The Sounds of Silence


It’s summer on the Front Porch. If there was any doubt, last week erased it. Juicy summer mornings, and overripe evenings filled with the songs of catbirds. God turned on the air conditioning in Minnesota over the weekend, and the breeze this morning is fresh and cool. Sitting in the rocker, listening to the insistent chickadees, and prideful cardinals, I am reminded of how much the bird population has been restored in my lifetime. Since the publication of “Silent Spring” in 1962, and the subsequent banning of DDT, the population of bald eagles, falcons, and other predators has rebounded. It’s not an uncommon sight to see bald eagles soaring overhead, or egrets and herons flying low over the backyard on their way from pond to pond in search of frogs.

But there is another sound missing from the summers on the front porch, and it is not the result of DDT or pesticides. When I was out riding on my bike over the weekend I was struck by the emptiness of the neighborhoods. On block after block in the suburbs there was little movement, or noise but the hum of air conditioners. Where are the children?

As my stories have told, growing up on Prospect Avenue summer was one long pickup game. Wiffle ball in the backyard, skidding contests on the gravel driveway, kick the can, SPUD, Hide & Seek, Red Rover, or toy gun battles raging up and down the maple lined sidewalks, we spent all day, everyday outside. Hot afternoons only meant someone’s Mom would call us up onto the porch for lemonade and shade, or maybe a run through the sprinkler. But at some point in the last 30 years, things have changed.

The streets are now empty. Where are the children?

Is this the result of two parent wage earning families? Are the kids off at a daycare, or the baby sitter? Surely that’s part of it, but I think there’s more to it than economics. Kelly’s comment last week reminded me that something has changed in the way we as a society view our streets. As parents we insist that our kids stay in our yard, or it they venture to the house across the street they stay in the front yard. We don’t let them ride their bikes down the street, or play in it, despite living on a cul-de-sac. We have no sidewalks in our neighborhood, which is the norm for most housing built since 1950. At some point in my lifetime we have decided that our streets are dangerous places not suitable for unattended children.

Now Mrs. 20 Prospect and I are retro-grouches. We chase the kids outdoors all the time, and try to limit their daily intake of video games. We are lucky enough to get by on one income, and decidedly closer to “cheapskates” than “materialists” when it comes to spending money. We are front porchers, but we have bought into the fear of kidnappers, and child predators that permeates society. We hold our kids close, and won’t let go. In my mind I know this is the right thing to do, but in my heart I think that we have lost something.

It is the loss of community, documented so well by Robert Putnam, and others. Without the bonds of trust between neighbors our streets take on a foreign “otherness”. Growing up, Prospect Avenue was an extension of our yard that ran 10 houses in either direction. Mom knew the neighbors, and as kids we knew that Onalee, or Maude, or any of the old ladies on the street would be quick to come to our rescue, or call in the air strikes if they caught us up to no good. There were few secrets, for better and for worse. This circle of trust on my own street has now shrunk to the boundaries of the yard.

And so kids today grow up in isolation. Families are smaller, friends are people you see on organized play dates, not kids from two doors down. Baseball is something you play for 2 hours a week on organized teams. Play is scheduled, and organized. Gone are the vast empty afternoons waiting to be filled with your imagination.Was life idyllic and perfect then? Hell no. It was far from it. The kid next door was abused. I was bullied by kids down the street to the point of being afraid and ashamed to see them even to this day. Yes, memories can get sepia toned over time, but the reality of it was that for better and for worse, we knew our neighbors far better than we do today.

 

The causes are not simple, and the solutions are not apparent, but the fact remains. The summers have fallen silent. If only we could ban some pesticide to return the laughter of children to our streets. The world would be a better place for it.

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11 thoughts on “The Sounds of Silence

  1. This is precisely why I’m working on Project Laughtrack, wherein I will be placing loudspeakers on phone poles in residential neighborhoods, set to play a loop of children laughing. The recording is a 30 second loop, and will repeat 24/7 with lower volumes at night.

    I can’t wait to see the impact my project has on our streets. I expect everyone will feel much more comfortable, don’t you?

  2. There were kids playing outside on my street every day until the heat became unbearable. I know because I’d round the corner after work and go “awww…thank makes me all nostalgic-like” followed immediately by “now get the hell out of the street! I need to go sit in front of a fan!”

  3. My kids are actually locked outside right now spraying our neighbors with a high powered garden hose.
    The screaming indicates to me that I should get up and go see if the neignbor children are enjoying it but writing this comment has become more important.

    • Perhaps I should clarify. The “carefree, happy laughter of children”, as opposed to “the evil, maniacal laughter of satan’s spawn”.

  4. Hey Tom,

    It has been a while without a peep from me, sorry, but I thought I’d just jump in.

    I have an interesting situation; see, I live with my old dad in the same neighborhood I grew up in. I cam back to go to to college here after a long absence.

    As kids, it was JUST like you said. Then things changed. The neighborhood aged. The kids were gone, and the people became strangers. Then the housing market crashed, and young couples with little kids started coming back. In the space of a few years, there were all these children running around again. It was great.

    So it was not so much matter of a great change in “society” but a cyclic revisiting of history.

    I should also say that here in Fresno, California, there is a large Hispanic population, and THEY are NOT afraid of “predators.” It is delightful to me to walk down the street with my old dog and let the kids pet her and talk to the grandmothers in Spanish. In Mexican culture–a plaza culture–people hang out on the front porch. They do not fear because each street has a dozen “cops.”

    Things change. and then they change again. Do not take too short term a view. Human nature is a constant. 99.98% (or something like that) of us just love kids. We’d die to protect them. My neighborhood is safe for kids because we all watch out for them.

    Cheers,
    Rick

    • Welcome back Rick!

      Hope you are enjoying a break from studying. I’m sure a lot of it is demographics, and culture. I wonder if over time as the Latino culture becomes more Americanized, this starts to change.

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