Kids Vaporized from Sidewalk

Readers krrrebbdfa
— 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.

Not that I'm longing for the days before indoor plumbing....

Why aren’t those kids at Kumon? 

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19 Responses to Kids Vaporized from Sidewalk

  1. AmyO August 4, 2014 at 2:52 pm #

    I just had to say, the caption for the picture is probably my favorite ever.

  2. Jill August 4, 2014 at 4:18 pm #

    “East Side, West Side, all around the town
    The kids play ring around rosie, London Bridge is falling down.
    Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O’Rourke.
    We tripped the light fantastic
    On the sidewalks of New York.”

    -1894, Blake and Lawlor

  3. SKL August 4, 2014 at 6:23 pm #

    I have some old book(s) in the basement that contain “sidewalk games” / “sidewalk chants” that kids around the country / world used to sing. Alas, my kids have never seen this phenomenon except in old films.

  4. Lance Mitaro August 4, 2014 at 7:55 pm #

    Too bad children walking on sidewalks today is equated with playing Russian roulette thanks to our 24/7 media.

    Hopscotch is now deemed a dangerous activity by our fear-mongering child “safety” advocates. d

    Oh, and lets stop calling it “sidewalk” chalk and rename it driveway chalk so parents don’t sue for wreck-less endangerment!

  5. Taradlion August 4, 2014 at 9:06 pm #

    This reminds me of the difference between “old school” Sesame Street (from the 1970’s) and Sesame Street today….The old episodes were released on DVD and iTunes with a warning that stated they were intended FOR ADULTS and “may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child”…Why? because kids are walking around by themselves.

    I remember the episode where a girl and her brother drew “missing dog” signs and walked store to store asking shop owners to out them up…it was redone to show and mom working with the kids to make signs on a computer and then walking the kids around the neighborhood…

  6. Lola August 5, 2014 at 2:15 am #

    The worst thing about this is that people now aren’t used to normal child behaviour. If any of us happened to see a gang of 8yo’s “running up and down, climbing on railings, dismembering old baby carriages”, our knee-jerk reaction would be to stop them for misbehaving.
    So even if my children are allowed to play on the sidewalks, and they meet some friends there, they don’t last very long before someone scolds them for being too noisy or uncivilized…

  7. MichaelF August 5, 2014 at 4:14 am #

    Last night while out to dinner with my sister-in-law the kids were getting Hand Gel on to kill the germs before we ate. I was asked if I want some, I refused politely and mentioned how it’s not necessary to do as much any more. She was shocked, telling me jokingly, “but they touch everything!”

    I said, so did we. We’re still here with all our fingers and toes, other than making antibiotic resistant super bugs, not much has changed since we were kids.

  8. Dhewco August 5, 2014 at 8:21 am #

    Yeah, the use of anti-biotic products leads to MRSA and other resistant diseases. Instead of disease-resistant people, the bugs are drug resistant. According to some sources, the discovery rate of new antibiotics has slowed down tremendously.

    I remember as a kid I used to play in the muddy water of a ditch on the side of the road…in the rain. The only fear my parents warned me against was to wear an old pair of shoes to keep from getting my foot cut on any glass that might be there.

  9. brian August 5, 2014 at 8:21 am #

    These historical perspectives are always problematic because they choose a specific time/place to romanticize. In this case, 1961, represented a time when you had a tremendous population bubble of young children coupled with segregation and stay at home moms.

    Only 60 years earlier, many children were working full time in factories or farms.

    This is not to say there are not things we are missing and should work to restore, it is just that it is not helpful to simply romanticize an earlier time/place.

  10. tdr August 5, 2014 at 8:49 am #

    @brian makes what I think is a crucial point.

    There are so many fewer kids around now. I’m starting to think that this more than anything affects how kids are parented today. When mom had to look after 4 or 6 kids, you can bet to save her sanity she gave them a lot more leeway in looking after themselves. Now families have 1 or 2 kids and each one is “precious” (gag) — something “precious” has to be “protected”.

    I doubt there are many households where throngs of kids are hanging around inside. Where there are “throngs” of kids, they are outside.

    The issue is there simply arent’ throngs of them. (and the more you say “throng” the weirder it sounds….)

  11. nina August 5, 2014 at 9:30 am #

    When my first son was born, we lived in Carroll gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn. He was an early riser, so 6 am was considered sleeping in by me. I’d stick him in a stroller and stumble my way to a corner bakery with the eyes half closed. They knew us by sight and would start making my coffee even before I had a will to say hello. They knew my breakfast order and whatmy son liked. If I ever needed to leave a key, I’m sure, they would have taken it. When a few years later we moved to the suburbs of Baltimore I missed that bakery the most. But then we met our neighbors, kids (I had 2 by that time) made new friends and our small community become alive with children riding their bicycles, playing tag, etc. When it was time for us to move again the entire block threw us a going away party. It was one of the most touching experiences of my life. Where we live now, local businesses know me and my 3 kids by name, we have great neighbors with whom we trade favors on routine basis. I don’t want to sound like a broken record (I had to explain my kids what it means 🙂 but I’m a firm believer that you create a life you want to live.

  12. Jill August 5, 2014 at 9:37 am #

    When my son was little, in the early 1990s, he had a cassette tape of songs called Wee Sing. One of which went,as far as I recall:
    “This is the story of Sammy, whose father sent him out to buy bread.
    Sammy didn’t feel like walking; he wished he could fly instead.
    He said, ‘If I were a bird I’d fly to the store, fly to the store, fly to the store. If I were a bird, I’d fly to the store, fly to the store for my father…”
    There was more, where he wished he were a fish, so he could swim to the store, and a variety of other animals, but the message was that Sammy’s father gave him some money, and sent him on an errand BY HIMSELF, to walk to the store and purchase a loaf of bread.
    There was no mention of stranger danger, or of a busybody who might call the cops and report a child in danger because he was walking down the street, unaccompanied by an a parent or guardian. Sammy’s father was not arrested for child neglect, and Sammy was not placed in the custody of CPS.
    I sometimes think of that song, and how much things have changed in the last two decades.

  13. Jill August 5, 2014 at 9:56 am #

    @tdr: I was a singleton, born to parents in their forties who were under the impression that they’d never be able to have children. Then surprise! There I was!
    I like to think I was every bit as “precious” to them as single children are to the parents of today, and yet I was allowed to roam the neighborhood, ford streams, and play in the dump (the dump was super fun, BTW!)
    I don’t think it was the number of children in a family back in the 1960s that made parents more laid-back when it came to vigilance over their offspring’s activities than it was the lack of hysterical braying of DANGER EVERYWHERE on the part of the media.
    The disappearance of Etan Patz changed things. The murder of Adam Walsh a couple of years later changed them even more. The idiotic Satanic Panic of the 1980s made every adult outside the family circle a potential baby-killing Satanist. And that’s how it all went downhill.

  14. Maegan August 5, 2014 at 4:01 pm #

    This is a lovely piece. I recoiled a bit when I read about strangers telling my children to behave themselves. But then I realized that’s because modern-day strangers scold about the dumbest things. Rather, since mine are still toddlers, they scold ME. “She’s eating dirt!” “Mmmhmmm.” “She’s getting away.” “I can see her just fine.” One woman actually REMOVED a rock from one of my girls’ mouths at a national park earlier this year. Lady, she puts rocks in her mouth. Get over it. My point is, I doubt that these would have been the scoldings heard on the sidewalk ballet. I’d assume adults would only intervene when it was actually important. Wouldn’t that be nice?

  15. Emily August 5, 2014 at 4:50 pm #

    >>I remember the episode where a girl and her brother drew “missing dog” signs and walked store to store asking shop owners to out them up…it was redone to show and mom working with the kids to make signs on a computer and then walking the kids around the neighborhood….<<<

    @Taridion–I remember that episode too. I wish the "updated" version would have included the kids making signs on the computer with a photograph of the dog, but then putting them up independently. That way, the "Free Range" message would be preserved, despite the fact that technology has advanced. There'd be a better chance of someone finding the dog if the poster contained a photograph, as opposed to a simple line drawing, but there's no greater chance of kids getting abducted by strangers now, than there was back in the day when the original clip (with the line drawing and the printing press) aired. There might be a greater chance of kids getting reported to CPS by busybody sanctimommies, but that's why we have Free Range Kids, to attempt to shut that down.

    @Jill–Yes, I remember that song about Sammy going to the store to buy bread for his father. I also remember the "Bubble Gum Song" from day camp, where the mother gives the child various denominations of money, to buy things that just happen to rhyme with that denomination (so, a pickle for a nickel, and so forth), and the child disobeys and buys bubble gum instead, until the last verse, where the mother gives the child money to buy bubble gum, and the child is sick of bubble gum, and doesn't buy any. Oh, and who can forget the "loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of buttah" cartoon from old-school Sesame Street, as well as the boy in "a loaf of bread, a loaf of bread, I gotta remember, a loaf of bread"; while he's surrounded by distractions, like the neighbour girl asking him if he wants to play baseball with her, etc. Anyway, these songs and clips are funny, but they also teach a valuable lesson about taking responsibility. For an adult, running to the store for a few things is no big deal, but for a kid, it's a skill that has to be learned. The child has to find his or her way to the store, avoid traffic (and strangers, and the police, and busybody CPS callers), remember what items to get, count out the change, and make it back home with said items still intact. If kids have to have an adult right on top of them all the time, then how are they supposed to learn that skill? Also, as a spin-off on that, with the boy in the "loaf of bread" clip… don't organize their own games anymore. Back then, the neighbour girl inviting her friend to join in an impromptu baseball game would have been a common occurrence, but it isn't anymore. I remember when the baseball diamonds, soccer fields, tennis courts, etc., at public parks would get used fairly often by just random groups of people, but now they sit empty until it's time for Little League, or Timbits soccer (Warren, you'd know what that is, but for everyone else, it's little kids' soccer sponsored by a Canadian donut chain called Tim Horton's). Pick-up hockey in the winter is still a "thing" here, but the kids I see playing it are usually accompanied by at least one parent, until puberty age or so. I suspect that even that will be the next thing to go.

  16. Mandy August 5, 2014 at 9:50 pm #

    I live in a suburb of DC and at least in my little neighborhood, we see kids out often without their parents. I hope it stays that way as my kids get big enough to wander (right now they’re new and 2). I think it helps that many people in our neighborhood have lived here for decades.

  17. Emily August 5, 2014 at 11:00 pm #

    @Jill–Lol at the “Satanic Panic.” My family actually experienced that in reverse–we’re atheists, and when I was in kindergarten, I made friends with a girl who was a Christian, and she told me that I was going to Hell for not knowing about God and Jesus. Incidentally, we’re still friends, and we think the whole thing is funny now, but five-year-old me was a bit worried about eternal damnation for something that was completely beyond my control at the time.

  18. P R Thomas August 6, 2014 at 9:53 am #

    I am often shocked at the attitudes of adults. Many do not seem to want to interact with children. I live in an apartment complex that is a great mix of people in both age and backgrounds. After moving in I was shocked at the number of rules…no running, no bike riding, no skate boarding and by all means no noise. No one under the age of 16 is allowed at the pool without and adult. In my city we also have a mid-sized amusement park and every year the newspaper is filled with people complaining about tween and teens not accompanied by adults. It is crazy…kids should be allowed to play!!

  19. JP Merzetti August 8, 2014 at 1:27 pm #

    Kids on the street.
    I grew up on the street.
    Our favorite living room.
    Our ideas, our time, our space, our imaginations.
    All the way back to two cents on the counter at the corner store, and candy heaven.

    Casual concerns….when a public domain really was public.
    Relaxed adults – in the midst of a cold war.
    (One where ground zero didn’t take out two towers – it took out two counties)

    All from a single street….radiating outward, like rings in a pool (from a child, like a pebble….natural curiosities growing up, not squelched.)
    Energy, exercise, freedom.
    Freedom is a commodity, now.

    The sound of children used to filter through a neighborhood – like something not quite tame… the sound of songbirds, brooks babbling…..wind-blown leaves.
    I never thought much about that sound when I was a kid. I just contributed to it.
    It was only as an adult – I noticed its absence.

    And the way that now, adults avert their eyes…as if overcome with shame, to even notice… playing.
    (unless ownership is involved)
    Protection has become personalized, privatized, professionalized.
    A multitude reduced to a single unit.

    And natural, innocent play becomes extinct.
    Structured………just like the dinosaur bones in a museum.
    Have we enough imagination left, to put flesh back on those old bones?