Revisiting the South End--if You Dare
Knox County — In memory of my brother, Harlan, who would have been 77 yesterday.
Those of you who have followed this blog since its beginning on the old Village Soup site in 2009 know I have approached this subject more than once. You always seem to like stories of the old South End as the number of hits on these stories is always high. Therefore I thought I’d bring you one more story on the reputation of the South End. It still holds some mystique and mystery and a bad reputation in spite of all the success of the good folks who once called the South End their home. (Another story I have done, by the way.)
My inspiration for this newest story of the South End comes from two sources. The first is a column written by David Grima, “Rockland Gothic” which appears in the Courier Gazette. I read his tongue-in-cheek eclectic column religiously. It’s like reading the old “Black Cat” column of Sid Cullen fame only with a bite to it.
I don’t think Grima is a Rockland native, but he claims to live in the eyesore we call the “grain storage bin” or as David calls it, the “west tower.” Several attempts at getting the darn thing dismantled have come to naught (where are eco-terrorists when you need them anyway). I have a feeling that if this thing sat down by the refurbished modern waterfront near the Landing, it would be long gone—just saying.
Anyway, in a recent column by Grima he mentions that he met up with an old Southender who stated that when she was a little girl her parents promised that if they ever knew of her hanging out in the South End that she would be grounded for life. Ironically, she now lives in the area of the old Fuller Market on Pacific and Crescent Streets—about as South End as you can get.
Grima also says he’s heard that residents of the old South End used to sleep with guns under their pillows. Well, I’m here to tell you I never saw or heard of anyone having any gun in the South End that wasn’t a hunting rifle. Yet the stories persist. The Big Bad South End.
Grima also mentions the Merriam boys who lived on Mechanic Street when the water came up almost to the road. It was a marshy area with an old barge sitting in the middle of it which the boys used to dive off. Another eyesore which was there for many years before it was removed. The location is now Snow Marine Park which even has a museum next door. Imagine that!
My family didn’t always live in the South End. When my brothers were little the family lived up on Cedar Street in the North End. By the time I was born, we lived on Mcloud Street. We moved to the Fulton Street house when I was a teenager.
Because my mother had made many friends in the North End, she tended to hold on to them when we moved “South.” It’s possible, therefore, that I was sheltered by her from the “bad” influences in the South End. I must say though, that I never felt afraid or threatened growing up in the South End. I have many happy memories of my years there.
Grima alluded to what is another inspiration for this story called “Rockland’s Gangs.” As Grima says, the Merriam boys were once prepared to go to war with the North End boys armed with BB guns.
I doubt if such an event ever occurred. However, according to another South End boy, Terry Economy, who grew up with my brothers in the South End and who became a member of the Maine Broadcasting Hall of Fame and who now writes a column for the Courier called “Rail Kids—Rockland Recollections,” at one time there were “gangs” in Rockland.
His recollections about these “gangs” were my other inspiration for this story.
In Terry’s “gang” story he mentions five gangs that once existed in Rockland: The North End gang, which the Merriam boys were probably talking about; the South End gang; Union Street gang; Thomaston Street gang; and the Alex gang, of which Terry was a member.
Terry says that the Alex gang, of the Orange Street area, was the toughest of them all. They were led by a leader called “The Boss” and they were all taught how to defend themselves. Their base was the second floor of an old barn in the area which was equipped with shift bunks, oil lamps, decorations, comic books and heat provided by an old tin wood stove. I’ve heard of many so-called “clubhouses” in the old South End neighborhood, but this is the most elaborate one I’ve ever heard of. It brings back images of the old “Our Gang” movies with Alfalfa and the gang.
The gangs of those days in the early 40s up to the early 50s were not like the gangs you imagine existed then and today in the big cities like New York City. The South End gangs were big rivals of each other; but fighting was not the way they solved anything. Rather they would play one game or another: baseball and football being the most played. There were no “street signs” made by your hands or “colors” worn by a specific gang. Building a snow fort, supplying it with icy snowballs and commencing to have a “snowball” fight was probably the extent of “violence” they took part it.
As far as “turfs” go I can remember some areas I was told not to venture into. As I had two older brothers, I doubt that anyone in any of these gangs would have messed with me. I was very young in the early 40s also. It’s possible that these gangs were fading out by the time I was of an age to realize they existed.
As I lived in the Suffolk Street to Crescent Street and around to the Pacific Street area, I would feel uncomfortable if I ventured into an area such as upper Pleasant Street, near the Alex gang; or down on the lower end of Crescent Street and Atlantic Street area. It wasn’t exactly a fear I felt but rather just an uncomfortable feeling, especially when a strange kid stared at me in an unwelcoming way.
I was told in fact, not to hang out around lower Crescent Street. This is the area our young girl of the above story now lives.
We also had a couple of huge apartment houses which were scary to me as a little girl when I walked past them. The kids who lived in these apartments were probably the least privileged of all of us in the South End. If they had enough to eat on a particular day it was a good day for them. They were therefore necessarily scrappy in order to survive.
I do remember one time, however, when I was thrilled to participate in the evening games of the gang my brother Harlan hung around with. I don’t know if his gang had a name or not. I do know that they really enjoyed hanging out together, playing ball games, swimming down at Sandy Shores or Dix Beach or the Little Granites.
On this night I was actually sitting on the steps belonging to the home of one of this gang on lower Crescent Street. The “gang” had more or less adopted me as a special mascot and I thoroughly enjoyed watching them play kick the can and Truth or Consequences (or the full name, Truth, Dare, Consequences, Promise or Repeat). You know what that game is if you ever lived in the South End or even the North End.
I don’t know if my mother even knew where I was on this night, and she was probably worried. The street lights had come on a while ago, which was the signal for me to come home. I expect my brother got a talking to when she found out where I’d been.
This same gang also took me to the Saturday afternoon movies at the Strand on Main Street one time. As Terry mentions in his story, each gang sat together which is how I remember it that day. I also remember a lot of commotion and throwing of popcorn, sticky candy and chewed gum. Those kids sitting in the balcony had the advantage as it was almost impossible to throw candy back at them up there. I’m guessing these “weapons” replaced the switchblades of the notorious city gangs.
Believe it or not, a big bunch of us who grew up in the South End survived and eventually became good citizens of whatever town or city we ended up in. Some of us even distinguished ourselves in one way or another. The Wicked South End wasn’t so wicked after all. Now Sea Street, or Tillson Avenue as it is called today, is another story altogether. Ask the folks at the Rockland Historical Society to show you pictures and tell you about that notorious area.
Thanks for listening.
Note: For those of you who are new to this blog space, the old stories of the South End appear for the most part in a CD called “On Being a Southender, Vol. 1, 2009.” If you would like one, see the box on the right side of this blog space down near the bottom.