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Urban Kids and Social Trust: New York Style

This weekend I saw a very heartening example of community. On Halloween I was in New York City in the company of a two year old fairy princess (a friend's goddaughter). We went to a party at Stuyvesant Town, a cluster of high-rise apartment buildings on the East Side.

As someone who grew up in a suburban environment, I've often marveled at the differences in city kids' childhoods. On the plus side, New York infants can sleep serenely on a subway or ambulance-filled street. On the minus side, growing up in a huge city tends to mean living under a rightfully-watchful parent's gaze. Millions of people mean exponentially more things can happen to your child, and in a place where people may not know many neighbors, the number of safe havens for a kid may be few.

This need for supervision, more than the lack of green space, is what I have often mourned when observing NYC kids. No matter where you live, kids simply have less unsupervised play time these days, though this time is very important for child development.

Trick-or-treating as a childhood institution is an expression of civic trust: though I guess you can get the candy x-rayed just to be sure, it takes a certain amount of faith to take your child and knock on someone's door asking for candy. New York's answer to Halloween ranges from community center parties to apartment-building-wide trick-or-treating. This Saturday families gathered at the Stuyvesant Town commons for music, rides in a horse-drawn carriage, and a chance to gawk at all the creative costumes. The party was open to all, and no candy was exchanged. It was just a free good time, with several hundred strangers who had nothing in common except Halloween spirit. I've read that social capital tends to be accumulated by these chance encounters governed by low-level trust and public identity There was something quite moving about watching all the parents herding their children through the chaos, the little firefighters and princesses tumbling in the grass. Whatever force kept everyone cooperating for the sake of every child's good time was somehow different than the one that must have existed at a party where everyone knew each other. Maybe it explains the confidence that I have often observed in urban-raised kids: a sort of strong sense of self, coupled with the ability to share space. That day it was easy to see what can be right about urban community, and with a fun tradition like Halloween.

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