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.