Growing Up in the City

There’s been a lot of chatter in the Cincinnati blogosphere lately about raising kids in the city. Good? Bad? What about playgrounds and green space? I know a few kids living in Over-the-Rhine, and they all seem to be having pretty happy childhoods. This got me thinking about my own urban childhood.

My childhood was split between Gdynia for the first 11 years of my life, and Brooklyn thereafter until I left for college. In Gdynia, I remember my early milestones — being allowed to visit my friend across the street for the first time, going to the movies with my friends but no adults, etc. My first solo public transit experience was the trolleybus, probably at 9 or 10 years old.

I remember playing in the park and on the beach, but mostly in the street. I don’t remember any playgrounds. Mostly, I know I rode my bike, played with Lego, and played games with friends. I distinctly remember setting up a store in my friend’s driveway, and playing the bitchy cashier who insisted on ration coupons and daily limits for all the goods. I also remember transforming the living room into a museum and charging admission when the adults tried to sit down on the couch.

We moved to NYC, and I was suddenly in a much larger city. When I was 12, a friend of mine moved to Queens, and I was allowed to take the train alone to visit her. It was a short trip without transfers. Sometimes we’d jump the turnstiles together and take the train a few more stops to explore another neighborhood.

My friend and I both belonged to RIF [Reading Is Fundamental] in our local libraries. We read a lot of the same books — Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie, Little Women, and then the Sweet Valley High books. I created a chart to track all the books we were reading, along with the themes they touched on. This was my first piece of information design! Every few weeks, I visited my friend in Astoria, and we would go to our “favorite” Greek cafe, get some water with lemon and split a pastry, and then go over the latest book, ticking off the relevant spaces on the chart with different-colored markers.

Sometimes, she would visit me in Greenpoint, and we would window-shop on Manhattan Ave., occasionally buying a barrette or some other small item. We got pizza at Baldo’s on Nassau, hung out in front of the Busy Bee Food Exchange, played hopscotch on the sidewalk, or sat on the stoop in front of my building.

When I think back to childhood, a lot of what I remember was actually emulating adult behavior in some way. I relished the bits of independence I had and was always careful not to push the boundaries too hard. I did little things I wasn’t supposed to but, over all, I think I was a fairly responsible steward of my own freedom. In hindsight, being given freedom forced me to be responsible for myself, to continually prove that I deserved the freedom I was being given.

Twice, I was shipped off to visit family in Schenectady, NY outside of Albany, and then Cupertino, home of Apple. I wanted to explore Albany and San Francisco; my relatives wanted me to slow down and sit on the porch. Both times, I felt bored and trapped because I couldn’t go anywhere by myself. It seemed like a step back to me.

I never had very many toys, and a lot of playtime involved fanciful, adult-type scenarios, like the store and museum I mentioned. I didn’t spend time in playgrounds until I was in high school, and that was always at night, sometimes involving wine coolers. A lot of time was simply spent exploring with friends. We didn’t need a lot of kid-specific things like toys and play equipment, and I think we did really well on our own, without organized activities like soccer practice, and without having to be shuttled around by parents. We didn’t have backyards but we had street smarts. I’d never say that my childhood was perfect, but I still relish all the early freedom and mobility I had.

The photo above shows a detail of Carrying On, a mosaic mural in the Prince Street subway station by Janet Zweig.

6 thoughts on “Growing Up in the City

  1. You’ve got a really awesome perspective on the issue.

    I was raised in a near south suburb of Chicago, where going south mean cornfields and going north meant city. I was stuck somewhere in the suburban middle-ground with friends in both of the other worlds.

    One major concern that my husband and I have is something you touched on: It’s not the actual urban experience that we’re worried about–the landscape, the culture, etc. (That is one of the reasons we’re here.) The real concern is whether or not our urban location affords our children the freedom to roam and explore their world the way many of us did while growing up.

    Basically, will I be willing to let my 10 year old son walk through OTR alone to visit a friend, the library, or the market? Was Brooklyn then different from Brooklyn now? If you had a 12 year old daughter, would you let roam around your old neighborhood alone?

    Was our world really more “safe” than it is now? Or do things simply seem different on this end of childhood? Are my fears founded, or imagined?

    Not sure I have the answers.
    Again, I really appreciate your perspective on this! Thanks.

  2. Liz, where I lived in Gdynia was quietly middle-class, the Brooklyn neighborhood I mentioned was working class [now hipster central!], and then, at 13, we moved to a pretty rough area. I guess you could say that my mobility increased as my safety declined.

    The thing is, I had unsavory experiences in all these places. I think it’s a function of a child’s vulnerability more than a function of place. If you really want to protect your kids, don’t ever let them out of your sight. Then, they’ll never learn to take care of themselves.

    I don’t think the world was safer then. I think you regard the situation differently when you’re a concerned parent rather than a curious kid. When bad things happened to me as a kid, I dealt with them as best as I could and took comfort in my ability to take care of myself. But a parent wouldn’t want to accept that, right?

    If I were to have kids, I can’t imagine them not growing up in the city like I did. If you want your kids to get to a point where they can go to the library, or whatever, by themselves, without you panicking about it, I guess you have to start letting go in smaller ways first, and teaching them the strategies they need to be independent in public places.

  3. Great post. While our kids are still too little for independent adventures (1 and 4), this is something I think about a lot for the near future. My wife and I both grew up in suburban Dayton. But we both went to college on the east coast and then lived in DC and NYC for about 10 years before having kids. (FYI – I spent most of my 5 years in NYC working on planning for the replacement of the Kosciuszko Bridge in Greenpoint/Maspeth.) I think we both would have considered raising kids in NYC, but probably only in the more traditionally ‘safe’ neighborhoods (UES, UWS, Park Slope, etc.). Unfortunately, without the money to afford a decent 2+ bedroom in those areas and zero interest in living an hour outside the city and commuting, we decided to move back to Ohio, where 4 grandparents are only an hour away.

    When moving to Cincinnati, we briefly considered moving downtown (CBD), but didn’t feel like there was enough 24/7 activity down there yet. I think the only thing that we knew about OTR at the time was the riot. The wife definitely wasn’t going for that one. We both find the neighborhood fascinating and like going down there for certain things (Findlay Mkt, Music Hall, etc). I’m still just not sure that I could see myself raising kids there. It’s not that I think it would result in a ‘bad’ childhood experience – it’s just so different than what my childhood setting was like, that it’s hard for me to understand what it would mean for a child.

    “I’d never say that my childhood was perfect, but…” I think that says it all. No childhood is perfect. Every childhood is different and each shapes us into different people (thankfully). I just hope that whatever setting our kids grow up in that I’m able to give them freedom to discover things for themselves. My daughter went through a Finding Nemo phase – I know it went completely over her head, but the part that stuck with me was when his dad says “I promised I’d never let anything happen to him.” And Dory replies “Hmm. That’s a funny thing to promise…Well, you can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him.”

    I hope I “let things happen” to my kids.

  4. The snake in the suburban garden is the illusion of complete safety, the idea that one can turn one’s children out into the culs-de-sac and the all-middle-class schools and forget about it. Enough parents do just that that there is always a steady supply of unpleasant brats. It doesn’t matter where one lives. Being a good parent means knowing where one’s children are, with whom they are spending their time, and what they are learning. The same amount of time and attention is needed whether one is in the country the city. City parents, because they are a little less trusting, are often a little more on top of things than “safe” suburbanites.

  5. Just want to say what a great blog you got here! I’ve been reading it for quite some time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your writing. I especially loved reading your thoughts on having grown up in a city. It’s always interesting to hear about other people’s experiences like this.

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!


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