urbanite take

A Chicagoan opines on land use, transportation and the walkable city

D&L 4: City kids

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Chapter 4. The uses of sidewalks: assimilating children

The first semester of college, I could predict with almost certainty how the “where are you from” conversations would go:

A. Where are you from?
B. [City.]
A. Oh, where in [city]?
B. Well, I’m not actually from [city]*. I’m from {suburb name}, outside of [city].

And so forth. *New York being in general the largest exception as my alma mater, Yale, is less than two hours from Midtown Manhattan by train, and for various reasons New York boasts an extraordinarily large collection of very good (and very expensive) private schools.

Many of those individuals I met will have moved to big cities after graduation. Yet they all grew up in suburban America, probably far from any city sidewalk, and I bet that if you had asked their parents why they lived there, it was for the kids, the idea of “city children” being almost a contradiction in itself.

In chapter four of Death and Life, Jacobs looks at this very idea and more specifically at their play on the sidewalk. She argues that the knee-jerk reaction to shunting children off to playgrounds and off the sidewalks is misguided, amounting to a “deep contempt for ordinary people.” Playgrounds and play centers, she says, are often deserted and unsafe, in comparison to the lively sidewalk on which there are always eyes watching them.

It seems to me the essential point is that children are users of city sidewalks like everyone else. They appreciate the same virtues: vibrancy of action, diversity of uses and the central incubator of the fundamental lesson that “[p]eople must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other.”

Of the three chapters on sidewalks, this is the one on which I have the least firsthand knowledge, having no children of my own. But I do wonder about the larger premise of this chapter: that children are users of city sidewalks just like everyone else (as mentioned in the previous paragraph), and by extension, city children, period.

I was born and raised in the suburbs as well (I fill in [Los Angeles] and {Cerritos} in the conversation above) and moved to the “big city” after graduation. Even temporarily putting aside the very large reason that many parents don’t move to the city — the American school system, which is the subject of its very own Death and Life book — it’s still hard for me to imagine growing up or raising children in the city: there’s no room to play! it’s not safe!

And this is exactly what Jacobs is addressing in this chapter. Children playing on city sidewalks will learn to socialize and relate to others like full members of society. Sending them off to isolated playgrounds may be the most dangerous act of all. And I have friends who grew up in big cities who did not turn out “pale and rickety…learning new forms of corruption” from day to day.

Nevertheless, raising children in the city still somehow seems like deviance from the “norm”. Ironically, this takes the form of either the child’s family being very poor (inner-city) or very rich (gentrified Manhattan). Part of it is probably cultural — there’s a very strong vein that the city is an unfit place to raise children. Part of it is that in many ways, it is perhaps easier to raise kids in the suburbs, in that it’s a very known lifestyle and is often carefully arranged to not have the delicate equilibrium that city sidewalks rely on. Part of it is certainly the environment in which I was brought up — familiarity is comforting.

And if we bring schools back into the equation, that takes out a whole lot of parents who would potentially like to stay in the city but are daunted by the educational prospects. There are success stories of urban schools, but not every parent is willing to or has the time and/or resources to improving their neighborhood school.

I know this has deviated, in some ways considerably, from what Jacobs is discussing in this chapter. But I can’t help reading it and thinking about the greater issues at hand, and wondering how it fits into the bigger picture.

Written by Andrew ACG

February 14, 2012 at 8:00 am

One Response

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  1. I grew up in a mid-size town, but I used to spend a lot of summers in New York – Queens, to be more specific. I stayed with an aunt and uncle who had no children of their own. They were on 27th St. and I had another aunt and uncle who lived on 29th St. I didn’t know any kids there, but I do seem to remember going by myself from one aunt’s apartment to the other. I was fascinated by the sidewalk life – men sitting outside the apartment buildings, women doing their shopping, just people all around me. I was really proud of myself when I figured out how to get from one apartment to the other by cutting through the alleyways. I’m pretty sure those summers were what gave me my love for cities. I live in Toronto now and I hope I can pass that on to my suburbanite grandsons.
    I realize that I’m somewhat off-topic here, but I enjoy those great memories.


    February 21, 2012 at 12:40 am

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