It was Saturday, June 2, 1962. The Mets were playing the San Francisco Giants at the Polo Grounds on 155th street and Eighth Avenue in Harlem. I was selling peanuts in the grandstand, trying to make a buck. I’ll never forget that day; Willie Mays had returned to New York and hadn’t been back since the Giants left in 1957.
Willie was a hero to the kids of Harlem, and the buzz around the neighborhoods was that he was going to play stickball with the kids on the street after the game. I didn’t want to miss his return, so I left the game early. In 1951, when he was rookie of the year with the Giants, Willie played stickball everyday with the local kids.
In the 1950s and ’60s, street games such as stickball were a major part of life in New York. They defined a generation and are a source of nostalgia in characterizing the golden era of New York. The streets are empty now.
This is true of La Cañada. Spontaneous play has atrophied and has given way to organized leagues of competitive dads supervising their protegees, sucking the marrow from creative play. Often, children spend their time indoors surfing the net and playing with iPads and Nintendo games.
I often meander through the streets of La Cañada. Rarely do I see groups of kids playing in the street. There are few shouts of laughter or exuberance for scoring the winning run or point. It’s a marked difference to how I grew up in the Wakefield section of the Bronx. On any given day during the summer, scores of children would be playing stickball, skully, stoop ball, ring-o-leavio or box ball from morning to evening. Our mothers would shout out of the tenement windows signaling dinner. After dinner we’d return to play a few rounds of hide-and-seek. The next day, we’d do it again.
Depending upon your experience where you grow up, you can either be deeply embedded in the culture and community in which you live or you can casually glide through your reality with little effect. Growing up in the neighborhoods in the ’50s and ’60s had an intense effect on who we were, and who we are today.
New York street games created a special time in American history. The social and cultural importance of these games and the sense of community they engendered were a factor in the explosion of creative talent that evolved from the city during that time. What stitched us together were the games. We didn’t create these games, we inherited them from previous generations and felt continuity to the past and consequently saw ourselves connected to a history larger than ours.
Today, children between the ages of 8 and 18 spend an average of 45 hours a week with electronic media. (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005 and 2006.) The area outside of the home in which parents feel comfortable letting their children play unsupervised has shrunk by 90% since the 1970s. (“Last Child in the Woods,” Richard Louv, April 2005.) It makes me wonder about today’s reality.
Let me finish my story about Willie. He played stickball for about an hour and then signed autographs and took pictures with the kids. He repeatedly hit that Spalding ball on the bounce four sewers, (four city blocks). The streets were alive with throngs of kids and fans. Willie was home.
I was too young to understand the significance of the moment. The Polo Grounds were later torn down. There are apartments there now. Other than a few pick-up games of basketball, the streets are empty.
I’m an utopist. So I fixate on the memory of Willie playing stickball with the kids on the streets of Harlem.
JOE PUGLIA is a practicing counselor, a professor of education at Glendale Community College and a former officer in the Marines. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.