Many days, a handful of boys from our block would play a version of baseball. Although the subdivision was only a few years old, there were no nearby parks. The nearest ball diamond was in a schoolyard more than a mile away. Too far away to gather enough players or to allow a break for lunch.
Instead, we claimed a dead-end street at the end of our block as our playing field. The street would later be extended when the economy allowed more homes to be built, but that fact was beyond our understanding. We only knew that we had a street stub that was suitable for a ballgame.
The stub wasn’t very long, perhaps only 100 feet. So the infield was within the stub, but the outfield extended into the cross-street. For weaker hitters, the outfielders would station themselves in the intersection. For stronger hitters, they moved into the front yards across the street.
Even then, a well-struck ball would put windows at risk. So the game we played was between two groups of younger boys. The older boys, of whom I was one, played defense against both teams. Which may sound boring, but we had fun.
My position was first base, which was a surprisingly key defensive station. Behind me was a home with a little dog. Whenever a ball got past me and into the yard, the dog would begin yipping. The homeowner would come out, claiming that we were giving her dog a “heart attack”. And if she got there first, she’d keep the ball, potentially ending our play for the day. So it fell to me to block errant throws, ensuring that our game didn’t end prematurely.
Occasionally, cars would drive through our game. We were good about getting out the way and motorists were good about waiting for us. We shared the street well.
This brief and possibly uninteresting snippet of my youth was brought to mind when a local landscape architect and I discussed streetball over lunch a few weeks ago. My friend is a half generation younger, but also had fond memories of playing ball in the street.
We noted that it has been at least a decade since either of us had stopped to wait for a ballgame toclear the street.
Furthermore, my friend described how his son had recently taken a pitching lesson. The pitching coach had the son pitch from a driveway to a plate drawn on the asphalt on the other side of the street. My friend watched the puzzled expressions of motorists as they slowed to watch the recreational use of the street. For many, it may have been the first time that they saw ball playing in a street.
The disappearance of streetball is unfortunate. And not just because of the absence of physical activity.
As my friend pointed out, playing without nearby adults teaches lessons about dispute resolution. Deciding whether the ball beat the runner on a close play without an authority figure teaches negotiation skills. It might also teach unfortunate lessons about the role of physical intimidation, but even those lessons are better learned early in life, especially if it means finding strategies for appropriate responses to be used later in life.
For my part, I noted that the playing in the street can lead to situations in which youths can learn to say no. Looking back at my streetball experience, I recall days when it become too warm to play. We’d often retreat to a home where both parents worked away from home.
One group would assemble in the living room to play sports-themed board games. Another group would assemble in the garage for activities that involved airplane glue and incursions into the parental liquor supply. You can probably guess which group I joined.
Later in life, particularly during my time as a Cal student in the early 1970s, I saw young adults who had learned to say no at an early age and were therefore less likely to make poor and life-altering decisions. It was a skill that many wouldn’t have gained without the social situations that resulted from street play.
Why did streetball disappear? There are probably numerous causes, starting with cable television, video games, the internet, and the fears of parents who, despite the evidence that crime has trended downward in our lifetimes, believe that streets have become more dangerous places. There is also a growing belief of some drivers that they shouldn’t have to share the street. The last is reprehensible. The others are obstacles that can hopefully be overcome.
How does this topic relate to urbanism? After all, my youthful history was in drivable suburbia. But one need only remember the iconic photos of Willie Mays, as an exuberant young outfielder for the New York Giants, taking an at-bat in a Harlem stickball game to realize the streetball and other forms of play in the streets once had a strong presence in urban settings.
And street play can have a role in the success of urbanism. Communities are energized when youth are outside playing, whether in the local street fronted by mixed-use or in nearby parks. One is reminded of this fact by reading Jane Jacobs’ observations of daily life on Hudson Street.
And playing in the street as a youth lays the groundwork for being effective member of an urbanist community as adults. A youngster who can organize a neighborhood for a pickup streetball game is likely to become an adult who can organize a neighborhood to improve a nearby park.
Nor am I alone in believing that in the value of play in the streets. Atlantic Cities writes about a movement in Britain to give street play time to youths. Transportation Alternatives documents similar projects in Harlem and the Bronx. The only problem with these efforts is that parents were involved, both in negotiating street closures and in overseeing the play.
There is a role for parents in initiating outside play. St. Louis Cardinals’ manager and former Giants catcher Mike Matheny recently wrote on that topic. But the best life lessons are learned when the adults go back inside.
I don’t believe that we’ll ever have stickball in Soscol Avenue or Santa Rosa Boulevard, but I’d very much like to see a return of casual ball playing in lesser streets, in neighborhood parks, and in parking lots. I’m unsure how to make it happen, but am sure that it’s a worthy goal, even if a few yippy dogs have “heart attacks.”
As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated. Please comment below or email me. And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (email@example.com)