky, 912 Canvasback Rd., Rio Rancho, NM 87124; RDGOOL1@peoplepc.com