The Eastside of Passaic, NJ
“First Ward between South Street, the Passaic River, McLean Street and up to Hope Avenue as I remember it – 1916 to 1925”
by, Edward Kimak
Editors Note: Mr. Kimak passed away in June 1994. His recollections are presented here in his memory.
My earliest recollection of living in the eastside of Passaic was going to the weekly Sunday afternoon baseball games at First Ward Park with my father, Vasil, my mother Anna and my three brothers. My dad loved baseball, which he learned after coming here from Austria-Hungary in 1900. I remember sitting on the hillside which was near Fifth Street and cheering for the St. Mikes who represented St. Michael Church just blocks away on First Street. St. Mary Church (Slovak) was also in the neighborhood and had a good team too; the rivalry between the two teams was intense. The other two churches in the area Holy Rosary (Polish) and the Russian Orthodox Church on Third Street and Monroe (SS Peter and Paul) did not sponsor any baseball teams.
My mom and all the immigrants of those days kept their cold water flats clean. Hard scrubbing brushes and Octagon soap were standard in all the homes. One has to be really old to remember the first Boys Club that was located on First Street between Mercer and Bergen. It was in a loft atop a stable run by Sam Gabor. I really wasnt old enough to be a member but I sneaked in with older boys at every opportunity. Harry Vanderberg was the director and then later at the new Passaic Boys Club on Third Street. In those days we all walked to a neighborhood school and the school year was divided into two semesters such as 1A and 1B. This was great for any kid who failed in one semester as it gave him a chance to go to summer school and make it up. In this way the student kept up with his class and gave him the interest to stay in school without losing a years schooling contrary to todays programs.
As there was no auditorium in the school I remember a visit by Ms. Helen Keller accompanied by her constant companion, friend and teach, Anne Sullivan. Ms. Keller went into each classroom and gave us pupils a short address of courage. If I remember correctly Ms. Keller tapped her message with her fingers into Ms. Sullivans hands who then translated it verbally to us.
My brothers and I always ran to meet our father coming home from work at the Okonite mill, which was located at First Street and the Dundee Canal. We were even more delighted if it was on a Thursday. That was payday and Pop, as we always called him, gave us each 11 cents for the movie. We rushed home, had a fast supper and then made a beeline for the City Theatre. Eleven cents may seem odd to go to the movies with but there still was the ten- percent war tax put on by Washington during the First World War. The city theatre was located on Market Street just about opposite the old No. 2 School. A few years later the new Palace Theatre was built across the street next to the butcher store and Zalewskis Pharmacy. Some of you old timers probably remember the slogan “Yes, Zalewskis is our druggist.”
An earlier theatre I remember going to was the Theatre on Passaic Street where I saw my first Charlie Chaplin movie and I remember waiting in line with my family for a couple of hours to get in. Later on there was a small Park theatre located on Passaic and Fifth Street. What I remember about the Park Theatre is one Saturday afternoon when they had a raffle for a small, pedal-pushed fire engine. We all looked forward to winning it but didnt. One kid in the row ahead of us kept saying he would win it because he carried a rosary with him. Even in those days shenanigans did occur because he did win it! The weekly Saturday afternoon episodes always brought us back as our heroes and heroines were always in dangerous situation at the end and we couldnt wait to see them getting out of their predicament. Also, we were great fans then of Hoot Gibson, Tom Mix, Ken Maynard and Harry Carey.
In return for free rent my father swept the halls daily, scrubbed the halls and stairs every Saturday. We kids helped and I still remember the smell of mash and then of grape pressings when we took our barrels out. Just a reminder that those were the days of Prohibition and some people made their own alcohol and wine. Many times I ran to Zalewskis Pharmacy for fifteen cents of what was called Hoffman Drops, a potent chemical that today I suspect were Ether. A couple of drops of that in a glass of water in those days was a fair substitute for the whiskey that couldnt be purchased. Market Street in those days was mostly run by Jewish merchants. They were there so long, educated their families from there and practically knew all their customers by name. There was the Boston Department Store, Elfenbeins and Teichs Kosher Meat Markets, Zaritskys Furniture Store, Edelmans Bakery, Miller and Adimoff Photo Stores, a music store, Kovalchiks Bowling and Bar, a candy store and fruit store. There were more but my memory can only go so far.
I can remember during the First World War the bigger fellows singing at night under the lights near Number 2 School. I still remember some of the songs they sang—My Gal Sal, Wedding bells Are Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine, Three oclock in the Morning, Smile Awhile, If I Had My Way, Ramona, and the best Sweet Adaline. Another impression that sticks in my mind was when they made an effigy of the Kaiser and hung it on the street light there. Mom varied Sunday dinners with an occasional roast or halupki (Slovak cabbage rolls with meat mixed with pork). For dessert Mom always bought a large can of fruit, Del Montes, I recall, from the small A&P Market across the street. The contents were counted and we shared the fruit equally. Mom was a wonderful mother. She worked hard and took great care of us boys, to become five in number in latter years. She always worked in one of the textile mills in addition to doing all the cooking, buying and taking care of our flat which incidentally was a cold water flat.
This may ring a bell with some of you old-timers. Remember the Saturday morning baths in the round metal tub heated by hot water from the stove? One by one we went in with hot water being added. After a good scrubbing Mom would get the fine comb and really comb our hair. I dont recall any of us ever having lice. The washing and combing probably was the reason why, or maybe the Octagon soap helped.
On weekdays in the early days Mom got up before five, walked up market or First Street, picked up a couple of wooden crates and returned to start a fire in the coal stove and made breakfast. Soon we were to have cola in our basement bin, which was partitioned off for each tenant. Then later the coal crates were to be replaced with kerosene oil burner and everyone had a 50 gallon drum in the cellar. Sounds dangerous and yet in all the years living on the Eastside I dont recall any large fire. Even though my father was an immigrant coming here in 1900 at the age of 12, he liked to take us to different places on Sunday afternoons. In those days to get to N.Y.C. we walked to Main Avenue and took the Erie railroad train (which was taken out many years later) to Jersey City, then the Barclay St. Ferry to cross the Hudson. We went to the Aquarium, Museum of Natural History, Bronx Zoo, Statue of Liberty, Coney Island, and Metropolitan Art Museum. All of us walked up the stairs to the Statue of Liberty almost to the top and luckily the next day was a holiday as Mom and Pop could hardly walk and never would have made it to work.
Summertime was so hot almost all of the Eastside stayed outside till midnight. Many the times Mom spread blankets for us to sleep on the fire escape where we slept until morning. The fire station on Third Street gave us lots of cold relief as the firemen attached their biggest hose to a board and ran the water all afternoon. Later the swimming pool at the new Boys club was enjoyed by all the youngsters. First Street between Bergen and Passaic had all the wholesale fruit and vegetable markets. We kids would look for loose potatoes that fell out of a torn bag, pick up broken crates of wood and build bonfires where we tossed in the potatoes. After a while they were black and burnt not done on the inside but we ate them anyway. It gave us the feeling that we were camping.
St. Michaels Church (Greek Catholic) was only a block away from where we lived. Our lives like many others in the neighborhood centered on the church. On Sundays we went to 8 oclock mass (on holidays the longer main mass at ten oclock). On Saturday nights we went to vespers and every holy day of obligation and the mass the night before. Father Jacovitz was the pastor there for many years. There were always Slavonic plays, dances, picnics, and bazaars. I remember we won a live rabbit on a raffle a week before Thanksgiving and let it have the run of the apartment. As nobody had any carpets on the floor in those days the damage done by the rabbit was negligible. Thanksgiving came and Pop took it to the cellar and killed it and Mom baked it. As for us kids one look at the poor baked rabbit on the dinner table and we all started crying and ran out of the kitchen. It had become out pet. Till today Ive never tasted rabbit.
In those days the entire Eastside was occupied mostly by white immigrants called “greenies” by the people who came here earlier from Eastern Europe, Russians, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians, Ukrainians. Also, there were Irish, Italians and Jewish families. All were very hard working, lawful and good parents who we loved and respected and obeyed. We had a Jewish family on our floor that followed their religion so closely that they wouldnt even light their gas stove on their Sabbath. I used to come in every Saturday morning, go to the kitchen table where they had placed a box of matches and a couple of pennies for me. Then I would light up one gas burner and come back about an hour later to put out the gas. Had Moses been living he would have been happy to know that there was one Jewish family that read and followed the writings and Tanakh in the Old Testament.
Our church St. Michaels celebrated the old Julian calendar in those years, changing to the modern Gregorian in later years, which meant our Christmas came on January 7th and Easter much later than everyone elses. My father would wait until Christmas morning and then take us to the markets on First Street where we picked up one of the best Christmas tree leftovers for nothing, took it home, dressed it, candles and all as there were no electric tree lights then. As for Christmas we all hung up our stockings and on Christmas morning we found them filled with an orange, apple, pear, candy, nuts and a roll of 50 pennies. In these earlier years when the snow fell there was no such thing as salting the roads or any kind of snow removal. As there wasnt much traffic then the snow in the streets aided by the snow shoveled from the sidewalks just formed into ice and was there all winter. In the early spring the city of Passaic would hire men with picks and shovels to clear the streets hauling the ice away in large trucks.
At Christmas time the Boys Club sponsored an annual good cheer dinner for up to 400 kids. I attended a few of them and remember how highly stacked the plates were with turkey, chicken and all the trimmings, which was then followed up with desserts that we never had before, topped with a little gift to us as we left. Im sorry I cant remember more names of the wonderful people who thought so much of the poor kids on the eastside. Maybe someone in the Passaic Herald can add some more names to the list.