I recently used Google Street View to look at my home in Akron, Ohio, where I grew up. It looked much the same as it did 50 years ago when we moved. The house was two stories tall. It had a basement, a detached garage (which is no longer visible), and a big evergreen in the front yard. Middle class suburb.
Across the street lived a minister and his family. They were our family’s closest friends. The minister and his wife came over to our house to talk, play cards, or sing songs while my father played the piano. My brothers hung out with their two sons. My mom was a second mom to the minister’s youngest son and the minister’s wife was my second mom.
An appliance repairman lived next door. His talents came in handy when our dryer broke down. His wife would come over in the mornings and drink coffee with my mom. They played in a city golf league together, starting after the men’s league had finished teeing off, of course. This was the sixties. Behind our house lived Wayne, Dwayne, and Blaine. These boys were a bit older than I was. If there was trouble in the neighborhood, they were probably the source.
On the other side of our house, lived the Taylors. Mr. Taylor traveled a good deal. The neighbor’s driveway was paved and had a bit of a hill. It was the ideal place to ride my tricycle or launch rubber band powered bamboo planes. Mrs. Taylor undoubtedly had a great deal of patience given the all the noise the kids in the neighborhood generated. My brothers and their friends often played football in the street or were running through the yards playing capture the flag.
My parents knew most of the neighbors on the block. I played with kids in their houses, so their parents knew who I was. Everyone seemed to get along fairly well. People kept an eye out for each other. The same was true when my family moved to a new neighborhood back in 1966.
In my new neighborhood, I played basketball over at Jeff’s house, since he had a hoop. Marty had a corner lot and a big side yard where we could play football. Dennis’ family welcomed me inside for Christmas caroling. I hung out with (a different) Denny fairly often. His house had a great hill for sledding. We rode bikes around the neighborhood day and night. Sandy, Patty, and Elaine lived in the neighborhood as well.
My family spent most of its time with the family that lived across the street. We took a trip together to Washington, D.C., one year. The neighborhood had an annual block party in the summers. We knew pretty much everyone who lived on Woodpark Road, which looped off of Revere Road.
When I moved out of my parents home, I lived in a few places in town: Delia Avenue and Copley Road. I moved back home a time or two. I also lived in Oxford, Ohio; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Toledo, Ohio; Zanesville, Ohio (twice); Charleston, Illinois; Bowling Green, Kentucky; Lovejoy, Georgia; and Fayetteville, Georgia. But none of these places had real neighborhoods. Some of the places I lived were apartment buildings, but I rarely spent much time talking to the people next door.
I now live in a nice housing development with large front yards, but I do not see kids playing outside anymore. Instead, kids seem to be engaged in more structured activities. They play soccer and baseball at the parks. They take karate, ballet, and music lessons. Youngsters play basketball at the churches. After school activities take up more of their time than they did while I was growing up.
While families played and continue to play a prominent role in the development of children, so too did neighborhoods. I spent as much leisure time with the neighbor kids and their families as I did with my family. But, I doubt that neighborhoods have as much influence as they once did. I suspect that various forms of media have filled whatever gap was left when the social neighborhood collapsed. Today, kids play computer games by themselves. They watch more TV. They surf the Internet rather than hanging out with the neighbors.
The new neighborhood is a virtual one. It’s social media. Maybe this new Internet-based neighborhood is just as important to the development of children as the old physical neighborhood. If so, that’s a frightening thought.