Thursday, August 31, 2006

The City vs. Kids

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.


Unknown said...

Although I definitely understand your predicament, I don't believe it's generalizable to urban areas as a whole. For example, New York City is famously kid-friendly and, in my experience, has clean, well-maintained facilities. Areas of Oakland, where I live, are also good (if you're lucky to be close to a park). I've never had any such experience in a park here.

San Francisco, I believe, has a homeless problem that is unique, a symptom of which are the problems you outline in your post. But I think your experiences are more in the How Can San Francisco Be Made More Child-Friendly (something even the Mayor is looking into) and not a overall City vs Kids thing.

Chip said...

We live in a much smaller city; our neighborhood wasn't like that, but we definitely had some drug houses and families in poverty who were abusing drugs and alcohol in the houses on our block and nearby. We couldn't always use our front porch or yard, and the cops were coming around a lot, including in the middle of the night. Okay, it's not a big city. But I wouldn't trade living here for the sterility of suburbia. I think it's important for our kids to grow up in a relatively economically diverse area (unfortunately this area has become more homogenized with real estate price increases). That's also why I loved being in NYC, even with the homeless, the poverty, etc. And I do think, as justin mentions above, that NYC (or at least some areas of it) actually is a great place to raise kids. That said, I'm not sure how I'd feel if things got very dangerous for kids.

Bacchus said...

We found a park over in Hayes Valley and took Baby R over there a couple of weeks ago. We had to look for needles, bottles, etc before we played.

The struggle of wanting to raise our children in this great city but we also don't want to have to deal with addicts and homeless who have commandeered the city and it's outdoor spaces for themselves. It's sad when you have to think about which entrance to a park has the least gauntlets to walk through.

We're sticking it out but we do see why our friends have left.

Anonymous said...

As Justin said, I think the problem varies from city to city. St. Louis has this problem, too, but only in select areas. It's worse downtown, but we've had no problems in our local playgrounds.

My wife and I love living in the city, and avoid suburbs like the plague.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Justin and Jared: Fair enough. I was speaking of my experience in San Francisco (and a particularly bad couple days, at that) and I probably shouldn't have painted all urban areas with the same brush.

Yesterday I had lunch with a childless (er, "child-free"), middle-aged, multimillionaire friend of mine (her partner has kids in their twenties, but she didn't help raise them). We sat on a cafe patio, pecking at our salads and pastries, chit chatting about life in the city. The sun was out. It was a beautiful day. I told her that we were thinking of abandoning SF for the East Bay. She was horrified. By the end of our conversation, she had convinced me that we need to stick it out.

Later I thought about my friend and her attitude towards the city. During the dot-com boom, she founded and sold a series of companies; hence her wealth. She spends her days meeting interesting people for lunch, going to the gym, shopping, etc., with a little consulting on the side. It really hit me that for all her merits as a person (and there are many; I'm not trying to demonize her or people like her), San Francisco has been, and continues to be, re-organized in her image, and that image doesn't include families like mine. We're caught between money like hers, which drives the cost of living through the roof, and the junkies on the playgrounds.

It's true that the mayor has identified family flight as a major problem for San Francisco -- the city is now doing things like having free family days at the museums. But steps like that really strike me as fiddling while Rome burns - "burns" might be melodramatic. How about: fiddling while Rome turns into a weird combination of bedroom community and the locked ward of a mental hospital.

I'm complaining a bit. There are plenty of nice places to live that are not San Francisco, in the Bay Area and beyond, and we'll end up in one of them. But it's a shame. I really love this place. I'm just not sure that we can live in it.

Anonymous said...

I understand where you are coming from because I lived in Chicago for three years, without kids. But, the whole "avoid eye contact" thing was a daily way of living. The one sentiment I don’t agree with, and maybe this is because I no longer live in a city, is that you were intruding on the children’s space. If you were a woman that would not have been the case. And, as you said, you were sitting down reading a book… not gazing at all the kids as the played or yelling at them. The reason I feel this way is because my husband is a children’s librarian and a fucking awesome one at that. When he took the position he worried that some of the mother’s would look at him as if he were a predator - because men working with children has been stigmatized that way. Fortunately, the mom’s love him and he hasn’t had any issues with this. But, he does occasionally get a mass e-mail from another male children's librarian in another state somewhere talking about how he was “making” someone uncomfortable because he is male. I have a problem with this mentality/stereotyping.

However, I will say, it was nice that you just got up and left instead of being confrontational with the woman who approached you. My husband would have done the same thing. Very honorable on your part.

Granny said...

I moved from SF 14 years to ago, partly because I no longer felt safe walking from the bus stop home. I opted for early retirement instead.

I swapped the devil for the witch. Crime is not only as bad or worse in this small city, it's more crammed together.

Don't give up on the most beautiful city on earth just yet.

Granny said...

Afterthought. Has SF given any thought to more mounted patrol? They're visible and most kids love the horses.

Or did they discontinue them entirely. It's been a while since I've been to GG Park.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Granny: yep, they have mounted patrols in Golden Gate. Liko loves the horsies, though seeing the cops interact with babies makes me realize how weird some cops can be.

Michelle: well, thank you for the kind words. I must admit that during the time that the woman was speaking (in real life she went on for awhile) I did consider telling her off - it was obvious that she was kicking me out because she could; it was the street people she really wanted to kick out. It made her feel like she was doing something. But, bottom line, she was right...I agree with the rule. Why should I be the exception? Plus I think I understand her position and felt a certain degree of empathy for her - if I could help her feel better about the situation, then, why not? The world sucks enough as it is.

I just spent a few minutes looking at comparative crime rates, to see how much of this is perception. The answer is that SF does in fact have a pretty high crime rate compared to many other cities. It has far more crime than Boston and similar places. There's slightly less violent crime than NYC, but slightly more property crime. Curiously, Seattle and SF have the exact same crime rates, according to FBI data.

Anonymous said...

I'm most fascinated that there was such a sign on a public playground at all -- while I have mixed feelings abou the sentiment behind it (I certainly look very askance at adults -- particularly men -- at the playground who don't seem to be there with kids) I think it's safe to say that it's entirely unconstitutional to limit a playground to "adults with children" only -- public space is public space, swings and monkey bars notwithstanding. Of course, you're balancing the rights of everyone to use the parks -- crazy, drunk or otherwise -- with the rights of parents to feel that the playground's a safe place to play.

Too many places are becoming or trying to become "child free" -- there's a clamor for restaurants etc to shut out kids -- culturally, we're well on our way towards pretending that raising, even seeing , children is entirely a private matter, one with which the state (and of course the taxpayers) should have no truck.

Other cultures and societies, even ones that are culturally similar to white American society, have kids much more integrated into everyday life. People don't glare, for example, in many European countries, if your kids are at a nice restaurant with you, even if they're being a little rowdy. (On the other hand, who wants a rare night out with a babysitter on the clock at home to be ruined by the screaming hellions one table over?)

Does banning childless adults from playground amount to a self-ghettoization? And how does such a rule get enforced, except in unfair ways (i.e. well-dressed upper middle class people get to stay but drunk and/or homeless people don't -- or vice versa in Jeremy's case).

No easy answers.

Unknown said...

Jeremy: All I can say is come over to the East Bay. The weather's better, the yards are wider and there's always parking!

Did I mention the East Bay Regional Park system?

Leaving SF for the East Bay is a Bay Area rite of passage, man! Everyone's doing it!

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Justin: I'm coming, I'm coming! If you hear of a two-bedroom apartment near public transport for less than $1,800, let me know!

Anonymous said...

As the mother of a recent high school graduate, I wanted to reassure anyone out there who may be contemplating leaving that the city is a great place to raise a child. While I agree that it is difficult to find kid-friendly activities here in San Francisco, I think that in the end the it was worth it to stick it out. As anyone who knows Heather attest, she is a mature, intelligent, open-minded young woman (who has just registered Green of her own accord). She turned out just fine. On the other hand, I just spent some time in Oakland with a 4 year old boy and had a wonderful time chasing the geese at Lake Merritt. So Jeremy, if you do move east just remember BART is your friend.

SWE said...

I'm clearly almost a year late commenting, but thought I'd add my two cents anyway. We spent our daughter's baby/toddlerhood in Chicago, and the parks were our outdoor option. The only thing worse than having "unsavory" types in the park is having none at all. We're in San Jose now, and it freaks me out to go to all of these pristine little parks with nobody in them. One of the biggest stressors leaving a big city is learning to live without the people you thought were blighting your days.

That said, the Bay Area is home to an entirely different homeless problem than the midwest, and I can't speak directly to the issue in SF. For me, I know that my kiddo watches me like a hawk in my interactions with others. At what point to unpleasant encounters in parks cease to model enlightened urban living? I think it's a very individual thing.

We've forsaken some of our more aggressively urban surroundings in hopes that "urban lite" will leave all of us more open to more urban living when our girl is a little older. It feels very flighty, but we figure our family life is a work in progress and we'll get it sorted eventually.