Michael Lally was born at Orange Memorial Hospital in 1942. He grew up ensconced in the Irish-American community in South Orange, but considered all of the Oranges his stomping ground. He is a respected poet and author of several books. Lally’s memories of the 1940s and 50s in the Oranges are viewed through the eyes of a young Irish man striving to be cool and break the rules. Much of this attitude was incorporated into the well-known 1950s film, Blackboard Jungle.
Lally’s stories describe a world of ethnic contest, especially between young Irish and Italian men. Many were part of gangs. Lally ran with a Irish gang called the Spartans in South Orange and later the Archangels in the Orange Valley. These gangs were more like clubs in that they gave members an identity they could defend. Sometimes there were gang fights but more often they would battle it out on the football field. There were tougher gangs like the Romans from Newark and the Loffers from Jersey City that occasionally came to the Oranges to make trouble, but for the most part gang activity in Orange in the 1950s was innocent.
This changed in a big way in the late 1950s with the emergence of drugs, especially heroin, in the area. Never part of his gangs’ interest, selling drugs nevertheless became a core part of the larger gangs, who started defending the turf in more serious ways, including the use of guns and violence. This radical change tied to drugs has been mentioned by a lot of those we have interviewed. That drugs and associated violence came at the same time that I-280 was built speaks to some of the complexity of the changes that marked daily life in Orange in the 1960s.