Before we moved to the hinterlands from Chicago, I had a favorite Sunday morning routine. I’d ride my bike from my apartment in Bucktown to Lincoln Park, find a spot in the garden between the Shakespeare statue and the zoo, spread out a beach towel and read the Sunday papers there. It was probably my favorite spot in the city—beautiful and placid, but also undeniably urban, with all the minor hassles and unpredictability and potential for people-watching you expect in a big city.
I thought of that place today when I read Jane E. Brody’s column in today’s New York Times. It wasn’t that Brody had written a guide to ideal places for hungover adults to lay around and read the paper. Her column celebrated the value of spontaneous, unstructured free play for kids. But Brody’s piece reminded me of how parks out here in the remote, formerly rural suburbs function so differently from city parks. Parks around here are designed almost entirely with kids in mind. You’ll find playgrounds—sometimes ridiculously elaborate ones—and soccer fields, but few ponds, few conservatories, few bandshells.
I don’t expect to find a public space on par with Lincoln Park’s conservatory gardens out here—if I really wanted that, I never should have left Chicago. But suburban parks too often seem to go out of their way to make adults feel unwelcome. Ever tried to find a bench to sit on and read the newspaper in one of those treeless soccer-field parks? You might be able to do it, but you’ll probably get a lot of stares from kids and their parents and you might to start to feel like the neighborhood creep. The result is something like generational apartheid in suburban public spaces. Adults have their rec centers, old folks are shut away in their senior centers, and kids have the run of the parks. (Ever notice the way moms and dads seem to fidget and pace on the sidelines of the playground while their kids are playing? They know they don't really belong there, and they know it because the park was built without any effort to accomodate them or their interests.)
It’s hard to argue with Brody’s point that kids ought to be able to play outside and on their own, so that they learn to navigate all the ways to get along or not get along with other kids. And she’s appropriately doubtful about the proposed new playgrounds
in New York that will be staffed by “play workers” who guide the children in constructive play.
But I’m not so sure about her suggestion that, because kids tend to spend their after school hours with junk food and video games instead of playing outdoors, “this nation is suffering from an epidemic of childhood depression and obesity.” I’m skeptical about any claims about “epidemics.” If more kids are being diagnosed as depressed today, it may just be because more doctors and educators are inclined to make the diagnosis.
The real trouble is that the neighborhoods with the best parks are also the ones with the biggest backyards and the safest streets. You can go to a suburban park with an elaborately themed playground and manicured sports fields, then look across the street and see jungle gyms and trampolines in every backyard. (Full disclosure: we are one of the few families in our neighborhood with kids but without a backyard playset. I'd like to think that this makes us stubborn holdouts against the privatization of play, but it may just mean that I've always lacked the enterprise to try and put one of those things together.)
I love to complain about our town, but one of the wonderful things about it is that we can turn AJ loose in our backyard to play on his own without too much worry. I can see him and the neighbor kids running around on the trails that connect our yards and shooting baskets in the driveway and playing in the little stream out back. It makes me feel very lucky. In a lot of ways, the place is a kid heaven.
I suppose the price you pay for that feeling is not being able to take the Sunday paper to the park anymore.