— This is not just a bit of nostalgia. It’s a piece by a transportation writer/city planning thinker trying to figure out how to get kids — and life — back outside. It ran in the magazine Governing, and begins:
The Death or Life of a Sidewalk Ballet
Are Jane Jacobs’ lively streets disappearing for good?
When I first lived in New York City in the late 1980s, I was struck by how the proprietors of the tiny grocery store below my apartment on upper Broadway would hold keys for the children/guests/friends of nearby residents, as well as packages, notes and so on.
The late Jane Jacobs put a lot of importance on the practice. In her masterful and influential 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs wrote it was an example of the “casual, public trust” that underlies the “casual, public contact” that constitutes a rich street realm. This is great — except shopkeepers don’t do this much anymore in New York City, nor do people ask them to.
Curious about the death or at least decline of this practice, I reread Death and Life to see what else had changed from the world Jacobs described in the book. What immediately became clear is that the casual, but substantive, interplay among sidewalk denizens has declined overall, and not just with key-holding.
Jacobs devoted a whole chapter to this. She wrote of how the watchful eyes of unrelated adults — shopkeepers, housewives and the like — not only helped keep children safe but also helped socialize the many children playing there.
These children were central players in the “intricate sidewalk ballet” that Jacobs so famously described near her home in Greenwich Village. “When I get home after work, the ballet is reaching its crescendo,” she wrote. “This is the time of roller skates and stilts and tricycles, and games in the lee of the stoop.” She continued later: “They slop in puddles, write with chalk, jump rope, roller skate, shoot marbles, trot out their possessions, converse, trade cards, play stoop ball, walk stilts, decorate soap-box scooters, dismember old baby carriages, climb on railings, run up and down.”
Read the rest here.