Editor’s Note: Joe Russo is a “Nortsider”, a teacher, and an aspiring writer. We’ve asked him to share his stories of the past and offer his perspective on the present and future of our neighborhood. His posts will appear a couple of times each month under the category, “Old Times on the Northside”.
Union Park has always fascinated me. My dad’s camera repair shop was just a few store fronts away from the park. It seemed like a green oasis amidst the hustle and bustle of North Salina Street. During the warm weather months eating lunch outside was always a treat. Sometimes we were too busy to close the repair shop for even a few minutes. When the weather cooperated I remember dad locking the front door and hanging up the “back in 20 minutes” sign. We always found a shady spot on a hot day or a sunny spot on a cool day. We welcomed a few moments in the park to get away from the work day pressure.
The park was a busy, happy place. Many of the neighborhood families lived in houses or apartments without front yards or backyards. Union Park was an oasis for the kids as well. Most noticeable was how many moms were in the park with their children. Protective moms, momma bear and baby bear kind of protective. One could easily see that the neighborhood mothers really cared for their children.
At the same time we had a problem as businesses on North Salina Street. We could not buy insurance for our large plate glass windows. Apparently, in the mid 1970’s there had been a rash of broken and otherwise vandalized windows. As a result, the insurance companies red-lined glass coverage. A large plate glass window cost around $500. Many North Salina business owners, including my father, blamed the neighborhood kids.
I developed a different insight. Just before Mother’s Day, a youth I remember from Union Park came to the camera shop. He didn’t have a camera that needed repairing. He looked at the floor and shuffled his feet. I don’t remember his name but I do remember he wore a New York Yankee baseball cap and looked at me anxiously as he said, “can you give me a job?” I explained to him that he wasn’t old enough to have working papers and legally hold a job. He replied, “I don’t need a real job, I just wanna get a present for my mom.” What he wanted was to sweep the sidewalk or wash a window to get a few dollars and buy a Mother’s Day gift. My father didn’t approve. Neither did my uncle Fred Maurillo who owned an insurance agency two doors away. I ignored their collective advice and continued to pay out small sums of cash to a significant number of neighborhood youths for odd jobs. The youths seemed so honest and sincere. The test for theory came once a year on Halloween. The morning after Halloween I would drive the length of North Salina Street to take a first-hand look at whatever tom-foolery had taken place the night before. As I drove the street I would see egged windows, spray painted graffiti, turned over garbage cans and evidence of other and various pranks. I slowed down my car as I approached the 900 block wishing and hoping my investment in jobs for Mother’s Day gifts paid off.
From 1975 until 1992 we couldn’t buy glass insurance. However, the end result was we didn’t need it. Not once did we experience any sort of vandalism. I believe the kids became my protector and convinced other would-be-vandals to stay away because a Mother’s Day gift is very special to everybody in every neighborhood.
The new playground’s ribbon cutting ceremony took place on October 4th. More photos, can be found on our facebook page. Thanks to all that made this build possible! For a full list, please see this Playground Thanks.