I grew up in the not great part of town. There wasn’t a bad part, just parts that were better than others, and mine was less than. Or so I’m told – I have always thought that my neighborhood was the best in the city. All other places were boring or full of fancy snooty kids who lived on streets shaped like circles and got to shop at The Limited and Benetton instead of Goodwill. My part of town had the Erie Canal, and railroad tracks, and lots of wild places to build forts, and a giant expanse of athletic fields and park space that took up about half of my side of the tracks. In my part of town, we had government cheese and hand me downs and I didn’t know that was anything other than it should be. We wanted for nothing, even if our parents may have wanted more for us.
Back then, the canal was filthy and full of old shopping carts and fishing bobbers, and all sorts of other things that kids wanted to play with. It wasn’t what it looks like now thanks to invasive zebra mussels clearing up the water. We would try tying together pieces of driftwood and random junk to build makeshift rafts that never floated and work on go-carts that had little to no go, always propelled by the youngest sibling in the group.
The woods around the railroad tracks and the tracks themselves were appealing in their danger. Although we rarely saw another person, the adults we did see occasionally looked pretty shady and we steered clear, running down onto one of the dead-end side streets where most of us lived. I was the odd man out, living on the main street, canal as my view out the bedroom window where I could watch the rain fall on the water and see the barges and tugboats go by. The tracks were good for hiking on because there was so much brush everywhere else and the older we got, the farther we would walk across one of the two train bridges that spanned the canal and connected the Tonawandas. It was a major victory once you were brave enough to make that shortcut but until then, the tracks gave us a great sledding hill, plenty of places to see rabbits and snakes, and hidden strawberry patches.
At what we considered the edge of the world, there was more wooded messy brush to play in and a ramshackle fort we would decorate by picking things out of the neighbor’s trash. We moved in an upholstered chair once, thinking we were really fancy, only to find ourselves covered in flea bites. We tried to hang curtains from the trees which angered the neighbor across the street and she came over and pulled them all down, so we learned to keep our kingdom hidden. We made trails and pretended we were on safaris, hunting for dangerous animals, although all we ever found was mosquito larvae in the industrial runoff stream nearby. I’m pretty sure we were trespassing on land belonging to the manufacturing plant on that side of the street, but no one ever bothered us besides that neighbor. We wouldn’t have understood anyway – if something wasn’t fenced in, how could it not be ours to play in? As we got older, the edge of the world expanded a few blocks further to include a giant, flat hill that we would trek across because we knew (somehow) that there was a swampy pond where we could watch turtles lounge in the rainbow oil-slick water. The hill was a landfill, although we didn’t know it at the time. We just knew no one was around to bother us and sometimes you found cool junk sitting on the ground. And the turtles.
The baseball field fences at the park were easily climbed, the poison ivy was usually avoided, and we picked cherries and climbed the crabapple trees. On summer nights, the snack shed was open for candy and pop while junior football practice or games went on in the back fields. Closer to the street was the wooden jungle gym that was a marvel of engineering to those of us who saw it being built. Connected by beams and platforms it was new and fresh and irresistible (and full of splinters) and we completely ignored the warnings of the men who told us no one was allowed to play on it for days so the glue could cure. Surely there was more than glue holding it together and we couldn’t see how this great castle could fall. I don’t think it ever did, but it’s been replaced now anyway. So many hours were spent walking on beams and jumping from platform to platform in an attempt to make it all the way around the structure without touching the ground. It was the star of the park, especially once the blue concrete wading pool was no longer filled. I remember how exciting it was on a hot morning to watch the playground lady dig the wrench out of the wooden supply box so she could turn on the water to fill the pool. The box held unlimited treasures, the best of which was boondoggle and multicolored wires for making whatever we wanted, and those loom-looper potholders. The box was always locked and chained to the shelter that covered the sandbox unless you got a playground lady who didn’t really care if we plundered the supplies. The good stuff came in on art days anyway, when the craft lady drove up with magical projects like plaster hand molds. We gave the playground ladies (rarely guys) no peace and were always there until the city’s whistle blew at noon and we went home for lunch until 1 when we could go back.
The city whistle also blew at 9p.m. and it’s how we knew to go home. Now that I know what a “sundown town” is, I’m fairly confident that it told others to go home as well, although you won’t get anyone to admit it today, and newer residents wouldn’t even know what you’re talking about. Growing up it was extremely rare to find families of color in the twin cities, even though there was a healthy population to the south and to the north of us. It’s still pretty white. When we were small, race was a non-issue because we didn’t see anyone who didn’t look like us.
Those woods where we went on safari are gone now, as green lawns and newer, more aesthetic industrial buildings have taken over. One line of railroad tracks and the bridge we walked was taken out and the sledding hill was bulldozed back hundreds of feet to make a lawn and parking lot. The other set with the ominous jackknife bridge remains to loom over the new restaurants and upscale lofts, as kayaking tourists glide beneath it. I don’t know if the kids have found new wild places to play, but I hope they do.