Growing Up In The Old Neighborhood

Spiro Athanas graduated from McKinley in 1960, where he played football, basketball, and baseball. Spiro has written numerous articles for this web site. Spiro now lives in Bloomington, Indiana. He is retired and passes his time playing golf and painting.

At a Goldbug luncheon, we discussed the differences between the manner in which kids are growing up today and how they grew up 50 years ago when we were all kids. The following article reflects Spiro's perceptions of those differences.

One of the driving forces behind this web site is an unabashed nostalgia for our collective past as McKinleyites growing up in the old neighborhood. But, I am enough of a realist to know that many things are better today than they were back then. In fact, I probably would not be alive to write this article if it weren’t for relatively recent advances in medicine that led to my open-heart surgery in 1990. That said, I still believe that many things were at least significantly different then, and it is difficult for me to believe they weren’t better

Consider the difference in the way most American kids grow up today as opposed to life in the forties and fifties. Today, in my opinion, there is much more direct parental involvement in their children’s activities than there was back then. And yet, curiously, today’s parents seem less able to generate the kind of respect our parents expected and received without being as involved in our day to day lives. I think what most of us received back then was unquestioned love and support and a moral code transmitted by our parents through their actions rather than their words.

That is not to say that today’s parents don’t love and support their children and don’t try to transmit a moral code to guide their lives. I’m certain they do, but with a 50 percent divorce rate, growing suburban sprawl, and a mind-boggling array of distracting electronic games and media, it is much more difficult for today’s parents to do what our parents were able to do. The loss of cohesive urban neighborhoods, such as ours, is a big part of the problem. We knew a lot of people in our neighborhood, all our friends lived there, our schools and play areas were there, we did most of our shopping there – and we felt safe and secure there. That neighborhood environment created a climate of self-reliance that led to us being more independent adults.
Contrast that with today’s suburban families, most of whom know few of their neighbors, whose children must take buses or be driven to schools and activities – often far from home – who shop at distant malls, and whose parents seem to be far less secure about their children’s safety.

Even our bars were family places back then. My father used to send me down to the corner tavern with a two-pint bucket to retrieve his beer on many Saturday nights. We would watch wrestling together on TV while he sipped his beer and I ate peanuts.

Going from the profane to the sacred, think of all the places of worship we had in our neighborhood. I remember driving down the old Third Street highway and marveling at all the spires piercing the sky. And then there were the “shows” where I went with my friends almost every Friday night regardless of what movie was playing. A quarter took care of the night’s entertainment” – 15 cents for admission, and a nickel each for popcorn and a “sodie."

A great deal of the freedom and self-reliance we gained as children came from necessity. Many families in our neighborhood had no car and little money to spend on anything beyond the bare essentials. That meant our main modes of transportation were walking (or in my case running), bicycling, or, rarely, public transit. As preteens, a group of us, without adult supervision, walked to Grand Avenue and took the streetcar to Sportsman’s Park to watch the Cardinals or the Brownies several times each season. When I was about twelve, a friend and I rode our bikes all the way to Jefferson Barracks, fooled around there all afternoon, then rode back before nightfall.

My favorite toy as a child was a vintage World War-II field radio. It didn’t work, of course, but it had a fascinating array of dials and toggle switches, a head set, and, when I unscrewed the back panel, burned out vacuum tubes and other gizmos (the transistor had not yet been invented when they built that beauty). I spent hours issuing imaginary orders and receiving imaginary reports from imaginary field commanders.

Almost every day during the summers of my youth I would be out of the house by 8 AM, baseball glove in hand, headed to meet my playing companions at the “Campus” or some other ball field or just a vacant lot. We chose up teams and played ball all morning. At about noon we would chip in and buy a loaf of bakery bread, a pound of baloney, a jar of mustard and a

giant dill pickle. We sliced the bread and pickle long-ways and build our giant “Hobo” sandwich for lunch, which we washed down with a Pepsi or a Vess cream soda. I usually returned home just before dark.

We played all day without adult supervision or interference. Bullies weren’t tolerated. I contend that bullies are fostered by adult involvement. Kids won’t tolerate bullies, but adults will often unwittingly allow them to have their way.

I hope somewhere, in an urban center or a small town of this great country, a neighborhood such as ours still exists. But I doubt it. And I know for a fact one doesn’t exist in suburbia. I also hope my tale of growing up in the old neighborhood has triggered your own unique memories of what it was like for you back then. It may be just nostalgia, but to me it was a wonderful life. I was lucky to be part of a loving family, in a close-knit neighborhood, at a great time in our nation’s history.

--Spiro Athanas