Thursday, August 31, 2006
The City vs. Kids
Posted by Jeremy Adam Smith
This afternoon for lunch (I'm working today) I stopped by a playground near San Francisco's City Hall. I walked right past a sign that said, "NO ADULTS WITHOUT A CHILD," figuring that since I'm a dad the prohibition didn't apply to me. I sat down and opened a book.
A group of street people sat nearby, inside the playground gates. They were mostly minding their own business, although they also dominated that half of the playground. A grandmotherly woman walked up to me. "You should leave," she said, obviously nervous at confronting me. "This is a place for children, and your presence here violates the sanctity of the place - and the same goes for those people over there."
She was right, and I told her so. I closed my book and left. She didn't ask the street people to leave, for obvious reasons. Perhaps I should have; maybe I should have found a cop.
Dealing with homeless people, drunks, crazies, and junkies is a part of playground life in the city. This past Sunday I brought Liko to Mission Dolores park. There a drunk took it upon himself to regulate the children's play. He told one boy to get down from the monkey bars; he told a girl to give a toy back to the boy she took it from. The parents avoided eye contact and they kept their kids away, which is just about all parents can do in such situations. You learn that it doesn't pay to be confrontational, especially with your kid present. Better to just ignore them until they go away, and hope no one crosses a line.
That very afternoon, after a nap, we went to a completely different playground in Noe Valley - a mommy friend called to see if we could meet her and her boy there. Noe Valley's a pretty safe neighborhood, but when we got there we discovered a homeless-looking guy sleeping on the grass. "He was making me nervous," said the mommy, which is why she called us. Not nervous enough to leave the park; if you left every park where a drunk is sleeping on the grass, your kid wouldn't have anywhere to play.
Later the guy woke up and wandered directly into the playground, which is about the size of a postage stamp. He turned out to be a raving lunatic. He babbled to the kids and wandered in a circle around us. We followed procedure, avoiding eye contact, etc. It was a difficult situation, but eventually he wandered out into the street, where he was almost run down by a car. (By the way: all the drunks and crazies mentioned in this post were white guys, in case anybody is harboring an image in their heads of dark-skinned urban predators.)
This is the sort of thing that horrifies suburbanites and turns progressive moms and dads into the kind of people who vote for Rudy Giuliani: on the playground you find yourself wishing for a cop, though of course there never are any. In the absence of law and order, you contemplate abandoning the urban commons and moving to the privatized suburbs, where kids play in backyards or in malls that charge admission to indoor playgrounds. Where you can buy a house. Where the schools have doors on the bathroom stalls.
I'm not sure that I have an intelligent conclusion to share, but it troubles me and so I want to write about it. I'm a committed urban blue-state dad: I want my son to grow up in a place where cosmopolitanism and cross-pollination are facts of life. But sometimes, I wonder if it's worth it. And sometimes, I even wonder if people like Giuliani are right about what it takes to run a city that is fit for kids to live in.