OMG! – Those kids don’t have bike helmets on! Call the cops on their parents! (that’s Toritto and his brother Alfred – now 76 and 72 respectively)
Times have changed. Once upon a time kids actually played with other kids outside without parental supervision. Maybe they do somewhere but even here in semi-rural Florida one rarely sees two or three kids outside anymore without a helicoptering parent.
OK, you’re thinking, here it comes. Some old fogey waxing poetically about the joys of the way things used to be back in the day. So let me begin by saying upfront that I do not wear rose colored glasses. This is more about how things were 65 years ago for an urban kid; whether better in some respects or worse I leave up to you.
When I was in Junior High (today its Middle School) I was not required to eat lunch in the school cafeteria. I could actually leave the school grounds and go the local pizzeria for a slice if I wished. I was not locked in. I was free to walk the block to the pizza joint and was considered old enough to do it with some friends or by myself. I was expected to be back on time for the next class or my mom would be notified I was cutting classes.
Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, I walked to school alone; even in elementary school between the ages of 5 and eleven. My mom couldn’t take me to school – she had two younger children at home. It was two blocks and three street crossings to get to P.S. 187. When I was very young mom paid a neighbor’s little girl, Geraldine DeNonno, who was several years older than me $1 a week to walk with me and bring me home. By the time I was perhaps 8 or 9 I was walking alone or with friends.
I rode my bike before bike lanes. Went to the park and the library. Went to the movies, locally and to the Brooklyn Paramount and the Times Square theaters. Rode the subways. Went to rock and roll shows. Saw the Isley Brothers at the Paramount. Attended baseball games at Ebbits Field and football at Yankee Stadium with friends my age. Visited the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium in upper Manhattan alone, often as well as the MMA. Saw Broadway shows and played chess at the Marshall Chess Club. Had summer jobs. Not bad for a kid or 14 or 15.
I didn’t grow up in a thermos bottle. The experience made me New York street wise.
I played stick ball in the street. Handball at the courts. Enjoyed all the “seasons” with the rest of the boys – box scooter season, yo-yo season, carpet gun season, roller skating season. Learned how to kiss at Ravenhall.
Today in New York, or for anywhere else that matter, no kids are seen in the streets anymore. And all of the games I played as a kid have disappeared.
The strategic sliding of bottle caps across a city street, known as Skelly; the heroic dodging and weaving of Ringoleavio, the fast moving battling of Box-ball – these and other classic street games are all but extinct in New York and everywhere else.
There was a time when avenues were the playgrounds of choice for city kids, and their games were homegrown variations of popular national pastimes, or modern versions of childhood classics that have been around since the Roman Empire. It was the essence of an urban childhood.
Not anymore. Even stickball, the quintessential New York street game is dying out.
No one under 50 is likely to remember stoop ball, hopscotch, hand ball and tag, played in those halcyon days by kids when adults didn’t feel they had to manage the activity.
That kind of freewheeling playing is all but outlawed now. Fears of injuries, fights or “inappropriate touching” have led some schools across the country to do away with rougher games, like Red Rover and even tag. Since 1995, there has even been a program, “Peace Playgrounds” that some states have adopted to ensure play periods remain mild and sedate.
Along the way kids have lost something that they need – the freedom to explore and the freedom to play. Kids are losing out on the opportunity to develop vital problem solving and social skills.
Is there a risk to sending children outside? Sure – but probably no more than there was 40 years age. It is the perception that there is greater risk because there is more information available. Forty years ago a parent would not have known there was a sex offender living in the neighborhood. Believe me, they were there back then as well; its just that everyone didn’t dwell upon it.
Life is nothing but risk and being street smart is something which must be learned. Before smartphones, before Google and Facebook, before a neighbor’s door step required an invitation, there was play.
Play could mean a wild game of Steal the Bacon (two teams competing to grab an object from a circle) a frantic bout of Declare War ( a primitive version of dodge ball) or even a bruising round of Johnny-on-the Pony, which in Brooklyn was known as Buck-Buck.
Buck-Buck has actually been around for millennia; it is derived from a Roman pastime known as Mullhorse. Ever see a cowboy western where the hero runs toward the back of his horse, puts two hands on the horse’s rump and propels himself into the saddle? Well Buck-Buck required a team to line up in a row bent over from the waist as members of the other team run and leap onto their backs one by one until the combined weight forces everyone to fall to the ground.
If one of the team of leapers falls to the ground his team was out and had to trade places. If all the leapers make it to the backs of the opposing team and are held without collapsing the question was asked – “Buck Buck, how many horns are up?” The answer was “one” or “two”. If the downed team guesses right, the teams trade places. If not, they remain and were jumped on again,
It was rough and raucous with elbows flying. Heavy kids were valuable and stood at the back of the line and usually jumped last. Light weights like me stood up front as the first leaper. My job was to leap far enough forward to make room for the heavier guys leaping behind me.
It was the perfect activity to be outlawed by overly protective parents and school administrators. It has disappeared completely from the streets.
Another casualty of the nanny state is Ringoleavo, a hard core game of hide and seek that stretched for city blocks including rooftops reached by climbing up fire escapes. Nothing like it would be tolerated today.
Of course stick ball was king = whacking the bouncy rubber ball known as a “spaldeen,” the Brooklyn corruption of the manufacturer’s name Spalding, with a sawed off mop or broom handle.
Not everyone in the neighborhood was a fan; cops would confiscate the bats or break them over a knee. Kids got adept to hiding the bats or running when a beat cop turned the corner.
Things have changed radically since then. Younger New Yorkers have no memories of playing in city streets and only know stick ball or stoop ball from the movies. Seems contemporary parents are not comfortable at all with their children playing outside of their homes unsupervised. “Stranger-danger” is the primary reason that children are no longer allowed to roam notwithstanding that child abduction by a stranger statistics have been steady at about 100 a year for half a century.
Bike riding kids are down 31% since 1970 while only 6% of children 9 – 13 play outside on their own. Most are spending 40 hours a week with electronic media inside their homes. It seems sad when the only interaction they have with other kids is by their smart phones.
Once the streets were like a second home to kids, especially in poorer neighborhoods where apartments were too small to socialize in. Today the vibrant street culture has disappeared.
Kids today would be surprised to learn how much fun you can have with just a simple rubber ball, a few friends and no adults to manage the game.