By Brenden Crowe
The greatest place to grow up in the sixties and seventies was Stuy Town. You had hundreds of kids playing in Stuy Town’s 12 playgrounds, not realizing that these friendships they were forming were not for a few years but for life. There was an unexplainable bond that Stuy Town kids had for each other. If you grew up on the same playground the bond was even stronger. If you lived in the same building, it was like you were family.
I grew up at 245 Avenue C on our side of the floor it was the same for families for over a quarter of a century. We had great neighbors, the Flemings, the Cordovanos and Wests and we could always count on each other if we ever needed help. Other families that lived there for decades were the Ryan, Collin, Clarke, Lyden and Delaney families. People like Mike Lyden always took an interest in my life. He would ask me, “When’s opening day for Little League?” or tell my brother Tim, “I heard you had a great time at the dance Friday night.”
When I was in second grade, I used to take Jimmy Delaney (first grader) to school at Saint Emeric’s. You were just taught to look after one another. When you went south of 14th Street in those days you had to be careful because it was a tough neighborhood. Charlie White of 271 Avenue C actually got shot in the leg going to Saint Emeric’s. A couple of Stuy Town kids got robbed going to school.
My father always taught me to see trouble a block ahead so you can make a left or a right hand turn. My brothers and the older kids taught us to be tough. When you walked to Saint Emeric’s you had to pass by Strauss Auto Parts store at 14th Street and Avenue C. There was no one ever in that store but somehow they made a living because it was there for over 40 years. Another establishment you would pass was Mousey’s bar on 13th Street and Avenue C. If you look in the dictionary for the word “dive,” you would see a picture of Mousey’s. They should have had a sign in the window, “underage drinking encouraged.” After you passed Mousey’s, you went east on 13th Street toward Avenue D and you had Haven Plaza on your right and Con Ed on the left. The Con Ed men would try to make us laugh and always gave us electric tape for our hockey pads if we asked. It was always comforting knowing they were there. When you got close to Avenue D, you made a right into an alley way. Once you made it past the alley way you knew you were safe and now it was time to have fun in the playground.
There were many games we used to play but my favorites were ring-a-levio and punch ball. The Saint Emeric’s playground was probably four times bigger than the average Catholic school playground so there was plenty of space to play. Ring-a-levio was usually played with seven or eight kids on each side. One side would start behind a safety line and each kid’s goal was to touch the Church wall which was about 100 feet away. Each kid would go off on his own and try to touch the church wall with about seven or eight kids trying to grab you. And kids didn’t grab you softly. The last two kids were usually the best athletes who got to run towards the wall together. They were known as the Big Two. If you were a member of the Big Two, you were moving up in the world. If one of the Big Two touched the wall he freed all the kids. You had to get back to base without being captured. If you were captured again it was really sad.
The other game was punch ball. All you needed was a rubber ball and chalk for the bases. It was played like regular baseball. The batter would throw the ball up in the air and punch the ball as hard as he could.
Playground 5 was the place to play punch ball. It was a rectangle playground being 200 feet long and 75 feet wide. The game was seven on seven (no pitcher or right fielder). If you wanted to hit a home run you had to hit it to dead center and it had to go between the “three trees.” You would see unbelievable one handed catches because you didn’t have a glove. Kids would slide on the concrete like it was nothing. I remember my brother Brian, Sid and Mike Lyden being able to reach the “three trees.” Other players like Frannie Sheehan, Pat Cavanaugh, and Kevin Keane seemingly could punch the ball just wherever they wanted. If you found yourself playing catcher or second base in punch ball you knew you were close to not being picked next time because they were positions that didn’t get much action.
One time my brother Timmy was playing punch ball with the older guys. It was the bottom of the last inning and a boy on third with two outs. Ronnie Driscoll, an older boy, came up to Timmy and said, “Timmy, I really want to win this game.” Timmy got a hit to win the game and Ronnie picked up Timmy on his shoulders. Years later Ronnie told Timmy he had a bet on the game.
One time Mike Cavanaugh hit a home run hitting a ball on top of Saint Emeric’s roof. When I think of Mike Cavanaugh I don’t think of him as a successful engineer but the boy who was the only one to hit a home run on the roof of Saint Emeric’s. When I think of Billy “Nat” Foley, I don’t think of him as a successful Wall Street executive, but the boy who made some amazing shots at Playground 9. When I think of Jim Nestor “Wolfe,” I don’t think of him as a successful writer but the clutchiest pitcher in the Knights of Columbus softball league. When I think of Eddie Mackey, a successful CPA, I think of Eddie Mackey, a successful CPA. The Mackey family has been a great family in Stuy Town for over 60 years.
At Saint Emeric’s, there were hardly any problems between the Irish and Italian kids from Stuy Town and the Puerto Rican kids from below 14th Street, some of whom lived in the projects across the street. The parents also got along famously and it definitely showed at Midnight Mass on Christmas when half the mass was in English and the other half in Spanish. There was great camaraderie. The only time there was tension was when one of the teachers in my brother Timmy’s class decided it was a good idea to put a production of “West Side Story” on with the white kids as the Jets and the Puerto Ricans as the Sharks.
When I was in third grade, I got invited to a party for Carlos Lopez in Jacob Riis housing project. I always heard how dangerous it was. If I had to go there by myself I probably would have been scared, but my mother took me to the party. It seemed to be an unwritten rule that if you were with your mother no one could bother you so I felt safe. Everyone had a great time at the party.
Stuy Town kids were good kids but no one I knew was an angel. Our third grade class got invited to the Bozo the Clown T.V. show. It was exciting and fun to be on a set. Roseann Keane was chosen to try and win prizes. She had to spin a Frisbee on a stick. I thought Roseann spun the Frisbee on a stick for a period of time. Bozo disagreed. Our mothers were best friends and I figured I would have gotten all the boy toys. When the camera started to span the students I didn’t make the best decision in my life when I gave the finger to the camera. A week later Bozo was going to be shown on T.V. My strategy was to sit in front of the T.V. and when they showed me flipping the bird to Bozo I would stand up and block my mother’s view. It worked. When I went to school the next day I was treated like a hero with lots of pats on the back. I still was worried about being called down to the principal’s office. I somehow got away with it.
Another time I was with my friend Johnny Messina. We went to Dalton’s malt shop on Avenue B. The Dalton brothers were hardworking men and also owned a fish store and a deli. Johnny and I walked into the malt shop and Johnny said, “Dalton, can you get me a chocolate milk shake?” Mike Dalton, who was probably in his early thirties, looked down at this 10-year-old boy and said, “That’s Mr. Dalton.” Mike Dalton went on for about three minutes why he should be called Mr. Dalton. When Mike Dalton finally finished Johnny said, “Dalton, can I get my milk shake now?”
Right below 14th Street, there was a gang called the Black Spades. They always wore their gang leather jackets. An off-shoot of this gang was called the Young Spades, who also wore gang leather jackets. They were young teenagers. One time the Young Spades were walking from Playground 4 to Playground 5 when Neil Crawford, John Mastrorocco and I threw dirt bombs at the gang. They immediately chased us.
We ran through Playground 11 and when I got to the other side of the playground, I got my pass key out and ran into 14 Stuyvesant Oval. Every Stuy Town kid had a pass key for all 89 buildings. We got away. Somehow the Young Spades found out John’s name. I saw Mrs. Mastrorocco the next day and she said, “If they know John’s name I think they should know your name too.” I remember thinking that that was the worst idea I ever heard of.
Most Stuy Town kids stayed on their playground or the one closest to them until they were 11 or 12 and then they branched out. Whatever playground you lived on was the sport you played. Playground 7 was the mecca of Stuy Town hockey even though Playground 5 and Playground 1 also played hockey. We had a hockey league at Playground 7. Playgrounds 9 and 11 were basketball playgrounds. Our Playground was Playground 5 where we played football, hockey and punch ball.
My brother Timmy and his friends Mike Cavanaugh, Danny O’Shea, Rickey McDonnell, Marc Smalley and Robbie McDonald, just to name a few challenged the Playground 11 boys — Billy Jaris, Paul Gannon, Billy Kiernan, Jake McGarty and Jimmy Murtha to a game of football. This was definitely a Playground 5 sport. It was always exciting to play kids from another playground in any sport. I was proud of the Playground 5 boys, winning the football game 5-1, with my brother Timmy catching two touchdowns. When the Playground 11 boys challenged Playground 5 in basketball, they crushed the Playground 5 boys.
Stuy Town had the greatest athletes because we played sports all the time. There were no emails, phones, computers or Instagram. We played hard and played all day long. Kelly Grant played professional basketball in Europe. Donny Jackson was the quarterback at Columbia. Kevin McQuaid set football receiving records at Fordham. John Owens had the Catholic school track record for the 100-yard dash. Mike Lyden and Richie Maier were stars playing hockey in college. In one game Mike Lyden scored a hat trick and my brother Brian and his friends threw their hats on the ice. Roger McTiernan was the M.V.P. in the Xavier-Fordham football game; 35 years later Roger’s son also won the M.V.P.
The boys weren’t the only great athletes in Stuy Town. Nancy Murphy was three years older than me and I would watch in awe how well she competed against the boys. Nancy was the prettiest tomboy and was excellent in football, basketball and punch ball. Gina Ribaudo along with Rosemary Bennett and Dianne D’Imperio led the Epiphany eighth grade girls in basketball to the Manhattan Catholic school championship. Gina, in a foul shooting completion at the Police Academy, was 15 for 15.
We all played hard and had fun doing it. Barry McTiernan once told my wife Margaret, “Stuy Town guys don’t like to lose.”
If we weren’t playing sports we were finding fun things to do. I remember my brother John and his friends jumping off the garage ventilators which were about 15 feet high and jumping into the snow drifts. I remember scores of kids sleigh riding on Playground 5 hill and sleighing underneath a two-foot chain. God must have been watching after us because no one broke his neck. Once in a while my father or another parent would take us up to Pilgrim’s Hill in Central Park and go sleigh riding on some big hills. We played a game called “Animal,” where one kid had the football and all the other kids tried to tackle him. We had snowball fights, went skitching, played scullies and played tackle football in the snow in the playground. We had great games of manhunt. One kid at Playground 7 took the long fire hose out of the staircase and turned the water on in the winter full blast. Instead of playing roller hockey the next day, kids brought out their ice skates.
Kids from Immaculate Conception and Epiphany would have water balloon fights. Once, kids from Immaculate chased Padraic Carlin, Brian Loesch and me with eggs, shaving cream and water balloons. Unfortunately Brian didn’t make it. Mrs. Loesch had to do an extra load of wash that night.
One time I was going home and I heard two people screaming my name from the roof. It was Jimmy Murtha and Jeanie Collin who locked themselves on the roof. I went up to unlock the door. The roof was one place that Stuy Town kids found love.
I’m proud telling people I grew up in Stuy Town. We had so many characters but even better guys and girls. We were raised by parents from the greatest generation who all seemed to think alike. Kids moving away from Stuy Town was extremely rare. There was such stability. There was no keeping up with the Joneses because we all lived in the same complex. I wouldn’t trade my growing up in Stuy Town for anything in the world.
The kids of Stuy Town are now in their 50s and 60s but many are still called by their nicknames. People still call my brother Brian Birdie. People still ask D.A. Hopper what D.A. stands for. Donald Hopper would tell them it means, “Don’t ask.” The kids of the 60s and 70s do get together periodically. Bubba Kiely has had his turkey trot party for over 40 years. Stuy Town guys go to the racetrack at Monmouth once a year and always have a great time. My brother Timmy, among others, have golf outings to keep in touch.
Unfortunately we also see each other at wakes and funerals. One of Stuy Town’s best passed away last month. His name is Jimmy Capuano. He was a great athlete, played guitar, was tough and loved to laugh. He was a great father and husband. You know how much he was loved because you were waiting on line at Andrett’s Funeral Home for over an hour. I would make a winning bet that Jimmy is playing guitar right now for the choirs of angels.
God bless Jimmy, his family, and the people who grew up in the playgrounds of Stuy Town in the 60s and 70s.