When You’re a Jet

For me, summer always meant dips in the Thompson Playground pool. Before they renovated it, it was none too clean, but we all built up our immune systems there and we all lived to tell about it, so no harm done.

I was in Thompson Playground (now called Vesuvio) the other day with my friend and our children.  We had gotten a pizza from Ben’s and were looking for a spot to sit and eat lunch, but all the tables were taken.  I asked a family at the big picnic table if we could sit with them and they obliged, sliding over and letting us squeeze in.  As we were almost sitting on each other’s laps, we all started talking about the park and the neighborhood, and it turned out that our tablemates grew up playing in that park as children, just as I did.  They now had children of their own so they must have been around my age.  When they left, my friend commented that she found it interesting that I had grown up in the same neighborhood as they did, yet we seemed to be from two different worlds.  She was most perplexed by their accents, old-school New Yawk and proud of it, and my lack thereof.

It’s true.  Thompson Street is only one street over from West Broadway, yet, at least back then, it was a world apart.  The children who grew up to the west of West Broadway tended to be from Italian-American working or middle-class families who all knew each other and went to Catholic school, either St. Anthony’s on MacDougal or Our Lady of Pompei on Carmine.  They also tended to have longer histories as Manhattanites, unlike the residents of Wooster, Greene, and Mercer Streets, the blocks east of West Broadway, where the “pioneering” loft dwellers lived.  But we all often shared the same physical space on Thompson Street, especially on the block between Prince and Spring Streets, where Thompson Playground and pool, Mary’s Candy Store, and later, Ben’s Pizza and Milady’s Bar, the bookends of the block, acted as social equalizers.

There is no doubt that there was often tension between the two “camps.”  Signs of development and gentrification were also signs of upward mobility to many of those who had lived in the neighborhood for at least a generation.  The newly arrived artists, however, did not feel that way.  Commercial and real estate development were considered the enemies that would ruin the creative oasis they had created for themselves below Houston Street.

But what did we kids know or care.  Playground!  Pool!  Candy!  I probably swam with the people I met at the picnic table more than once as a child.  That filthy pool!  That which does not kill us makes us stronger, right?  And that sad little playground.  It was renamed Vesuvio after the bakery on Prince Street owned by Anthony Dapolito, a.k.a. “Mr. Parks,” who tirelessly advocated for open spaces in the neighborhood until his death in 2003.  After we’d tire ourselves out swimming and climbing, we’d run down to Mary’s to load up on sugar so we could start the rampage all over again.  I remember Mary’s being kind of gloomy for a candy store.  But they had what we needed.  Candy!

Now that I think of it, that block was also “neutral” or crossover territory for the grownups too.  Mary was part of the Fanelli family that owned Fanelli’s, the meeting place of blue-collar workers and artists alike, and later Milady’s, on the corner of Thompson and Prince, another well-appreciated watering hole.  And Dapolito and his bakery were loved by all.

Then the deli on the corner owned by a Korean family came along.  One of the first in Manhattan.  I remember thinking to myself, what are those guys doing setting up a grocery store around here?  Little did I know that they would DEFINE the New York grocery store in the years to come!  Next maybe was Auggie’s, the Porto Rico coffee place (which sadly closed its door recently). But now I think I’m getting into the late-80’s.  In any case, that block, like all the other blocks around it, changed slowly.  I’ve seen Nick Nolte, Sandra Bullock, and a host of other paparazzi magnets in Vesuvio playground since I’ve begun hanging out there as a mother.  It’s definitely lost, and gained, something over the years.  But I’m happy to know that I can still run into some old timers there, even ones who grew up on the other side of the tracks.

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37 Responses to “When You’re a Jet”

  1. Aristides Pappidas Says:

    When I first encountered Milady’s in ’62 it had constant theme music softly playing in the background; the strains of Nino Rota. (…..though the melodies had not yet been written.)

    • S.S. Says:

      Some nicknamed Miladay’s the “Sinatra Bar”, for all the photos of Sinatra that adorned the walls back then.

  2. S.S. Says:

    There is a lot more about that part of “SoHo”, or, as many call it, the “South Village”, that adults experienced in the 70s that you youngsters might not have known about.

    Young adults walking would do so at their own risk, as “corner boys”, aka wannabe Mafiofos, were threatening to outsiders.

    One newcomer friend of mine, a Mr. Murphy, who lived on Thompson Street in the building where the Portuguese grocery store on Prince now stands (it used to be a hardware store then) was simply walking by and got beat up one evening just because he was Irish looking.

    My girlfriend was walking by a group of local teenage boys and girls in broad daylight and felt a sting in her back. She was shot by a BB gun. She said nothing but gave the group the finger. As she was walking away, one of the girls ran over and punched her in the back. Asked why, the girl responded, “for giving me the finger”.
    Talking about adding insult to injury!!

    In the early 70s, a black man who mugged an old Italian lady was apprehended by the boys, brought up to the roof, and “fell off”. Needless to say, there were few muggings, although lots of crime.

    Thugs shook down new businesses for protection money, particularly the new hip bars and restaurants. I know this for a fact.. Just south of Auggie’s on Thompson, now a dress store, was a social club where the local don and his boys would hang out.

    Car parking there was not easy, as the locals thought they owned the spots in front of their houses. Park in one of their spots and you would come back to a slashed tire.

    Also, before about 1996, when Giuliani clamped down on decades of illegal fireworks sales centered in Little Italy (the South Village is really Little Italy West) that supplied NYC’s demand for July 4th fireworks, Thompson Street’s basements were used to store the boxes of the explosives, which were sold on Canal Street.

    One guy I know related how he was invited down to inspect the illegal load and these fireworks dealers would be smoking joints sitting atop crates of fireworks. So much for safety!

    Perhaps you were too young to participate, but we older SoHoites would never go to Macy’s fireworks display on July 4th. Too tame.
    The local Italian guys would get all their unsold fireworks, boxes and boxes, bring them to Thompson Park, put them in trash can after trash can, douse it with gasoline, and light it.
    The explosions rivaled a war scene: deafening explosions with wild-flying rockets and Roman candles shooting in every direction along the street. Burns were not infrequent. The concussive force would press heavily into your chest and it even shattered windows, with shards of glass raining down on us. Wild cannot describe it. It sure was fun, but it was taking your life into your own hands.

    There was also a large Portuguese component as well living there.

    Where the Korean deli you mentioned now stands, there used to be a dingy old grocery store owned by an Italian. An old Italian guy told me that when the Korean deli owners showed up, they paid for the business in cash by allegedly producing an attache case full of greenbacks. Business as usual!

    Now, when I see the frou-frou boutiques and the gaggles of Sex in the City wannabes strolling down Thompson Street, oblivious to the events that happened there not that long ago, strolling on mean streets that they would never have dared walked along back then, I wonder if their fathers ever came to Canal Street as kids to purchase “firewoiks” from the remaining Italians who sit idly on the benches of the ever-so-sanitized Vesuvio Park now full of Yuppie mothers and their designer-dressed kids, whose lunch money would have been fair game back then.

    • Yukie Ohta Says:

      Very interesting, Sean. I heard those July 4 explosions all the way on Mercer Street, but never knew what they were. I remember the social club. It was there until quite late, if I remember correctly. And I also remember the “corner boys,” but was too young to be bothered by or worried about them. It’s funny what disparate associations people can have of the same place depending on point of view!

  3. wendy beck Says:

    Didn’t Juliana Margulies waitress at Milady’s early in her career?

  4. Davide-NYC Says:

    I remember the firework dealers with their huge sedan trunks full of fire works in the late 80’s and as recently as the early 90’s. Vesuvio Playground, Petrosino Park, Baxter Street, Thompson Street. What a gas. We used to have (what we thought) were scary firework fights in Courtland Alley. More than once my friends and I were chased off by local (chinese) gangs from Courtland. Good times!?

    • Nancy Says:

      It wasn’t Vesuvio Playground back then – it was Thompson Park and it was open to everyone, not just “adults accompanied by children”

  5. Crosby Says:

    I can remember walking down Thompson Street in the mid 1970s and seeing the social club, the Italian mom and pop shops and the giant Italian flag painted on the hand ball court wall in Thompson Park. I remember thinking this neighborhood will never change. But alas, money changes everything.

  6. Gail Ann Fanelli Says:

    There are still a few of us “old Italians” around the neighborhood !!!

  7. Gail Ann Fanelli Says:

    I hope you will forgive my “Old school New Yawk” accent “. Not all of the kids from Thompson Street were mean, I know, I was one once. The fireworks displays were a little crazy but still one of my fondest memories.

    • S.S. Says:

      To echo Yukie’s statement, my comments above that the South Village had some tough characters did not at all mean to imply everyone was bad. In fact, i am now good friends with several old-timers living on Sullivan and Spring Streets.
      I grew up in working-class neighborhoods in Brooklyn and every neighborhood has its jerks. SoHo has a lot too.

      I simply wanted to add to Yukie’s narrative a dimension and a history that she as a child might not have known, and one that newcomers and tourists who now walk down the streets have no idea of.

      Btw, there is a great book you could probably get on ebay or from the Library by a Greenwich Village native, Donald Tricarico, “The Italians of Greenwich Village”. He wrote it for his doctorate, describing the neighborhood in the 70s when he was a sociology student and living on Sullivan Street. You’ll surely recognize some of the characters he describes.

      It paints a much broader picture than Yukie or I can describe in a blog. Check it out.

    • Nancy Says:

      I was one of those kids too and while I was scared to death of the fireworks, I still prefer them to the silence I hear on Thompson Street today.

  8. Yukie Ohta Says:

    Gail! I never meant to imply that any of the kids were mean! Not at all. I think they thought we were a little strange, and maybe sometimes that we were interlopers on their “territory.” But mostly none of us noticed or cared. That’s the great think about being a kid!

  9. Marvin Camillo Says:

    HI Yukie!

    I loved the article, because of your honesty and giving your perspective really helps me understand why I was known by some of my old PS3 friends’ parents that lived east of W. Bway as somewhat of a ruffian. However, I must side with Gail and use myself as an example too. To S.S. you are right about all that you mentioned, but what you failed to say is despite all that, this was a very family oriented neighborhood. If you lived here, no matter what your nationality, you were part of the neighborhood and taken care of. Now besides Italians & Portuguese, this neighborhood had a strong Latino base. A lot of our names are not “traditional” Latino names Camillo, Suarez, Ochoa, Martin, Acosta, Ferrer, Ferrara, DelAngel, Tapia & Leon. Names that often get confused for Italian or Portuguese and we had, Fernandez, Gonzalez, Torres, Colon, Cruz, Rodriguez you get the gist. We lived here as part of the amilies that would look out for each other. My mother was one of the Pioneers of the Latinos moving into the neighborhood back in 1952. Hell yes it was rough what she endured, but at the end of the day, she fought and proved that we belong and are a part of this place and her success shines through all 4 of her children. Granted, I will admit that I was facinated by the crime side of things and yes I had my hustles as a teen, but I grew out of it and it was because these same people that you did not mention were the ones slapping the back of my head and/or telling my mother what was going on. You want to talk about this neighborhood, tell the story of how each kid had 100 mothers and 50 fathers always looking out for them. We were able to walk around here even at age 7 or 8 and never had to worry about anything happening. You also could not get into too much trouble without being caught. Like Hillary’s book, It takes a village to raise a child. I think she used our neighborhood as an example. No one could mess with you, because there was always someone up the block and within seconds of a loud scream we, and I include myself as I got older, would be there. Now I know the roof top incident was extreme, but I can remember the kids of Chelsea Vocational wre going on a mugging spree for months until one afternoon during St. Anthony’s Feast, they made a bad move in Thompson Park (Vesuvio Park) and we did what was needed to be done. No one was killed, but they did stop the mugging. I can go on & on so I’m going to end on this. We were protective of our neighborhood, but we also invited other neighborhoods to partake in athletic events and also celebrate the summer with BBQs, Block Parties, 4th of July and of course the infamous Keg Parties. Oh and by the way, we are known as The Lower West Side!

    • Yukie Ohta Says:

      Thanks, Marvin, for sharing this story! In the same way that families on Thompson Street looked out for each other, so did those on the other side of West Broadway. I think its great that we both grew up in NYC but had sort of a “small town” kind of childhood!

  10. Aristides Pappidas Says:

    It was sometime before many of you moved to ‘Soho’; ’64 to ’67 perhaps. There were still many small businesses in existence. The people who lived in the buildings were discreet about moving in and out of them.
    96-98 Prince Street had a super named Morris who was cherished by virtually all who knew him. Very active as a street presence. Then the building[s] were sold and though Morris seemed to be out of a job he would still hang out in front, ‘taking care’ of them. This status morphed into having business people hire Morris to do odd jobs and he in turn would hire familiar homeless men (he affectionately referred to them as ‘satellites’) to do jobs that he couldn’t or didn’t want to do. Now, not all of these guys were alcoholics and one of them was nicknamed “Bluebeard”. He had some higher education in his past, was always well groomed, was soft-spoken and though somewhat reclusive, could be engaged in short conversations. Morris had gleaned that Bluebeard had some draftsman experience in his distant past and so whenever a painting or sign-painting job came up, he usually did it.
    Bluebeard loathed the housing the shelters provided and in the warmer weather would collect large cardboard boxes that he handily turned into sleeping quarters.
    One summer night some of the neighborhood ‘youths’ from the western side of West Broadway, carrying a bottle or too of accelerant, poured it on the sleeping Bluebeard and ignited it. It’s not known how long he suffered hideously before he was found. He lived for a few pain-filled days (the morphine could only do so much and these were severe burns) in the hospital and his suffering was so great that the veteran investigating detective did what few working cops do: he went out of his way and made sure that the sub-humans who did this were caught. They were though their juvenile status prevented them from receiving the punishment they deserved.
    40+ years later my saliva feels bile forming when I remember what the indignant mother of one of the criminals said to a reporter after her son was sentenced to too severe a sentence: “He [Bluebeard] was only a bum!”

  11. S.S. Says:

    Bluebeard was only one of three homeless men burned in the neighborhood that week in September, 1966.
    It was horrific news covered all over by the city’s TV stations and papers. I remember it well.
    One was burned to death while sleeping in front of 147 Mercer, which, coincidentally, was my first address in SoHo, another down the block at 112 Mercer, and a third on Houston and Sixth Avenue.

    Read more: http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F00F14FE3B55107A93C4AB1782D85F428685F9

  12. Gail Fanelli Says:

    I knew Donald his aunt lived at 71 Thompson Street and I remember when he was writing The book. I had forgotten completely about that thanks for the memory.

  13. Gail Fanelli Says:

    Bluebeard used to go to my grandfather’s bar every morning and read the newspapers. My grandfather would give him free coffee and donuts. My grandfather liked him and was sickened by the way he died. I knew the people who were responsible also. Aside from one very ignorant mother or two no one in the neighborhood condoned that act. Every single one of us were as outraged as you were and I was only 8 years old at the time. The person responsible was a sick twisted kid that would also torture animals. I have never and will never be able to think about that without being sick.

    • Aristides Pappidas Says:

      Gail, I was your grandfather Mike’s residential tenant ‘Artie’, his nickname for me, from 1963 until a couple of years after his passing (my wife Jane, I and our young son MacLeod moved to Jersey City in ’83). I got to know your uncles Ray and George fairly well and your great uncle Jim better. I was fond of all four of them with a particular affection for Mike. (Your grandfather’s deep generosity allowed me and my family to live at 94 for a shockingly low rent all those years.)
      Thanks for adding more human detail about Bluebeard’s tragic, horrifying death and its after effects.

    • wendy beck Says:

      Gail, I have fond memories of Mike, Ray, George and Alfred. I waitressed, briefly, at Fanelli’s in the early ’70’s. I recall that if anyone “stiffed” me, Mike would give me a tip instead. Alfred was always talking about going to Florida. Oh, the memories!

  14. Gail Fanelli Says:

    My father was Ray and Mike’s son. Uncle George was also Mike’s son. Jimmy was actually my Grandfathers Brother and Alfred was not related to us at all. My Grandfather never wanted anyone to know how old he was so his sons were instructed not to call him “Pop’ in the “saloon”. He told everyone they were his brothers. I was young enough that I got away with calling him Grandpa in front of people, he always called me the baby.

  15. The Gourmet Bachelor Says:

    Love this blog! I’m sure my Italian ancestors walked down Thompson Street a century before I arrived from Pittsburgh. I love the history. My son is now 2. He likes Thompson St Park but we often go to the Key Park on Bleecker and Mercer. I’m curious and a bit of a slacker, which public school should I send my son to? We live on Thompson & Bleecker. Be honest : ) Do I need to do anything now? I wrote The Gourmet Bachelor cookbook on Bleecker St. it’s about the global diversity of the neighborhood mixed with the local ingredients from these markets. It sold out last year but I would love for all of my local neighbors to stay in contact with me on my blog, http://www.thegourmetbachelor.com or just look me up on Facebook. Ciao!

    • Yukie Ohta Says:

      Thanks for writing in. My daughter also likes the key park, though we always go swimming at Thompson in summer. Your school question cannot be answered here briefly, but depending on how rezoning goes next year, you may not have to make a choice if you’re going the public school route. I went to PS3, which is probably your zoned school, and thought it was the greatest place on earth. But it depends on the child, I suppose. But you have a while to figure it out! I, however, must get it all together in the coming weeks, so wish me luck!

    • Marvin Says:

      I recommend PS3 on Hudson St. between Christopher St. & Grove St. My nephew is in the 5th grade and it has done wonders for him with his vocabulary. I am an alumni of the school and being very honest, my time there was fun. I felt that they lacked mental preparation for the next level schools and my adjustment to IS70 was rough and interesting. However, through my nephew, I see that a lot has changed. I see that he is prepped and psyched for his next educational venture. So ultimately I am giving PS3 a high recomendation!

      • The Gourmet Bachelor Says:

        Marvin, thank you so much for your insight. PS3 sounds great and interesting. I read through the copy on their website. Two grades in one seems different but the class size around 25 seems perfect. I love that Professionals from NYU and other local schools stop by.

      • Marvin Says:

        Yes. The school likes to get the community involved and it highly encourages the parents to participate in their child/childrens education. Oh and their Music Appreciation teacher is tops, bar none. Infact my Brother inlaw, a professional musician himself, often assists with the music program.

  16. Robert red Says:

    Marvin well said and thanks no one was fortunate enough to have grown up in that thing that we had and shared with was fortunate incessant pain in the ass by standers. I hope you all get the humor!

    • (Starvin') Marvin Camillo Says:

      Thanks Robert Red. Its funny, but when I wrote this I was thinking of many people I looked up to and you were one of them. I remember you allowing me & my buddy Dave aka Plastic Man to shag fly balls with you guys right before you would play a Softball game. You are right, this was a neighborhood special and one of a kind.

  17. Robert Red Says:

    Didn’t realize I was being so nice it was just seemed the right think to do that’s how are we were taught any way that was why it was THE NEIGHBORHOOD but for remembering

  18. Robert Red Says:

    But thanks for remembering

  19. Nancy Says:

    Does anyone remember Mike’s Murder Burgers? He had a food truck in the 70’s, maybe early 80’s, on Thompson and Spring and his burgers were the best.

  20. stevelibonati Says:

    Mikey Pompa, who could forget? As kids, about 10 of us would come filing out of the pool for cheeseburgers and then sit at the tables in the front of the park. Of course there was Carmelas on Spring St for the best hero sandwiches ever. But who remembers Willys around the corner on Sullivan? Willy used to make you a sandwich based on how much money you had. Hey Willy, I got 65 cents.

    The days of my youth. Its impossible to convey to people what an incredibly unique neighborhood and upbringing I had.

  21. Stephen Logdon Says:

    this blog is tripping me out – i was one of the gang who wld hang out in thompson park behind the pool where the fence had a hole so we could run from police under the apartment building and come out on sullivan street. the roof of the little arts building in thompson park had all kinds of weapons up there for those times when kids from another neighborhood would get stupid and wed throw em a beating. i went to Our Lady Of Pompeii and Ms. Fanelli – im sure one of your male relatives is named greg – he was a friend of mine – he was a tough kid and to hang around with him i always had to keep an eye on him bc he loved to play jokes on me like come up behind me and grab me in a full nelson until i passed out. that was funny. i was actually from south jersey just outside of south philadelphia – the carmine street gang called me a hick – but after a somewhat rough and extended initiation i finally was one of them. i always try to tell people about those days and thompson street – the 4th of july was beyond belief – i have never ever seen anything like it – ever. it was incredible – no words. the safety i felt in the neighborhood and just being part of those neighborhoods almost still is with me today. just knowing that such a community really existed – better then the movies – helps me stand straight and tall when im in new and strange places today. 209 Thompson was i guess the very last of the old days and the old ways. There was a deli owned by the Lorelli family directly across the street from Thompson Park – i think abouty that deli all the time. In winter all the fellas – and i mean ALL the fellas – wore leather bomber jackets and tweed cooney caps. in the summer guinea tees and jordache jeans – and our tweed caps. the girls would hang in the main part of the park and would often attract the attention of males passing through. we wld be in the darkness behind the pool. the girls would scream for us and we’d all come running out circling the foreign males – sometimes the elder men wld also be present and wed wait for them to give the word and take the intruders down hard. of course a few nights later when just a few of us were back there behind the pool those kids or kids from their neighborhood would sneak in and ambush us and after that it was on – a running feud between neighborhoods that would get pretty dark. well i could keep going. i havent been back to NY since probably about 2000. i lived straight down the street on macdougal alley and moved out of ny in 1983 but stayed friends with most everybody for a long time. i live in the mountains of central oregon now with my wife and kids and this is what i love. i do miss the italians – as im also italian – but nothing stays the same. when you cross the threshold into my house and my world – the lower west side is alive and well. my name is eric little pesci and my nickname was Johann which i hated but i was happy to have a nick.

  22. LaGuardia Corner Gardens | The SoHo Memory Project Says:

    […] placed his welded sculptures until they were removed by the Parks Department. Then, I wrote about Thompson Playground (now called Vesuvio) in 2012, where all of us SoHo kids learned how to swim. In 2013, I wrote about The Elizabeth Street […]

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