My Little Town by
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(183 Stories)

Prompted By My Hometown

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Number 3 School

Happy Fourth of July! When I think of July Fourth celebrations, I think of the neighborhood in Sacramento, California, where I have lived for the past twenty-eight years. Until recently, there was a block party every year, with a parade of kids on bikes in the morning, a jump house and water slide in the afternoon, a potluck barbecue and a margarita station, and then after it got dark, a few of the guys setting off safe and sane fireworks in the middle of the street. Even though Sacramento is a big city, we had a small-town Fourth.

What was the best thing about Belleville? That it was only 13 miles from Manhattan.

I grew up in the small town of Belleville, New Jersey, just north of Newark and a 13-mile drive from Manhattan through the Lincoln Tunnel. What was the best thing about Belleville? That it was only 13 miles from Manhattan. When I was in high school, I could take the bus to Port Authority by myself, then get together with friends who lived in the City. It made me feel very grown-up.

I don’t know if there were fireworks in Belleville on the Fourth of July, because there was only one year of my life that I was in Belleville in July. This was 1958, the summer I turned seven. Before that year, dating back to before I was born, my family always rented a summer house at Lake Hopatcong. After that year I went away every summer, but I did spend that one summer at home in Belleville with my parents (my sisters were at camp), and my mother and I went to a swim club every day. I have no memory of a Fourth of July celebration, although there probably was one.

My sisters and I did not like living in Belleville. My sisters were always bugging my parents to move someplace else. I didn’t support that idea because I didn’t want to leave our house, which I loved. So then they came up with the idea of buying a lot in another town and moving the house. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. But we all got out of Belleville as soon as we could.

Aside from its location a short drive or bus ride from Manhattan, the other nice feature about Belleville was the cherry blossoms. Belleville calls itself the Cherry Blossom Capital of America, and even has that title on the town seal. Some people think that this honor belongs to Washington, D.C. but in fact, Branch Brook Park has approximately 5,000 cherry trees, the highest concentration of them anywhere in the country. These pictures were taken in Belleville in March of this year during cherry blossom season, which only lasts about two weeks.

The Cherry Blossom Festival is a big deal in Belleville, and includes a beauty pageant. Entering the pageant at the urging of her little sister, my middle sister was crowned Cherry Blossom Queen of 1964. From there she went to the Miss Essex County pageant, and if she had won that (she was first runner-up), the next step would have been Miss New Jersey. But that is her story, not mine.

How big was my little town? I remember in fifth grade, when we studied New Jersey in social studies, I had to memorize the population of Belleville, which was 35,005 in the 1960 census. I wondered about that five. Why wasn’t it just rounded to 35,000? (Of course I know now that they want the exact number, not a rounded one.) But did that five refer to the five members of my family? I liked the idea that we were specifically mentioned by the census.

The 2010 census shows 35,926, so basically the same size as when I was growing up. In my childhood the population was predominantly Italian Catholic, and I don’t know if that is still true today, but apparently Belleville appears in several episodes of The Sopranos, which suggests that the Italian influence is still there. Also, the famous people who grew up in Belleville and make the locals proud are all Italian: Connie Francis, Tommy DeVito of the Four Seasons, and Joe Pesci. If you have seen the musical Jersey Boys, you will know that it was Joe Pesci who got the Four Seasons together, because he was friends with both Frankie Valli and Tommy DeVito.

Being Jewish, my family was part of a very small minority in a Catholic world. This beautiful old synagogue, just down the street from my house, was the only one in town. We belonged to it, but for the most part only attended on the High Holy Days. My sisters went through Hebrew School, but when I said I didn’t want to go any more, my parents said okay. Around 1960, the congregation sold this building and moved a few blocks away where they could build a sprawling modern campus. It had much more space, but none of the charm.

I never experienced discrimination, but there were challenges to being Jewish at school. We had a Bible reading and recited the Lord’s Prayer every morning along with the flag salute. Each day, at least in the higher grades, a different student did the Bible reading. I don’t know what version of the Bible the school had, but I remember when it was my turn, I had trouble finding a reading that didn’t have Jesus in it. I generally had no idea what any of the passages were even about! Then there was the mystery of kids coming to school on a certain Wednesday in the spring with ashes on their foreheads. I wondered if everybody had forgotten to wash their faces that day. There was also the memorable experience of going to a friend’s house for the first time, and on the wall was an enormous picture of a kindly-looking old man in an ornate frame. “Is that your grandfather?” I asked. “My grandfather?” she responded in a shocked tone, “No, it’s the Pope!” When I went home, I had to ask my mother what that meant, because I had never heard of a pope before.

The school system consisted of 9 elementary schools that were K-8, and one high school. I went to Number Three School, imaginatively named because it was the third school built. It was a wonderful old building with three floors, plus a basement which was also a fallout shelter. (See Featured Image.) The third floor was condemned and we were not allowed to go up there, but I did anyway in my unsupervised wanderings when I was carrying notes from my teacher to other teachers. The average intelligence at this school, and all the Belleville schools, was not terribly high, but the school administration did recognize that I was not being challenged enough and so they accelerated me in second grade, moving me up to third partway through the year. (See What Did You Learn in School Today? for a description of that process.) Also, whenever there were notes to be sent around, the teachers had me do it because they knew it wouldn’t matter if I missed some class time.

In the early Sixties Belleville High School lost its accreditation because it was so overcrowded. This was during the time that my sisters were there. To gain back accreditation, they built a new high school in a different part of town that was just grades 10-12, and turned the old high school into a junior high school for grades 7-9. However, even with the overcrowding problem solved, my sisters urged my parents not to send me through the Belleville schools, wanting me to get a better education than they did. (And a safer one. My sister once had a switchblade pulled on her . . . in the girls’ locker room!) My parents listened, and investigated private and public schools in other towns. Starting in seventh grade I attended College High School, a six-year selective public school in Montclair. Once I left Number Three, and shortly afterwards dropped out of my Girl Scout troop, I had no further contact with any of my Belleville friends. Ever.

In my current city of Sacramento, I have met many, many people who grew up here, went away for varying periods of time, and ended up coming back to raise their families here. Sacramento is that kind of place. Belleville is not that kind of place. Even if I had to move to New Jersey for some reason, I would not consider Belleville.


Note on my pictures: To get the pictures for this story, I joined two different facebook groups, “Growing Up in Belleville NJ” and “Belleville NJ 07109 Memories” from which I downloaded a lot of wonderful photos. I hope the people who posted them don’t mind. An added bonus from joining those groups was that I got this message from my best friend in first and second grades: “I remember you as Susan. We were in classes together and you skipped a grade. You would help the teacher with other kids in class.” It was nice to be remembered!

Note on my title song: Paul Simon stated that it was not autobiographical, but was about anyone “who hates the town he grew up in. Somebody happy to get out.” That seems appropriate.

Profile photo of Suzy Suzy


Characterizations: funny, well written

Comments

  1. Suzy, sorry to hear you weren’t enamored of your home town but glad you’re now a happy Sacramento girl!

    But your Four Seasons connection is pretty cool, we saw Jersey Boys on Bway at least 4 times – would go again in a heartbeat!

    • Suzy says:

      Jersey Boys was a great show, I agree, but I’m amazed that you have seen it at least 4 times! But then again, I have listened to the Four Seasons’ songs millions of times! And I still consider myself a Jersey girl, not a Sacramento girl, even though I’m happy here. Actually my favorite city is Cambridge, I sometimes regret that I didn’t stay there.

      • Ah so you are still a bit of a Jersey girl!
        Actually we may have seen Jersey Boys once just us, then again with friends of family, and then whenever out-of-towners or business visitors were in town, we’d take them!
        Danny thinks maybe we saw it 5 times, at least one of those times in regional theatre,
        Love love love that show!

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    Suzy, I love all of the details you include about Belleville, especially those about the schools and how it felt to be so much in the minority. I can’t imagine having to read a bible passage in public school, although I’m sure it still happens in some parts of the country. The cherry blossoms were beautiful, though. Sacramento sounds much more your cup of tea. Happy 4th!

    • Suzy says:

      Laurie, I think it was very common to have bible reading in schools until the Supreme Court struck it down in 1963 in Schempp v. Abington School District. I remember being so happy when that case was decided! I do NOT assume it still happens in some parts of the country, because it has been illegal for 57 years.

  3. John Shutkin says:

    Great story, Suzy, not least of which is that you described a hometown that you were not exactly in love with. As such, your choice of “My Little Town” as your title is not only in keeping with your song/title tradition, but very apt.

    That said, I am impressed with your admirable research into Belleville. “Cherry Blossom Capital” — who knew? But beautiful pictures. And some pretty cool “native sons.”

    I also very much enjoyed your vignettes about learning the ways of Catholics in Belleville.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, John. Even my husband, when he saw my pics of the cherry blossoms, said he thought D.C. was the CB capital. So I knew I had to spread the word about that! And Belleville does have pretty cool native sons AND daughters – don’t forget about Connie Francis!

  4. Betsy Pfau says:

    Great reminiscences of Belleville, the true Cherry Capital of the US (gorgeous photos, by the way). I love the way you describe the best part of it as being easily accessible to NYC. That is certainly worth a lot. The school system (and kids that went with it) do sound challenging, but sounds like your parents solved that situation and you turned out just fine. Love that you joined all those Facebook groups for the photos, but found friends there as well.

    But I understand that you consider Sacramento your hometown. I have lived in Newton (and the Boston area) much longer than anywhere, so must really consider myself a native now (I do root for the hometown teams, as I never followed sports when I was a kid in Detroit).

    • Suzy says:

      Interestingly, it’s the Cherry Blossom Capital, but not the Cherry Capital. I think these must be ornamental trees, because I never heard of anyone eating the cherries. I think of Michigan as the place for cherries – I remember being excited about the native cherries at Interlochen.

      As far as sports go, when I do pay attention to them, which is rare, I root for the Boston or New York teams, not the California ones. But don’t tell any of my neighbors!

      • Betsy Pfau says:

        The Traverse City area, near Interlochen is known for its cherries (it used to have the Cherry County Playhouse, but that is long gone, and a cherry festival). Like you, I remember having wonderful cherries with meals at camp, Suzy.

  5. Marian says:

    Lots of parallels in our stories, Suzy, which is to be expected given the proximity of Belleville to my hometowns. I echo your sentiments. I’m glad you mentioned the Four Seasons, because the father of one of my Verona classmates owned the tavern where they started. Other than Tony Soprano, one person folks might already know who grew up in North Caldwell was Joe Piscopo of Saturday Night Live fame. We were in drama together and he was always the romantic lead! His younger brother Richie, who was much funnier, was in my class. Who would have known?

  6. “Is that your grandfather?” and the “imaginatively named” Number Three School — your humor always cracks me up, Suzy! I’m so glad you left Belleville, and I’m even gladder (more glad?) that you found true happiness in Sacramento. Lady Bird (LOVED it!) called Sacramento the midwest of California. Is that okay with you? To me it’s a compliment since almost everyone I’ve ever loved has come from the midwest (hi Garth!). How smart of you to join those FB groups and in doing so find out you were remembered. The Cathy I mentioned in my story still stays in touch with our class, but I don’t remember any of them and they don’t remember me. Oh, well.

    • Suzy says:

      The grandfather question wasn’t intended to be funny, I really thought that if they had a framed picture of an old man on the wall, that’s who it would be. After 1960, everyone had a framed picture of JFK next to their framed picture of the Pope – Belleville went crazy for the first Catholic President.

      Greta Gerwig has an interesting love-hate relationship with Sacramento, she couldn’t wait to leave but came back to make her first movie. Not sure I agree with her about it being the midwest of California, I think it’s much more sophisticated than she gives it credit for.

  7. Almost forgot to mention how much I enjoyed reading the story…as usual! And best wishes for a safe and sane 4th…one (or two) of those margaritas is sounding pretty good right about now!

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Barb. Might have to blend up some margaritas at home. This 4th will be very safe and sane . . . and boring . . . because there aren’t even any fireworks around here that I could watch from my car.

  8. Marian says:

    Suzy, I too wondered what happened to Richie and despite many online searches, haven’t been able to find out. Won’t give up, though. BTW, thanks for the reminder about Branch Brook Park. The cherry trees indeed were impressive.

  9. Risa Nye says:

    As others have said, who knew about the cherry blossoms? I enjoyed reading and could relate to growing up in a town where there weren’t many other Jewish families. A shared experience, for sure. Before the lockdown here in CA, I was going to the Richmond Natatorium (known as “The Plunge”) to do water aerobics. I swam there as a kid. But, as the saying goes, for my childhood town anyway, there is no there there. Thanks for the look back at your hometown.

    • Suzy says:

      Thanks, Risa. That’s the great thing about Retrospect, learning about our commonalities and our differences. A lot of interesting stories on this prompt, and at least two more to come!

  10. Good one! Your memories are bittersweet and that makes for a more complicated, dimensional story. Never knew of Belleville or its Cherry Blossom Festival. How amazing to grow up a short distance from Manhattan. Thanks for writing this.

    • Suzy says:

      We could actually see the New York skyline from my parents’ bedroom window. Going to the theatre was easy and inexpensive, and I probably saw almost every show that played on Broadway in the Sixties. So that was the good part, and I know you would have liked that too.

  11. Jeez, Suzy, what a rich offering. That nightmare of a school building. I have often wondered why we weren’t all completely depressed, just by having to walk into those imposing old dungeons. I guess we had other agendas.

    I love the juxtaposition of the mundane name — who do you suppose thought up Belleville? It sounds like a town out of the Twilight Zone. “Next stop, Belleville. Belleville’s next.” I’m glad for everyone’s sake that you were so determined to leave, although Joe Pesci and Frankie Valli certainly give the place color.

    I also enjoy how, when you write about your childhood, you’re able to recall your own response to your perceptions about people, places, Ash Wednesday, and population figures. Cherry blossoms indeed.

    • Suzy says:

      I actually liked that school building, built in 1897, I thought it was wonderful, and I was so happy to find a picture of it. It burned down in the late ’70s and they built a dreadful modern replacement, very disappointing when I went back to visit.

      Belleville means beautiful city in French, so not mundane IMO, but not applicable to my town either. I guess it lives up to its name for the two weeks that the cherry blossoms are blooming. In one of the facebook groups, somebody asked “If you have moved away, what do you miss the most?” Almost everyone said the cherry blossoms! Also the pizza!

  12. Ahhhh! The pizza! Of course!

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