Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Playing in the Street

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Saw this meme on Facebook the other day and it brought back a flood of memories of growing up on North Portland on the West Side. We played sports on the street in front of our houses, at least until it snowed. Then we sledded.

In spring and summer, it was baseball. Usually there were eight or ten of us, sometimes more. We would choose up sides, often share gloves, an old bat, and a ball usually taped up with black electrical tape because we had long worn the cover off of it. Often, you had a pitcher, two infielders, maybe one in the “outfield.” Often, there was no catcher. It was an incentive to hit the ball, otherwise you had to retrieve it. Basically the street was the field with the curbs as foul lines. The danger of baseball on the street was breaking a window or leaving a dent on a parked car. I’m sure we did both.

From late summer on, we switched over to football. Football really makes sense on streets. The curbs made natural sidelines, although you could get pretty banged up going out for a pass and tripping over a curb. Because it was the street, it was strictly “touch.” Usually we used driveways for goal lines. I was never the great athlete and was glad to get chosen rather than sit on the curb watching. Usually though, that meant my job was to rush the passer, or alternately, to block the rusher. But I was playing.

As in the meme, games were interrupted when cars drove down the street. Sometimes the drivers honked if we weren’t fast enough in getting off the street. No one even got close to getting hit by a car, despite all the worries and warnings of our mothers.

The greater hazard was usually the grouchy neighbor who would yell, “stay off my grass!” Invariably that’s where the hit ball or errant pass would go. It must be a law of physics.

The other hazard with our games was the street itself. It was one of the old brick streets. It was kind of uneven and you could turn an ankle if you weren’t careful. Ground balls could be exciting, taking weird bounces. I’m kind of glad hockey and soccer weren’t big back then. They definitely wouldn’t have worked that well on that old brick street–but I’m sure that hasn’t stopped kids from playing those games.

I can’t say we played in the streets because there was no where else to play. There was a playground at the school down the street. There were sports fields a few blocks away. I think sometimes, it was just one of those things that happened when a bunch of us were hanging around on a summer evening or after school.

These days, I mainly see kids playing on suburban cul de sacs, something we never had growing up. My son grew up just down the street from a cul de sac and that’s where the pick up games happened. Often neighbors would set up basketball hoops on opposite sides of the cul de sac, or hockey or soccer nets, and all of a sudden you had full court or rink or field games. And it was pretty rare that someone yelled, “car.”

Overall, youth sports are far more organized, better equipped, and usually played at facilities designed for the particular game. In a working class neighborhood, we didn’t have most of those things. When someone yelled “car,” we had to stop the game. But I still think we had a pretty awesome childhood.

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