Back in the day of the day, back when I was around 9 years old in the early 1960’s, I was among a bunch of kids my age from North Beach and Chinatown who would regularly play pick up games of football in Washington Square. Park Saturdays, Sundays, and whenever we could during the summer. We would have played baseball but the adults using the park wouldn’t let us and we could only play softball down at the Joe DiMaggio playground.
This was also a time when there were no real playgrounds at all in Chinatown, so a lot of the Chinese kids would come across Broadway to play in North Beach at Washington Square Park with us Italian kids. Some kids from Chinese ancestry lived in North Beach already. We got along fairly well too, considering the nonsensical historic animosity between a lot of our parents from our two distantly different racial and ethnic backgrounds.
We also hung out and played tennis dodge ball in the alley streets in both communities. These alleys during the day were very safe and were the kind of the place where car drivers looked out for and expected us kids to be. Chinatown and North Beach both share a network of smallish streets and alleys. We made these “kids turf” when we weren’t in the park.
However, the most fun time for us was around mid February every year. It was always rainy and cold but this is the time of Chinese New Year. None of us Italian kids, even on the fourth of July, had access to fire works like the Chinese kids did. This made for a great trading relationship between us, everything from baseball cards to candy and sometimes even money changed hands for us to get the fireworks and use them. We had great contests blowing up tin cans, setting off stings of fire crackers to see how much noise and smoke we could make, until we got nailed by our parents who would attempt to restrict our alley pyrotechnics antics, commerce and careers on both sides of the ethnic divide.
The Chinese kids seemed to be at greater liberty to get and use these fireworks than we Italian kids were. It didn’t seem fair to me. I asked my father why this was. He said it was part of their culture and explained the “lunar new year.” He and my mother regularly took us to the Chinese New Year parade during the late 1950s and early 1960s. There were massive fireworks and firecrackers there, mostly still in the rain but spectacular at night during the parade of dragons and lions.
Before the parade, my parents would take my sister and I to dinner in their favorite Chinese restaurant and they would order all kinds of exotic dishes. The restaurant, still there, was up Washington Street just off Grant Ave., three block off of Broadway and, literally, under the building. You walk down concrete steps to the doorway. Very “old school” Chinatown. My father knew all the waiters and the owner would greet us with broad smile. Somehow, they knew each other back in their day, the 1930s, when everyone was struggling just to survive. So we got the VIP treatment there.