The kids in the street
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by Ron Cruger
        The sign at the entrance to our group of homes says, “Children at Play, Speed Limit 15 MPH.”
        After living in the area for a dozen years I’ve seen “Children at Play” in the street exactly three times. That averages once every four years. The most recent time was yesterday.
        I looked out the second story bedroom window and saw six young boys, maybe, twelve, thirteen years old. They were throwing a football to each other in a random way. They laughed when they dropped a pass and took off running like a halfback when they caught a long one. One blond kid in cargo pants and a blue T-shirt caught a long pass and ran to the brown house at the corner and celebrated his dream touchdown. He did a silly victory dance and smiled broadly.
        I was going to talk to the kids about being careful of the cars parked on the street. Then I flashed back to those times decades ago when I played in the streets of the south Bronx. Our parents, other adults were forgotten. Us kids owned the streets. We played football, street hockey, stickball, tag and hide-and-go-seek.
        For us urban kids this brand of self-structuring play is vitally important. We didn’t have woods and forests to run in. We learned how to deal with each other without the help of adults. We made fair teams and scoring systems. We made a tree home plate. A manhole cover was second base.
        We navigated our own environment. It was a lot different than today’s league play, governed and managed by adults.
        When our parents came home from work they sat on the stoop and watched us kids play. There was a sense of spontaneity among us kids. We made up the rules and formed our own changing alliances.
        Playing in the streets, like many other things has changed. Kids have their noses stuck in television sets or their iPhones. The allure of doing what the other kids are doing in their homes is potent. The peer pressure on a kid to sit on the couch and text and e-mail dozens of school mates an hour is imposing. Exercise is limited to the thumb on the right hand.
        Nowadays our urban streets are designed for cars, not for people. The stoops, front porches and stoops of our cities have become far less pleasant places to linger. Parents are worried about their kids being kidnapped, mugged or hit by a speeding driver.
        In my old neighborhood, Hunt’s Point, New York has reclaimed streets during the daytime hours by creating the “Playstreets” program. On a “Playstreet” block kids can play the old-fashioned way, because the adults can see the advantage of having kids play in their neighborhood streets instead of roaming in other neighborhoods in gangs or sitting semi-anesthetized with their iPhone in hand or in a trance, playing a video game.
        Nowadays parents are reluctant to even permit their children to walk to the park up the street for fear that some crazy will abduct them.
        I was six years old when I learned one of my life’s biggest lessons. We were playing stick ball in front of our house when Sonny Corso, the neighborhood bully, hit me on the back of my head with his fist. I cried and ran to my father who was watching us play. My dad calmly told me to go back on the street and give Sonny Corso a whack to the chops. With tears still streaming down my cheeks I walked up to Sonny and without saying a word, gave him a whack on his left cheek. He fell to his knees and started crying. From that day, until we moved away, Sonny Corso and I remained best friends. I think we each learned something from those young days on the streets.
        I continued watching the kids play on the street below. When they tired of playing their invented game of football, they switched to the challenge of “Three Flies Up,” using an old tennis ball.
        Standing there, watching the neighborhood kids, I felt, just for a brief moment, the joys I felt when I grew up playing in the street. I think they’re called “the good old days.”