Places Kids Play … Part Two …

Sheila Seabrook has requested that I talk about where I grew up. I venture to add, it was not only where I grew up, but when. It was Sunset Park, Brooklyn in the fifties.

In this post of City Scapes, I would like to take you on a short trip back to another time and introduce you to New York City “Street” kids of the fifties … a unique group of baby boomers in a time many believe was the last age of innocence.

The spirit of our time has been captured by one of the musical giants of my generation, Paul Simon. Yes, Paul, as we boomers fast approach another crossroad, we begin to reflect … “how very strange to be seventy.” (Old Friends, written and arranged by Paul Simon, performed by Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel.)  For your pleasure, I reprint:

Time it was, and what a time it was, it was/A time of innocence, a time of confidences/Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph/Preserve your memories; They’re all that’s left you …”

Time it was …

Since the fifties, many of the neighborhoods in the five boroughs that began as agricultural or blue-collar industrial areas have morphed into mixed commercial and residential neighborhoods. Many of these neighborhoods have also been renamed to reflect their new image.

The lands once used by small farmers in Staten Island and along the border of Brooklyn and Nassau County in Long Island were sold to developers. Soil was covered in concrete, dirt roads became asphalt, and trolley tracks were ripped from cobblestone streets and sold as scrap.

Those who had vision built Prospect Park in Brooklyn and Central Park in Manhattan. Slums and tenements became boutique housing, tenements in Hell’s Kitchen were removed to build Lincoln Center and abandoned land and factories along the docks in mid-town became the Javitz Center.

And what a time it was …

While the old neighborhoods provided modest housing and work for thousands of first and second-generation laborers, the streets and avenues became the playground for their children … the street kids of the fifties.

We were among them, me and Pete, two urchins running in the open fields behind the factories; a vacant lot became our playground, exploring the Brooklyn docks our adventure. But the best of it all was Sunset Park, the long hills, the wide pool or the circular brick wall surrounding the flagpole to watch the sun set. 

We were the product of blue-collar, first generation dreams and the simple joy of putting our pennies together for a Spaldeen ball, a “pinkie,” was enough to keep us happy for days … or until one of the bigger boys snatched it from us … until a rooftop captured it … or until it got flattened by the wheels of the trolley.

IMAGE OF JOHNNY OF THE PONY

We invented games because our parents thought store-bought games were a waste of hard-earned money. We played stickball, punchball, ring-a-lievio, Johnny on the pony, handball, stoopball, and kick the can. We leapfrogged over hydrants, climbed up telephone poles and hung off the narrow trestle bridge that separated the old freight yards of Bush Terminal from the subway trains.

IMAGE OF STOOP BALL

A cardboard refrigerator box became a temporary “club house,” orange crates became scooters, and soda caps filled with melted candle wax became one of the most popular street games … Skully or as we called it, Skelsies. Old pairs of playing cards from my father’s club were a treasure, and of course there were always our older brothers’ marble collections.

A time of innocence …

My prize possessions were two things none of the older boys had the nerve to snatch, lest they deal with my “big” brother or our Dad, Big Sal. They were my homemade scooter and my roller skates.

The scooter was made from old fruit crates gathered from the fruit and vegetable stand on Third Avenue, and odd roller skate wheels; bargains from the “junk” yard, nailed to flat boards.

ORANGE CRATE SCOOTER

My roller skates were the kind that needed a bike “key” … the ones that slipped off my narrow feet and needed extra leather straps to hold them to my skinny ankles.

IMAGE OF STREET SKATES

It was the big guy who bought me my first pair of speed skates, my only pair of indoor skates, and my first and only bike. The bike, a dark blue, second-hand Schwinn traveled on the roof of his 1949 Plymouth from Poughkeepsie to Brooklyn, delivered to me late one June evening as an early birthday gift.

BLUE SCHWINN BIKE IMAGE

These “gifts” were usually accompanied by mother’s warnings, a quick smack on the leg with the wooden spoon or the back of her hand to my head for good measure. Finally, I was set free. After a few falls and several scrapped shins, I got the hang of the thing and was off to find new adventure.

A time of confidences …

We were “street” kids. No one missed us if we left our houses after breakfast and did not return until supper time. The rule was we had better be in the house when the street lights came on. This one hard and fast rule spurned my then “chubby” middle brother to race down hills at lightening speed to open the door minutes before the lights went on.

We traveled through neighborhood, and with nothing between us and concrete and asphalt, we raced along the sidewalk on solid steel skates, scooters or fat wheeled bikes.

No one monitored our behavior or organized play groups. We were not required to wear helmets or knees protectors. If we fell, we got up and kept riding. And on our cheap skates, or on homemade scooters pushed by bargain Keds on uneven sidewalks, we explored our world.

Without adult supervision or interference, we created a caste system for selecting kids for stick ball or taking turns to play “stoop” ball. In groups of three or five we played on the neighbor’s or our own “stoop,” in back alleys, and under the Third Avenue elevated highway. Neighbors didn’t complain about the banging of our balls against their houses and the constant shouting of our games.

Speaking of neighbors … if one of them needed a loaf of bread, they threw down a quarter wrapped in a piece of newspaper into a crowd of kids. Whoever caught the quarter ran to get the bread.

We collected “empties” to make our Saturday movie money, because our entertainment was not one of the activities our parents “budgeted.”

No one locked their doors and people seemed to roam in and out of our tiny houses at will … to borrow a cup of sugar … to ask the man of the house to fix their leaky sink. There was no money exchanged, no favors expected in return … we were neighbors.

Long ago it must be …

Instead of jumping off the dock behind the old trolley terminal, me and Petie  preferred the pool at Sunset Park. As a child, a teenager, and a young woman, I lived alone or with my family on two sides of Sunset Park.

IMAGE OF POOL AT SUNSET PARK

As teens, in mixed-gender groups resembling roaming marauders, we walked everywhere because our parents would not waste a good nickel for the trolley, or later a quarter for the bus. A fun night was sitting at the local “ice cream parlor” drinking a cherry-coke or an egg-cream and listening to the juke box.

 IMAGE OF TEEN DANCING

We shared plates of fries with ketchup or brown gravy. No one cared about germs if we “shared” a bottle of Pepsi. Wipe it on the end of your shirt, take a slug and pass it on. One bottle of soda and one bag of chips was enough for three of us on any given summer day in the park.

A cheap date was walking to the local Catholic School for the Friday night dances or the high school basketball games. We spent our days lounging on the grassy slopes of the park, our nights swimming or walking “around.”

Eventually, we had to grow up  and leave the old neighborhood. Some settled down, got married, and raised kids in newer, “safer” places. Some crossed the country to settle on the west coast, others never moved more than five miles from the house where they were born.

We collected our old forty-five records, packed away our short skirts, opened bank accounts and contributed to the economy.

I have a photograph …

Yet, somewhere in our memory those moments still live. When on a rainy day, or when we miss our kids and grandkids, or we need to connect to the caste system that molded us … we can take out our old black and white or early “Kodak” moments from shoe boxes of photo albums and remember the time of our life.

The street kids of New York City lived and played through the innocence of the fifties and the turmoil of the sixties to find themselves seniors in the new millenium.  

However, in this brave new world of digital, electronic speed and instant results, there are still hundreds of acres where you can find those happy moments from yesteryear.

Preserve your memories …

Suffering from an arrested development, the memory of my first blue second-hand Schwinn remained embedded in my brain. And twenty years later it rose again, like the Phoenix, and became an adult reality.

Todllers in tow, I moved back to Brooklyn from the New Jersey suburbs and found a place for us in the Bensonhurst neighborhood of Brooklyn … a bike ride from Coney Island.

In Part Three, I will introduce you the many places  “older” kids enjoy our city as we traverse the hundreds of miles of New York City’s bike paths. 

How about you? Where was the time and place of your childhood?

What city streets did you explore, or which lanscapes and vistas remain embedded in your brain?

 fOIS In The City

 

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Note: For more incredible photographs of New York City street games, visit The Passion of Former Days, blog hosted by Anna Krentz. 

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34 Comments

Filed under City Scapes

34 responses to “Places Kids Play … Part Two …

  1. I hope your wonderful relationship with the city finds its way into your books.
    My first bike was a blue hand me down, so big that I couldn’t sit on it and reach the pedals. I rode it standing up for at least the first year.

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    • Yes Shelley, my love affair with the city and its people and places is the frame for much of my writing. Thanks for your compliment.

      Itsn’t it grand how a second hand gift can be more important than a brand new expensivie gift? It can bring us back to so many wonderful memories :)

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  2. You have such wonderful memories! My first bike was blue, painted as such with a brush by my father cuz it’s original rust was flaking from the third hand frame. But Brooklyn . . . I don’t know which neighborhood he was from, but a lost love, Irish-Italian Keith, grew up in Brooklyn. When he came to visit me in Idaho, he was shocked at the sky. The town was shocked at him as he wandered the grocery store aisles with me and made hand gestures viewed as obscene by the good farm folk. He was expressing his joy at being (with me, in town, simply existing – he was a joy-filled fellow). These hand gestures were absolutely normal when we were in Brooklyn, or in Boston where we met at school, but in rural Idaho? Not so much. ;-)

    Thanks to you for today’s happy memories. You provide them with every blog.

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    • Liz, that’s two blue old bikes in a row in comments :) Must have been the trend back in the day.

      Ah, a lost love from Brooklyn … how divine. I think your education into different places and cultures has served you well and given you memories that stand out from the crowd (pardon … two cliches in one sentence) … Many people think that we Italians would not be able to s peak if our hands were tied behind our backs. They might have a point :)

      What I love about doing the retro posts is that I not only relive some of my happy memories … I also remind others of theirs. Kind of like a bonus :) Thanks for the visit for for remembering with me !!

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  3. Great stroll down memory lane. You are a thorough guide, Florence!

    Great pics, and the scooter, roller skates and bike remind me of the straws we’d attach to our spokes, a painstaking task, so we’d click clack through back alleys.

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    • Sherry, I do love those strolls down memory lane … love that it evokes memories for my readers … love sharing the crazy/happy times :)

      I remember that some of the boys used old playing cards to get that click clack … fun wasn’t it? Thanks for riding down my back alley :)

      Like

  4. Wow, that brought back memories, Florence. I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, but many of my memories were the same. Forgot all about ‘Kick the Can!’

    It was a wonderful childhood. I feel sorry for the kids today, running to lessons, mesmerized by Gameboys.

    Thanks for the reminder.

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    • Thanks Laura … so much of those times were the same for people no matter where they grew up. It was the generation and the time more than just the place. We had the joy of using endless creativity and energy to amuse ourselves.

      I feel sorry that so much of that has been lost. Had one of my neices tell me she wished she had been born in “our time.” Smack. But I knew what she meant. Glad you liked this one :)

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  5. christicorbett

    Florence,

    Yet another brilliant and moving post, a wonderful experience for those of us who grew up in the suburbs and will never have a chance to get to New York to see all its greatness in person.

    Thanks again for this Florence!

    Christi Corbett

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    • Thanks so much for your kind word, Christi. I don’t think it matters where we grow up … there is something in the magic of childhood that can capture our imaginations for the rest of our lives :)

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  6. I absolutely loved this post, Florence. I believe you and I are of the same age and time frame and this brought back a gazillion memories – all fond for me. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and recall my first bike which was a three-wheeler and light purple! I, too, had a pair of steel skates that needed a key. No one locked their doors at night. We played until dark and then some, hide and seek and wrestling on the grass, spinning around until we were dizzy then falling down, laughing. For fun, (get this), we used to take a stick and pick the earwigs a.k.a. pincher bugs, out of the telephone poles and play around with them! I had a family of caterpillars I took care of in my back yard. We owned a bunny and a duck. It was all good.
    Thank you so much for this because I never think about my “past life” and, for me, it was the best of times.
    Patti

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    • Isn’t it grand that we can look back on those times, Patti … something so special that we hold it like a grand treasure?? Yes, I think there are at least a half-dozen of us here today who came from that time … and it was indeed “a time of innocence” to play with nothing more than our imaginations. Hey, my brother and his friends used to take me and Petie to the open fields behind the factories and catch fire flies in jars !!

      Glad I could stir up some good memomories for you :)

      Like

  7. annerallen

    What a wonderful bit of time travel, Florence! Thanks for this. I was living in a suburb of New Haven as a small child in the 50s, so things were a little different. But I sure had a pair of those skates (and the permanent skinned knees that came with them) and a blue bicycle just like that one–with those tassels on the handlebars. All the neighborhood kids played softball in the street on summer evenings. Oh, to be young and immortal again!

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    • What the heck, Anne … we are so much a product of our times. It doesn’t matter where it was but yes, those skates and blue bikes were the Giants. And no one worried about us or needed to attach GPS divices to our bookbags (well I never had a bookbag) and the streets were our playground not someone elses “hunting” ground.

      Oh to be sure … “a time it was and what a time it was …” Thanks for sharing :)

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  8. Oh my goodness, Florence, you are wonderful! I enjoyed a glimpse into your childhood, the places you roamed and the things you did. New York has always fascinated me and I’ve only seen it in movies. To be able to see it through your eyes is so fascinating.

    I grew up on a farm on the Canadian prairies and when I turned ten, we moved into a small town nearby. I’ve never lived in a city, although I’ve wanted to try it, and have only spent one year away from my hometown, and that was to live in another small prairie town. But wow, I get to experience another life because of your kindness in sharing yours. From the bottom of my heart, thank you!!! I love these posts!!! :)

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    • And from the bottom of my heart I thank you for your kind words, Shiela. I love weaving stories about my life in New York, especially as a kid.

      I think your experiences would be so very beautiful. Just to say a prairie town … to live in a part of the world apart from the noise and bustle of traffic and millions of people. That must have given you your happy disposition !!

      When this series is over, I’ll plan a couple of others. Thanks for visiting :)

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  9. Wow, this was one of the best blog posts I’ve ever read–you painted such a touching picture of your childhood! Up until 2nd grade, I grew up on a farm in Michigan, surrounded by all boy cousins and we got into plenty of trouble, lol. Although my neighborhood in Cape Coral, FL wasn’t as cool as yours–we still formed our own little gang and roamed around till dark playing tag, soccer, baseball, football, and riding our bikes. Sadly, my kids don’t have that at all. It’s just not safe anymore.

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    • Thanks, Jamie. It is a magical time in our lives … those years when we were free to roam without fear. Yeah, I was a tomboy and I loved it!! I know what you mean about “forming” a gang to roam until dark. It is too bad kids can’t experience that kind of independence these day. It taught us self-reliance and gave us great memories :)

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  10. WOW–this is INCREDIBLE. Also makes me a little sad for how much kids (and parents on behalf of kids) depend on specific entertainment so much. I love that even a board game seemed like a waste of money. Can you imagine what your grandparents would think of Nintendo, etc. Ugh.

    I loved reading about your childhood and the places/things that made you YOU.

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    • Thanks, Nina. All of this makes me wonder what my grandparents and my parents would have thought of so much today. The loss of personal freedom is the most striking change. I do enjoy taking readers back to another time … my time …

      It’s nice to bring the real “me” to you :)

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  11. Florence – You’ve done it again–taken a brush and painted an image of a time and place and we are right there with you–perhaps we’re even on the sideline saying to a friend, “look at Florence, run,” or some such silly thing. Actually though, I think you’d insist we all play together. I adore these visits you provide for all of us. And, thanks for the reminder of the song ‘Old Friends’. I’m adding it to my play list yet tonight. My primary school years were in the 50′s but the nearest concrete was 60+ miles away – ’tis interesting how we all managed to make our own fun.

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    • Sheri, I would so love to have you join in my play :) We were a rag tag group to be sure … and rural or urban … what we had was the ability to make our own fun …

      That song is one of my favorite of Paul Simon … I think of him and so many of us now and how we will manage how “strange it is to be seventy”

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  12. A great reminder of my youth in the City of Dallas where we played on the sidewalks and streets. The games were Kick the Can or Hide’nSeek and skating (with a key) until our moms called us in. Long summer days were the Best! The street I grew up on was Oram Street in East Dallas. I can still recite all the streets between my house and the grade school I went to and who lived on which street. Cheers to you for remidning all of us! Anne Grace Crowder,
    http://www.livingfrenchiseasy.wordpress.com

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    • Anne, it doesn’t matter where we come from … kids everywhere had a great time inventing ways to amuse themselves … neighbors and surrounding streets were part of our “village” and the games the stuff that made us unique …

      Thanks for sharing your “street” life :)

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  13. I grew up in rural farm country (until fifth grade), then we moved to a small suburban community — a hour drive from Pittsburgh.

    Our childhood memories collide on so much, Florence. I still hate hand brakes and skinny-wheeled bikes. Who could negotiate turns and ride for blocks without using their hands on one of those? Skate-boarding down Suicide Hill. OUCH!

    We left the house in the mornings with the same curfew: when the street lights came on.

    One game I LOVED was training my very own puppy (a beagle) to hunt. I kept him out-of-sight while I drug an old hotdog (attached to a string) around the yard, then hid it in a bush. He was likely just doing what puppy’s do — lollygagging and sniffing, but I was convinced he followed the erratic trail until her found his prize.

    Good stuff. Thanks for sharing!

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  14. Gloria, how did I know your childhood memories would be so similar to my own? I had a feeling. You have not lost that bright adverturous spirit … it has and will take you far :) Thanks for sharing !!

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  15. All children should experience the pleasure of playing in a clubhouse made from a cardboard refrigerator box. I’ve also never seen skates that required a key. :)

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    • Brinda, this is not only nostalgic for me, but it introduces another time to young readers :) Thanks for the comment … the sad reality is that delivery men now cut up and take away the huge cartons from major appliances. What a loss !!

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  16. Florence, I enjoyed reading this very much. Our childhoods were very different as I grew up in a small community, still there were places in yur piece that felt rather familiar to me. I guess somethings are universal and we are all more alike than we think.

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    • Thanks, Laura … it was as the man said … “ … it was a time/A time of innocence, a time of confidences … ”

      When I wrote this piece I was certain that many of those who grew up in that special time would feel the connection no matter where they few up. I am happy that it hit a cord with you :)

      Like

  17. I too was a child in the 50′s. However, I grew up in a medium sized Midwestern town on the western shore of Lake Michigan. We never locked our doors at night. We had a lovely park half a block from home. We knew all the neighbors and they knew us. We mostly behaved because we knew someone would be sure to see our bad behavior and after scolding us, report it to our parents.

    I had a bike like yours and rode it all over town. My skates looked like yours and I’m still mortified at the memory of the “fort” my 3 brothers and their friends build one day from the lumber of the garage they tore down. And that deed really got them grounded. Their excuse was something like “Well, we heard Dad say it needed to come down and we needed wood to make our fort. We were only helping…”

    Yep, an age of innocence.

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    • Hey, Casey … we might be in danger of getting addle-brained … but those were the last days of innocence and need remembering.

      What made it so special was the absence of fear and foreboding. It saddens me that children today are confined … their spirit of adventure and personal freedoms altered by a new age … a new meaner age.

      Thanks for sharing your memories … Long before I was born the one who got me that blue bike once took paint meant for the walls of our kitchen and used it to paint his very own bike … parts from several junk yards and his 12 year old imagination and the bike my parents could not afford was his for the riding :)

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      • Oh, I enjoy your site so much! You must be an author.;-) And oh the stories I could tell. We were afraid of the H-bomb and would have bomb drills a few times a year. Oh and many hours in the summer spent in the basement because of tornadoes.

        Like

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