Timothy Cox: Recollections of 15th Street Playground, Beaver Falls, Pa.

    I used to hear it many times, ‘man are you so lucky for living right across the street from the school and "The Playground."

    It was something I took for granted, but in retrospect, growing up in the 900 block of 15th Street in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania was Priceless. The close proximity to the schools was vital, but more important was the fact that we were just across the street from "THE PlayGround." As in the 15th Street Playground.

    As the youngest of four Cox Brothers who grew up on 15th Street and 9th Avenue, I have decided to head-up a literary project which collectively displays our shared and not-so shared experiences at a place many Beaver Falls residents of the time, simply called "The Playground" or "15th Street Playground."

    Me, Timothy (Timmy) Cox and my brothers Lonzie Jr., Ronnie and Ray, have decided that it’s important that we combine our shared experiences and offer to the world an insight of the significance of a time-gone-by and also, to not let those moments pass without letting others realize the significance of The Playground and the impact that it had not only on those who lived in the neighborhood, but for other city residents and from other parts of Beaver County. Historically speaking, it’s a good time to make this happen.

    We all agree that the shining gemstone of the playground, was "The Court," ala "15th Street Basketball Court."

    My, earliest accounts of the playground was when I turned 7 and was finally eligible to play in the Beaver Falls City Recreaton Department-sponsored Farm League, a league for 7 and 8-year-olds. This league preceded today’s T-ball style and required that kids actually learn to pitch real hard baseballs to other kids. Farm league games started at 9 a.m., an early-morning time I always thought was much too early, considering summer break for school had just started a week earlier. Heck, I was still on vacation. But, if you wanted to be in the in-crowd you’d better wake up and join the other kids who were taking over "our" playground.

    You see, the 15th Street Playground was centrally located and attracted everyone in the city. It was also across the parking lot from Central Elementary School – another city stop that was central to Beaver Falls residents who may have lived "downtown" or in Harmony Dwellings, on 2nd Avenue or on 26th Street or on Mount Washington (Mt. Mud) or up on College Hill or Morado Dwellings or even Pleasant View.

    All those kids from throughout the city eventually gravitated to the central part of the city, to the Playground or to the Court.

    I’m speaking about mid-1960s to the mid-70s.

    That was a time when Beaver Falls and other small western Pa. cities were very self-sufficient. We were small towns, but like our big brother just up the Ohio River -- Pittsburgh -- we too shared in the economic engine called the steel mill industry.

    Our father, Lonzie Cox Sr., worked for U.S. Steel’s American Bridge Company as a welder. Now, he was a real Pittsburgh Steeler and retired from the “mill” after 35 years of hard-earned, back-breaking service.

    In Beaver Falls, steel mills and related production companies also enjoyed the econonic fruits of a post-World War II nation.

    And some of the little-league baseball teams in The Falls were sponsored by steel mill unions, such as Local 1202 and Local 1082. I played for Turners social club, the 1967 City Little League champions.

    But, when I reflect on The hoop Court, it’s like this. I can first recall seeing the "big guys" dominating the court. As a younger fellow who lived across the street, I would on a daily basis, monitor the court to make sure I could get my game on, way before dudes in their late teens and early 20s, would ‘take over’ the scene.

    And, it would happen at times.

    You’d get the guys from Mount Mud who would take over and start choosing their own teams and teammates.

    Therefore, as a young kid, in the summers, I’d get to the court in the early afternoons, about 2 or 3 p.m. It was usually very hot, but, at least you could practice your best Bill Russell hook-shot, or your Wilt Chamberlain basket-like foul shots.

    By 6 p.m., when Mr. Sam Wagner would “open" the playground for kids who wanted to play checkers, tetherball or four-corners, the excitement and aura on 15th Street was like showtime. Between 6 and 8:30 p.m., It was THE place to be for showcasing your newest Stingray bicycle or to wear your newest digs to show-off for the girl or guy you really wanted to impress.

    In the winter times, cold weather would dictate our use of the place. Because we had such limited use of indoor gym facilities vs. the kids who attended Catholic churches and schools and their access to inside gyms we had to be prepared to shovel the court whenever it became snow-covered.

    Ask Ronnie, on many days, he, I and other boys from 15th Street would bring our shovels to the Court and start shoveling. We didn't have access to PSP2s or Nintendos or not even Pacman or Donkey-Kong.

    But, we survived it all and grew up healthy and strong. And, it helped develop our muscles and especially our sense of learning to deal with people and sociology.

    The Court was also the place where the area’s premier high school basketballers could display their wares, during a time when dunking the ball was a real specialty. In those pre-Michael Jordan days, it wasn’t always a given that 6-foot guards could rise and jack the ball through the hoop, as it is today.

    But on any given day during those summer days, one would never know who may show-up to show-off. You may get the guys from Midland High’s state title team of 1965 or Kenny Durrett and some of his boys from Pittsburgh Schenley High may appear. But more typically, you’d get the high school boys from Aliquippa, New Brighton, Freedom or Rochester. In the late 70s and early 80s, kids from nearby suburban Blackhawk High would show up to see how their games compared with the "brothers."

The Court is also a main contributor to, and helped jump-start the currently successful Beaver Falls High School basketball program. It's not coincidental that the Tigers' hoop program started seeing new stars after the Court was erected. Players like Darrell Jones, Jerome Johnson, Reon Nesmith Sr., Ron "Head" Alexander, Charles "Kize" Johnson, Frankie McMillan, Dwight "DC" Collins, Forest "BayBro" Grant, Terry "Booker T" Wiley and the late Kevin Tapp -- became 15th Street Playground legends and helped ignite Coach Frank Chan's BF Tiger success, which has since captured three Pa. State championship titles, 1970, 1994 and in 2005. The '70 title team was led by Oscar "OJ" Jackson. Although OJ lived in downtown BF, he often frequented the Court with his graceful, high-arching jump-shot. Oscar Jr., you see, quickly became a City legend and to this day, remains BF's most celebrated basketball player EVER. He played at Duquesne University, played some pro ball and has been a successful businessman in upstate New York for a number of years.

    On the other end of the spectrum, the Court was the place where I heard and learned my first swear words. And, our mother, Clara Mae Cox was not shy when it came to telling the boys to cool-out and show some respect when it came to the loud cursing -- usually precipitated by bad foul calls. And, the place was notorious when it came to fights -- again, started from arguments on the court.

    In the mid-to-late 70s, as other children started relocating to 9th Avenue around the corner from 15th Street, we adopted the moniker 1-5-9 during a period when pseudo gangs inhabited by teenage boys from 26th Street and The Hill (Mt. Mud) combined to become Battle Creek. Gangs started rearing its ugly head throughout Beaver Falls neighborhoods and 1-5-9 was a natural name combination of both neighborhoods including boys from 15th Street and the 9th Avenue kids. Considering I was born at 1419 9th Ave. (remarkably, that house still exists), the whole 159 thing for me was an easy transition for me.

    In the mid-1980s, the court was razed by the city’s school or recreation departments, I'm not sure. First the two hoops were dismantled, and soon-after the asphalt “floor” was removed.

    Today, the court’s former site consists of a grassy field now used as the Beaver Falls High's football team’s practice field.

    Still, for those of us still around to recall and reflect, in retrospect, the 15th Street Basketball Court will always generate fond memories and should be recalled as the one-time shining star of Beaver Falls.



Ronnie Cox: Recollections of 15th Street Playground

    My first recollections of 15th St. playground are in the late 1950’s. I remember being about 5 or 6 years old and receiving a new toy 45-caliber gun and heading to the playground. Thankfully that wasn’t a precursor of what my life would become. The first basketball court at 15th Street was a small dirt patch with one hoop. That did not stop the competitiveness. One of the significant features of the playground was it sat under a row of large oak trees that lined one side of the area. Those trees were somewhat of a trademark of the playground. Occasionally a severe thunderstorm would partially damage a tree. With the loss of each limb, we felt a sense of personal loss. I sense that was the relationship that we had with the 15th Street playground. We felt a sense of ownership. It was ours and we did not like for it to be abused or harmed by nature or man.

    We learned many social lessons at the playground. We learned about cliches, racial division, and the opposite sex. The Playground gave teens the opportunity to independently explore the world even though it was only a microcosm of the world. We learned about exclusion during some activities that were organized by the Caucasian teens, usually fast-pitch baseball with a rubber ball. Their excuse at that time was " We have enough guys". Today I realized it was racial exclusion. But I also recall that our basketball games on the new asphalt basketball court that had been erected in the late 1960’s many times excluded the Caucasian teens. It became an African-American court during the prime playing times. At times some of the Caucasian and smaller children would play during the hot times of the day but as the evening approached those kids would begin to scatter as the other guys would take over. As for cliches, 15th Street was no different than any other recreational or educational facility. Where there are kids, there will be some type of grouping as individuals jockey to determine as to which group they belong. Ironically, this activity still happens today in all segments of society, including all age groups. I believe that the playground gave us a good place to discover the opposite sex. It presented the opportunity to meet and talk -the things that young people enjoy. It may have presented the opportunity for other activities that youngsters enjoy too,

    such as sex, but to my recollections, that never appeared to be a priority for most at 15th Street.

    Because of the city providing playground directors or supervisors, we were involved in various games and activities. Some of the popular activities included tetherball and softball but by far the most popular game was " Jump the Creek". That was a game that required participants to line-up and jump over two pieces of rope that were spaced horizontal and parallel to each other without touching the ropes. After each round of participants, the ropes would be spread further apart. The game was an adaptation of the "long jump".

    I can vividly remember seeing some of the most spectacular jumps. Individuals would appear to be airborne forever and land as gracefully as a bird as they slid in the damp grass. It was highly competitive and truly amazing to observe. You notice, I said observe. I wasn’t very good at " Jump the Creek.” It was always amazing to me that a playground and a baseball field could be in the same area but symbolically they were miles and miles apart. There would be games with large crowds for the American Legion team or the Beaver Falls High School Baseball teams. Those games might as well been in 25-miles away, in Pittsburgh, as most of the Caucasian baseball fans made it a point not to mix with the nearby playground activities, typically with its black participants.

    In conclusion, the Playground was an important part of our formative years. We learned about people. The majority of the lessons learned were positive. Many people, black and white still approach me today with kindness and positive memories from those days of long ago. We can probably take some of the credit for that fact. Our lessons taught at home from our parents -- not only affected the way we behaved at the Playground but also in school, church and in public in general. We were taught to respect others, to respect property and become contributing members of society. Our fondness for the 15th Street Playground will remain throughout the ages.