Growing up Downtown carried with it certain “expectations” and “responsibilities.” Some were positive and life affirming; others were just plain stupid.
We realized that there were specific “rites of passage;” those uniquely Downtown “occurrences” that helped us to transition from youth to adulthood. At 16 years old, we went to P.S. #5 to get “working papers.” Afterwards, we worked in one of the local supermarkets, typically the FINAST on Jersey Avenue or the Shop Rite on Grove Street. That was the start of our working careers, and we learned the true value of working for a living and earning a dollar.
Some of the more foolish stunts included “hitching” a ride on a moving freight train, walking the railroad tracks on top of the Sixth Street embankment, turning on fire hydrants during the summer months, stealing figs from a neighbor’s tree or grapes from their vine, and participating in “Mischief Night” – the evening before Halloween – by throwing eggs at passers-by or “egging” the house of someone we didn’t like, hitting bystanders with “flour socks”, and other mean-spirited pranks.
We learned two things early in life: Politics and gambling. Adult conversations eventually turned to local politics, the “track,” or “the numbers.” Many of those conversations quickly became heated.
We remember Thomas Gangemi being elected mayor in 1961; and, subsequently, being forced to resign less than two years later because he was not an American citizen. Thomas Whelan was elected mayor in 1965 and again in 1969. In 1971, Whelan was indicted as a member of the notorious “Hudson County Eight,” and he was convicted of conspiracy and extortion in a multimillion-dollar political kickback scheme. Convicted along with him were former mayor and political boss, John V. Kenny, and former council president Thomas Flaherty.
There is just no escaping it, Jersey City politics and corruption seem to go together like a horse and carriage. It seems that you simply can’t have one without the other. Yet, in some ways, politics in Jersey City have changed. Back in the days of Frank Hague, the art of politics was mainly about acquiring, centralizing, maintaining, and sustaining power and control. Today, “politricks” are primarily focused on greed and personal gain.
Gambling was the Downtown pastime. Just about everyone knew a “bookie.” Many had a “personal bookie.” Some even went as far as to consult their copy of “The Lucky Number Dream Book” prior to placing a bet.
Going to the “track” in the 60s meant driving to either Freehold Raceway or Monmouth Park in New Jersey or Roosevelt Raceway in Long Island. We knew we were going to the track whenever our parents told us to pick up the racing form at the local candy store.
Being raised Downtown was more than just growing up; it was an event – a significant event that has remained a part of us to this very day.
John Di Genio and Albert J. Cupo