When I think back to my childhood in the 1960s, I can’t help but reminisce about our neighborhood gang. This gaggle of children was fluid—it included anyone from our surrounding blocks who could come out to play on any given day. Sometimes it swelled in numbers on weekends and school holidays and other times it involved only a core group of us. And despite all the different personalities and ages it encompassed, it generally worked.
Back then we were largely responsible for our own entertainment. When the weather was warm, we banded together to ride bikes, sail fleets of paper boats and play games—Red Rover was a classic! Even during the long, cold winters, we still spent a lot of time outdoors, sledding, skating or building snow forts and snowmen.
Neighborhoods back in the 60s were different from those today. Families tended to stay put so kids grew up with the same group of friends, forming strong bonds as a result. It was like being part of a big extended family. Kids ran freely without much parental supervision even at a young age as they were always accompanied by older siblings.
In my hometown, we had a four- or five-block radius where we roamed and played. We also had the added benefit of living directly across from a park that spanned an entire city block, so that alone provided ample space to play.
Most mothers back then were stay-at-home moms as it was entirely possible for a family to live comfortably on only one income. So children came home after school, they didn’t have to attend after-school care. And structured activities/lessons were rare; we simply created our own fun. The odd one of us may have taken music lessons or perhaps a few swimming lessons, but the majority of us learned things the hard way—through a combination of trial and error and stubborn determination, with an older sibling most likely egging you on.
Being part of this gang gave all of us free reign in each other’s yards and homes: we wandered in and out of whoever’s house was closest to go to the bathroom, we knew which mom baked the best cookies, and we knew which parent (or grandparent) would give us change to buy penny candy at the corner store.
And what would a neighborhood gang be without the classic neighborhood bully? We certainly had ours. He was the older sibling of some our playmates and he was known far and wide in the neighborhood as trouble with a capital “T.” He actually seemed to relish his reputation, wearing it almost like a badge of honour. He teased relentlessly, interrupted or ruined our games and wreaked havoc on anything we constructed. And I’m afraid that in our collective fear, we made no attempt to include him in our play; in fact, we dutifully avoided him like the plague. With hindsight, I am sure we only exacerbated the problem. I have to wonder if his interactions, however negative, were merely his misguided attempts at inclusion.
I distinctly remember one summer when the rumor mill identified this bully as the likely culprit who had pilfered an apple from our back yard apple tree. And this was no ordinary apple. It was one that had grown to gigantic proportions, and it was quite simply my father’s pride and joy. He forbade any of us to pick it. If there was a Guinness Book record for the largest apple, this one certainly would have rivalled it. It was the talk of the neighborhood. We would stand underneath that apple tree, and “oohhh” and “ahhh” just gazing upwards through the foliage. Until one day, later in the fall, that marvelous apply simply disappeared. A quick investigation proved it hadn’t grown too heavy as it wasn’t found at the base of the tree. Well, you can imagine my father’s ire. Alas, there was no proof, so the apple bandit was never caught, much to my father’s dismay, but he certainly blamed you know who.
Bullies aside, it saddens me that many children today do not have the opportunity to experience being part of a neighborhood gang. Neighborhoods seem to be different nowadays, I imagine because of the mobility of families and the simple fact that many households have two working parents.
Our neighborhood gang served a purpose—Friendship. Safety. Belonging. Loyalty. Within its familiar confines, we learned the give and take of relationships, how to negotiate with others, the art of compromise and the importance of sharing and being kind with one another. It was like a mini-microcosm that prepared us for the wider world. Looking back, it easily brings to mind some of my fondest childhood memories.