5/26/11

Oh, Go Play in the Street


"Street, please, Mama?" E says, her face turning toward me, her eyes big and hopeful.

"Yes, E, you can go into the street, " I say, smiling at her polite request.

Yes, we let our kids play in the street. As long as there's an adult there to watch. Both girls are careful, always running full tilt toward the sidewalk at the first sound of a car's motor.

But both girls are small, shorter than the hood of most cars, so we always watch vigilantly for cars. We constantly remind them they can't be seen by drivers and so must be extra alert and extra careful.

We know this is not the safest idea. We didn't always do it; we waited a year after moving here before we let Z ride her bike anywhere but the sidewalk, finally relenting when she learned how to pedal AND steer at the same time. Not long after, her sister joined her, running her doll stroller in circles. And then the dog wanted to join in and pretty soon the whole family spends long periods of time hanging out in middle of the street.

We are fortunate enough to live at the bulb-end of a cul de sac, what must be the ultimate in suburban living. Cars who come down our street are either neighbors coming home or lost, wandering strangers. We've come to trust and love our little quiet stretch of pavement.


Years ago, I read a book for a book group I was in at the time called "Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in An American City" by Peter D. Norton. The history of the street as a concept was something I had never considered much before and I was struck by how much the use of streets has changed, from the early days of a pedestrian thoroughfare to one dominated by the automobile.

"Until the 1920s, under prevailing conceptions of the street, cars were at best uninvited guests. To many they were unruly intruders. They obstructed and endangered street users of long-standing legitimacy. "

"Today we tend to regard streets as motor thoroughfares, and we tend to project this construction back to pre-automotive streets. In retrospect, therefore, the use of streets for children's play (for example) can seem obviously wrong, and thus the departure of children from streets with the arrival of automobiles can seem an obvious and simple necessity. Only when we can see the prevailing social construction of the street from the perspective of its own time can we also see the car as the intruder."

Truth be told, the book is a little dry and academic for my tastes but even though I normally remember so little of what I read, I remember large sections of this book, dogearing so many pages that the top of it is noticeably thicker than the bottom. I think it stayed with me because when I read it, Zoe had just been born and we lived on a busy street in California, one of the few around without a stop sign at every intersection, so we were a popular choice for people who wanted to race to their destination, sometimes literally. We immediately feared for her safety, the random screeching of muscle cars racing or teenagers on motorcycles or commuters headed home after a long day who were desperate to shave off a few seconds from their ride home raced by close enough to rattle our windows.

As long as we were in that house, we obviously could never let our child play in the street or anywhere near it and even limited our time in the front yard. What certainly didn't help: one neighbor told us stories about the year before we moved in when, on two separate occasions, wayward cars came flying up the curb into her front yard, flattening three foot shrubs.

So when we looked for a house in Virginia, we knew we wanted to be walking distance to town - I was adamant I didn't want to have to drive to get EVERYWHERE - but we also wanted a quiet, peaceful place. One with a very low potential for flying cars landing on front lawns.

We feel so lucky to have found the house that we did. Walking distance to the rec center and the coffee shop, on a quiet street, surrounded by (mostly) lovely neighbors.


Neighbors who don't mind us playing in the street. (I think.)

I didn't understand the value of a cul de sac until we moved here. I spent the last fifteen years of my life living on busy streets, major thoroughfares with fast cars and limited safety.

And now I am officially in love with the cul de sac.

I do believe my suburbanization is complete.

How about you? Do you let your kids play in the street?

8 comments:

GratefulTwinMom said...

I grew up on a cul-de-sac and we spent all summer with neighborhood kids playing hide and go seek and tag. It was natural to run across the street to my playmate's house. We live on a steep hillside street now and while there are sidewalks, I can't let the kids play there. Bikes and steep don't mix. We do live about 5 houses away from the elementary school, so it's now become our play "street." Hope the girls love growing up on that suburban cul-de-sac. Best street option ever.

Hillary said...

With supervision, yes. We don't live on a cul-de-sac, but our street is a big circle. Unless you live on it or are going to the streets inside it, you have no business driving on it, which makes it not too busy.

Erin said...

We have the identical situation, at the dead end of a culdesac. We love it and it's been the most unexpected perk to our location. Our street is like neighborhood common ground. It's a gathering place for adults and kids (with supervision).

Michelle said...

We don't live in a neighborhood that it is safe for playing in the streets. It is too hilly and turny with blind spots and no sidewalks. But. I grew up on a cul de sac and spent most of childhood playing in it. I want that so much for the girls and have made it a requirement for our next house.

Sarah said...

We don't let them play IN the street, per se, but we're certainly on it walking and riding bikes plenty. They have to have an adult with them at all times for right now.
We live in a very nice little neighborhood, but it's right off of two fairly busy streets- both residential, but not part of neighborhoods, so the speed limit is 45. Also the neighborhood is right behind the local high school and middle school complex, so there's a fair amount of traffic, albeit slow moving.

Jessica said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
beyond diapers said...

We find the neighborhood parking lot behind our place serves a similar purpose. I did not let them play on it until this year, and they have to ask first, but I am more afraid of my kids running into a parked car on their bikes than of them getting hit by a moving car. I railed against suburban neighborhoods and said mean things about them for years, but I totally admit that I see the value of a cul-de-sac when my kids play at friends' and cousins' homes. And your neighborhood has got something really special going on... you have all the advantages of a cul-de-sac without resorting to a cookie cutter neighborhood or giving up walk-ability. You chose well.

Craftstress Kira said...

I also grew up on a cul-de-sac and we played in the street all the time. The neighborhood boys actually painted a baseball diamond on it and our cul-de-sac became a big hangout. And the snow plower would always leave the largest piles of snow there...great fortresses.

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