It’s interesting to me how discussions about walking freely in our suburban towns these days — or feeling afraid to — evoke memories of our own childhoods. When I bring up this topic (like in my last blog post), I often hear, “when I was a kid, we always walked or biked freely.” It was a different time then, they say. Or was it, really? And I wonder, what was really different about it?
These are questions that are driving my own historical research right now, so my head is immersed in understanding this. Or at least trying to grasp the multiple forces that have changed our relationships to our own home neighborhoods and suburban public space.
But back to those memories. Here’s mine. I grew up in South Pasadena, in a newly built suburban development up in a hilly area. As kids, we were all over those streets. We played outside regularly, we biked to a liquor store over and down the hill to buy candy, and I walked or biked to my nearby elementary school on a regular basis.
And this was no Shangri-la of safety. As a second grader, I was walking home alone one day, and an unfamiliar man in an older Chevy-type car pulled over and tried to talk me into getting in his car. Our neighbor was watering her lawn across the street, and she told him, “leave her alone.” I was so freaked out, I ran the rest of the way home, and was too embarrassed to say anything to my mom (who would have probably run out and smacked the guy with a frying pan, cursing him in Greek.) That neighbor saved me that day. And then she called my mom and told her what happened.
But the more remarkable thing about it, is that I kept on walking and biking, even after that incident, clear through my childhood. I felt probably more threatened when, as a sixth grader, a boy at school with a crush on me constantly chased me home on his bike. (That somehow seemed almost worse than the Chevy man.) When I hit middle school and high school, which were a mile or two away, I often had to walk that route as well, much to my dismay since that was a long, exhausting trek up a dirt trail, and past many, many houses, schlepping books and backpacks. My mom just made us do that.
It wasn’t necessarily a safer time. But there was something in our heads back then that made it okay for kids to be out and owning the sidewalks and streets of these suburbs. In retelling my own story, I see how important that neighbor was. She was the “eyes on the street,” to evoke Jane Jacobs from Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs would kill me for using her phrase to describe the suburbs, which she hated. But I think she missed the boat on this point. There was a social health and dynamism in some of these suburban communities. Or am I just waxing nostalgic?
One of my favorite authors, anthropologist Setha Low, wrote evocatively about how our romanticized memories of childhood security become tangled with our adult aspirations for home and community. And for some, it’s morphed into a gravitation toward gated communities, which simulate a sense of childhood protection and trust. There’s a kind of complex psychological process at work, that ultimately gets encoded in the built environment itself — and the ways we think about that environment.
There are obviously a lot of complicated, moving parts to this process, from the psychological to the social and even political.
I’m not sure I’m clear yet about any of this. But I do feel like I must constantly take deliberate, conscious steps in my own mind to overcome the fear mentality, and realize that our home communities are as much — or as little — as we make them.