People ask me what it was like growing up in New York City, which is where I was raised and am raising my daughters. I’m still growing up here, at age 46, every damn day. And like most people who have lived in the same place most of their lives, I don’t have the perspective to answer that question very well.
I usually say something about being able to flee my home early and often when it became too dysfunctional is what saved me from being an even more miserable adolescent than I had been. Had I been trapped in a box in a quiet cul de sac, I imagine, dependent on my parents to drive me somewhere else, I think I would have done nothing but eat and throw up and be depressed.
Instead, I ate and threw up and was depressed some of the time, but also ran around this outrageous town with it’s cross-dressing club kids and street artists and the music blaring from every ground floor apartment with my amazing friends who were from all over the universe and stayed at their homes and had them at mine. This allowed us all to see that our family’s way (thank GOD) wasn’t the only way.
Because of that–really, thanks to public transportation and a particular brand of loving but loose ’80s parenting and everything that this city arrays before you like an all you can eat buffet of crazy–my friends and I were able to create a support system and a school outside of school that gave us tremendous room to be ourselves. All things considered, NYC was a great place to grow up, given that growing up is really hard wherever you are.
But who knows? There are pros and cons to any place. I’m here, raising my daughters here, because it’s home, where my imperfect family is, where I feel best equipped to teach my kids how to take care of themselves. None of my native New Yorker friends came here from somewhere else as adults to prove anything or to get away from what they feel was a too-conformist upbringing or to be the best in their industry, as so many do, so we tend not to be prone to excess. Native New Yorker parents–and please, friends, chime in if I’m not speaking for you here–are just moms and dads like everywhere else who want our children to be safe and smart and kind and happy.
Still, it’s trippy to see your young ones living the 2.0 version of your New York childhood on these same streets, especially since the city is much safer than it was in the Koch administration, and because us parents are much more up our kids butts than mine, at least, were back then. I walked three blocks home from the school bus alone in the third grade, crossing over to avoid the crack house on the corner of 97th and Columbus which is now bespoke condos facing a Whole Foods. My mom tells me I insisted, accusing her of being overprotective. I don’t let my kids cross the street without me and they’re in the 5th grade. They’re too giddy, spaced out, and, well, childlike, in my view.
Thing is, while a safer city in which they don’t have to be quite as street smart allowed them to be that way, that’s only a good thing if they don’t get hit by a car.
Which is why I am not one of those people who long for the city’s seedy past, when Times Square was truly the festering, filthy, stinking armpit of the universe (as opposed to the shaved, deodorized and hyper-corporate armpit it is now). New York was often an unpleasant, scary place that smelled like pee. But a lot was easier, both for us as children and for our parents. Things were cheaper, schooling was less complicated, and according to my mom, anyway, parenting was less of an achievement-oriented occupation, here and in the ‘burbs.
Not for nothing, for all the “wildness” of life in the big city as a small person, the only place I remember smoking pot was as a kid was in Livingston, NJ, when I visited my camp friends. I envied their rec rooms, but they complained they were bored out of their gourds. And yet, most of them, too, turned out fine. Go figure.
Photo downloaded from Christine Macaluso-Russo–many thanks.
February 9, 2014 at 11:45 am
I get asked all of the time what it was like growing up in NYC (esp. by people here in AZ) & I always say I had an awesome childhood! Growing up in NYC but in a tight-knit neighborhood (Inwood) is something I fear may be lost now. It is so true that although the streets were “tougher” we felt safer! I see my niece & nephew and friends’ kids now and worry that they don’t have any of the “street smarts” or gumption that we developed. In this “fair, everyone-gets-a-chance & a trophy” time we are in I think they may not be as prepared for rejection or struggle. I love NYC & although I moved away over a year ago, it will always be my home and I miss it all the time.
February 9, 2014 at 11:59 am
Excellent piece Stephanie! Continuing the conversation we were having on facebook today, one thing you point out that I hadn’t considered was the “sanity preservation” aspect of NYC. You are so so right: extensive public transportation options + more lax parenting than today = ample opportunity to both escape anyone’s own family nightmare environments – at least for hours or a few days sometimes. And it also showed us, as you perfectly put it, that “another way” was possible in terms of family dynamics. I vividly remember being in 5th grade one day and my classmates and I were catching up on our weekends. We went around talking about what we’d done, and one kid said “Well, me and my mom and dad went to-” we all interrupted “Your mom AND your dad???” “Yeah…” “Your parents are still together???” “Yeah, they are” the rest of us, in unison “Eeeeeeeewwwwwww!” like, wow, talk about dysfunctional, your parents are still together! LOL! Being able to be in so many different homes… One close friend in elementary school lived in the Dakota. Like, where John Lennon lived. He regularly had Nureyev in his apartment dancing on his couch. He also had one of the most disturbing family environments I ever witnessed, but I didn’t know that then, I just knew I heard exchanges there that struck me as really really weird. One of my best friends in high school lived above her parents Chinese restuarant in Queens, where she and her siblings all worked often when not in school. We had friends with parents who owned art galleries, jewelry shops, and parents who just worked their asses off every day to make ends meet and didn’t own housing or business. So yes, we got to see so many configurations, of both family dynamics and family economics and family culture. Public transportation really was the key ingredient… amazing to reflect back on all this. Thank you for this great piece Stephanie!
February 9, 2014 at 12:03 pm
I always tell people it was the best place to be a teenager. NYC allowed us the means to exercise our increasing need for autonomy. As a 12-year old, I had to travel across town to go to school, which gave me multiple daily opportunities to practice my decision making skills. My kids have to wait until 15-1/2 to start this process. I try to always remember that it must be very frustrating for them to have so little control of their own lives. I feel lucky to have had the freedom NYC gave us, hope kids these days still have some of it.
February 9, 2014 at 12:10 pm
I love that you remember the crack house at 97th and columbus! i always tell people i grew up on the upper west side BEFORE it became fashionable — and i add that there was an abandoned crack house on that corner!!! as someone who grew up in nyc until 26, i can totally relate to your post. but i do have some perspective since i have been living elsewhere since ’92… i still miss it (NYC) and wax nostalgic on “those” days since my girls are just on the cusp of their own heady adolescence. I often wish my kids could grow up there tho — if only part time. Truth be told, i don’t want them doing half of what i did back then (lying to watch the midnight showing of Rocky Horror on 8th street or the Mudd Club or the West End (before it got sanitized)… those were the days!)
February 9, 2014 at 12:47 pm
I agree with your blog in so many ways. My sis and i were latch key kids. We were very independent but also super cautious. My dad taught us to look in the elevator’s corner mirror before getting on in case someone was crouching down by the buttons ready to jump us…in our apartment building! He was petrified raising 2 daughters in the 70’s NYC upper west side – not on Central Park, West End or Riverside Drive, but between Amsterdam and Columbus. My parents still live in the same apartment and so many white people moved into our building – which is under new management. Mostly Jewish. On Friday the elevator goes “Sabath”. i still see many of the same neighbors i grew up with and we all have certain shared history in our eyes when we say hello to one another. Kinda like, remember how crazy this building was 30 years ago?!
I also NEVER let my kids cross the street by themselves. I have allowed them to be completely clueless as to where there stand in the world – literally – because i was so aware. xo
February 9, 2014 at 1:00 pm
i tell my mother-in-law in WI that my kids don’t *know* anything except living in a room the size of a veal pen, so it’s not horrifying to them. and yes, there are SO many compensatory joys to living here (and very little likelihood of drunk driving, which was certainly a THING in my husband’s youth in WI and my own in RI).
and wow, the kid with Nureyev dancing on his couch!!
if you guys haven’t, you should read the Newbery-winning When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead, a middle-grade novel about growing up on the UWS in the late 70s (but also a fantasy and semi-tribute to A Wrinkle in Time) — it is SO SO SO GOOD, and will give you a lot to talk about with your kids.
February 9, 2014 at 1:14 pm
Nice piece! I was just saying the other day that while there are benefits to raising your kids in the city at all ages, I feel like the tween and especially the teen years are when the benefits really kick in in full force.
I remember thinking my NYC-raised friends at Wesleyan were so sophisticated. In retrospect, I realize that they also had an ability to screen out distractions and make their way through situations with so much more confidence than I had. I see it in my own daughter.
Makes all those years of lifting strollers over snowbanks seem kinda worth it.
February 9, 2014 at 3:31 pm
Really great and concise piece! And there’s so much more to say…Once I left NYC for good in the fall of 1984 (also, Reagan’s first election year) for college in sunny Santa Barbara, I thought I would have had to answer this question more than I did. In my head, I prepared so many version of answers like: “Fake IDs at 15…clubs until 4am then breakfast…riding the subway late meant seeing the garbage hauler…yadayadayada”. But none of my classmates or dorm mates asked. Instead, I got a bewildered “That’s cool…so what are you doing here?”. My taped collections of WBLS Mr. Magic’s Rap Attack on my Sanyo boombox were met with blank or painful stares from amongst the primarily white upper-middle class students. Forget the fact that we went to one of the best science high schools in the country with kids from all over the city and backgrounds, the only comments I got were” “You talk like that guy on Taxi” (Judd Hirsch) and “You should smile more!”, which got yelled anonymously from my hi-rise dorm window. At that, I think I raised my middle finger instinctively up in the air at the ten-story grid of windows. I didn’t make many friends and those that I did hated the So-Cal beach culture as much as I did, but they didn’t get that NY part at all and the more it showed, the more Taxi comments I got.
Living in NYC in the 70’s taught us about how to avoid bad situations while walking down the street, how to ride the subway at night without getting hassled, and where to go to get the best street food on the cheap. What those years didn’t teach me was tolerance for other people’s stupid opinions, and NYC’s own special brand of a lack of tact. Being a NYer was a liability almost anywhere I lived on the west coast, I had to learn to tone it down, even though bland assimilation was what was culturally expected.
I live in Boston now and when I come back, I fall into the same awareness patterns, that never ever leave your body. However, as an adult, I see the hassles of getting stuff done and hear the noises of a city that pipes public announcements, music, and other people’s conversations into my ears. My Massachusetts-raised kids completely don’t know how to be independent like we were and won’t even enter a bodega, let alone buy a carton of milk without me. Myabe it’s just a sign of the times.
Thanks Again, Steph!
February 10, 2014 at 8:42 am
I liked reading this Steph – it reminds me of things I often took for granted about growing up in NYC – in middle school being able to hop on the subway downtown with friends to go shopping at Canal Jeans and by a $5 army cross shoulder bag (remember those?), and in high school being able to go practically anywhere as long as you could take a cab home at night, and though my parents were pretty strict by NYC standards, I still had a ton of autonomy compared to classmates I met my freshman year of college in Boston. It felt like culture shock arriving at college and watching people go absolutely crazy with newfound freedoms, and I always thought to myself that these people must not have gotten out much as a kid. The parts I most appreciate about raising kids in NYC are the exposure to culture – Broadway, dance, concerts museums, gallery’s (which my parents made sure I had), and the mix of excitement and dread I feel for when my kids learn to navigate the city and be independent. Now I understand why my Mom secretly followed me on my first bus trip in the 6th grade (including a transfer!) from 58th street and 1st ave to 85th and Madison. Duh!
February 10, 2014 at 12:55 pm
I’m a native new yorker, I “grew up” on the city streets..as the number 8 kid in my home, I was pretty much on my own…I took busses and the subways alone at age 10… rode my bike all over queens, took the subways an hour and a half each way to go to bronx high school of science, (through some tough neighborhoods and nasty overcrowded dirty trains), played in central park, hung out in NYC clubs, .. much of it was very exciting, some of it quite scary…. I was hit by a car, mugged, had my bicycle stolen from under my feet, had a knife pulled on me, bothered by some perverts…. Honestly, happy to have survived it! The experiences were intense, never a dull moment. Lots of laughs, made some great friends. I definitely think it molded me into a very self sufficient, adventurous, confident person. BUT… when I had my own two children born in manhattan, and as they became school age, I had to make th choice of whether to raise them in manhattan or in the Burbs….I chose the burbs! I didn’t want them to have to fight the fights and experience the fear, and deal with the over crowding and the filth and the scary things that I went through….They are now 15 and 16 and are doing great! very stable life, doing great in school and sports and lots of friends… Im glad I made the choice I did.
February 10, 2014 at 2:27 pm
I think about this all the time. I do think we worry as parents more these days than our parents did back when we were kids. This is deeply odd, since we have so many more ways of keeping track of our kids than our parents ever did. And yes, New York has indeed gotten cleaner and shinier and by some measures safer. But I can’t help think that the loss of the middle class in NYC has introduced a harsh edge that wasn’t present when we were kids. These days, the gulf between rich and poor seems wider than ever. Perhaps it’s my imagination, but I think that has bred a degree of hostility that I don’t remember from when I was a kid. I will also say, that from a kid’s perspective NY is much less scary than it was then – and how can that be a bad thing? I will echo what everyone else has written that the diverse environment our kids are growing up in trumps almost everything else. I love that not much has changed on that front. My kids have friends who speak different languages at home, bring all sorts of different foods for lunch to school, and live in everything from Tribeca splendor to Chinatown tenements and all kinds of places in between. I do lament the loss of the Mitchell Lama community we grew up in — a bunch of families in a big building that often felt like an urban village. I definitely relied upon the chance to visit other people’s houses – among other reasons, to escape my own. While both my kids would kill for their own rooms, and I would give a lot to have another bathroom, they both seem to enjoy all that the city offers them, even if it means that we are all living on top of each other. Especially my 13 year old values the independence that comes with ready access to public transport. still, I don’t want to over-romanticize either the past or the present. My sister was attacked by a mentally-ill homeless women while coming home from school in the 70s. We lived next door to the woman’s social worker who could contextualize, but it was still scary. And my son got mugged by another kid at knife-point on our corner in Washington Heights when he was in 6th grade. So, there’s still plenty of scary to go around. But, overall, the advantages of urban life have managed to keep us here.