The Decline & Fall Of Roam

One of my daily must-see sites Boing Boing has linked to an excellent article in London’s Daily Mail newspaper that explores how drastically less free-range we’ve allowed our children to become, as parents and guardians and technology restrict them to perimeters much tighter than their own when they were young.

When George Thomas was eight he walked everywhere.

It was 1926 and his parents were unable to afford the fare for a tram, let alone the cost of a bike and he regularly walked six miles to his favourite fishing haunt without adult supervision.

Fast forward to 2007 and Mr Thomas’s eight-year-old great-grandson Edward enjoys none of that freedom.

He is driven the few minutes to school, is taken by car to a safe place to ride his bike and can roam no more than 300 yards from home.

Boing Boing’s Mark Frauenfelder recalls walking a half mile unescorted to kindergarten every day and how he would now never let his kids do such a thing.

As a latchkey kid raised by a single mom I have plenty of recollections of stepping out solo, beginning with walking to school my first day of first grade at Beverly Hills’ Horace Mann Elementary (although my mom later admitted she anxiously tailed me in the car). Granted it wasn’t six miles backward and shoeless through the snow, but it was still a grand one-kilometer adventure for a 7 year old.

A far more intriguing pediatric pedestrian event came a couple years later as a nine-year-old third grader when one morning my mom dropped me off at the long-gone Beverly Hills YMCA on Little Santa Monica Boulevard for a couple hours while she ran some errands. As she pulled away and drove off I found the Y’s front door locked and a closed sign on it (whether it was a holiday or some unexpected event that shuttered the place I can’t recall), and though I yelled after my mom she was too far away to hear me and thus I was stranded. I suppose I should’ve stayed put and been bored out of my gourd waiting there on the sidewalk for mom to return but that could’ve been forever so instead I struck out for home on my own even though I was not at all familiar with the terrain.

Heading back up Little Sam opposite the way we’d come down by car I soon found myself at Wilshire Boulevard across from the old Wilson’s House of Leather (now a Starbucks) and knew that since I lived on Tower Drive, a street just below Wilshire at the other end of Beverly Hills, if I headed right and stayed on it I’d have to eventually get there. Or so I hoped.

I don’t think I cried, but I definitely remember getting increasing anxious as I crossed street after street after street along so much unfamiliar stuff and Tower Drive didn’t show itself as quickly as I’d expected. But I stayed the course and eventually forded Robertson Boulevard and across the street was the sign for the Budget rental car place (I think it’s still there), familiar to me because at some beginning point in my reading comprehension levels it was one of the first words I tried to decipher that wasn’t in a schoolbook. Passing by it from the backseat of my mom’s Mustang as we drove by one night and seeing its capital letters all lit up, I failed miserably at blending the “D” and G” letters, instead sounding it out as two words “BUD” and “GET” (to this day I still privately refer to the company that way).

Mispronuncation aside, I was very happy to see that sign because I knew I wasn’t far from home. Another half a block and I was crossing Arnaz Drive and looking into Horace Mann’s empty playground, and from there as a veteran of a couple years walking to and from the school I knew how much far there was left to go.

As I recall, all ended well. Instead of having the police put out an All Points Bulletin when she returned to the Y and found it locked up and empty, something — instinct maybe? — directed her just to drive home where she was greatly relieved to find me  safe and I was proud to regale her with the success of my 2.4-mile adventure.

While those two examples might not be textbook  in regards to roaming I think they illustrate a vanishing acceptance of the freedom be it around the Daily Mail’s turf of London or here in Los Angeles. I passed a bunch of people between the Y and home that day and no one thought twice about a little kid going solo down such a busy street. Nowadays I can’t imagine a nine year old walking alone two miles alone down a major thoroughfare and not attracting some sort of attention. Nor can I imagine a pair of 11 year olds being readily allowed to walk through some of the seedier parts of Hollywood such as me and my friend did in 1976 when we went from our Holly Drive apartment near Cahuenga and Franklin down to the long-gone Wherehouse Records store in the shopping plaza on Sunset at Western Avenue so that I might buy my first-ever LP: Queen’s “A Night At The Opera.”

If I can be suffered to go Capt. Obvious in connecting this to the bigger picture, I think the more we tighten the so-called safe zones around ourselves and our subsequent generation, the less we learn about who we are and where we are and the more we stifle our growth as human beings. In the case of me at 9 successfully finding my way home from the closed YMCA, to some that may have been nothing more than a relatively easy two-plus mile walk home, but it nevertheless provided an invaluable confidence boost as to how independent and capable I was.

And on a corollary, my friend Stephen made a good point during our Thursday night bike ride how just the simple fact of getting out of the house/car/routine and walking or biking — just being — around your hood opens people up to a far broader experience and understanding and appreciation. Specifically he was referencing my discoveries and interactions with area artists such as the elusive Caché and the mysterious “Berd” (who has just recently come out into the open with his real name and a website).

Certainly I understand the drive compelling parents to keep their kids safe, but I also see such isolation and limited involvement with their communities as a threat, too.

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Will Campbell arrived in town via the maternity ward at Good Sam Hospital way back in OneNineSixFour and has never stopped calling Los Angeles home. Presently he lives in Silver Lake with his wife Susan, their cat Rocky, dogs Terra and Hazel, and a red-eared slider turtle named Mater. Blogging since 2001, Will's web endeavors extend back to 1995 with, a comprehensive theater site that was well received but ever-short on capital (or a business model). The pinnacle of his online success (which speaks volumes) arrived in 1997, when much to his surprise, a hobby site he'd built called VisuaL.A. was named "best website" in Los Angeles magazine's annual "Best of L.A." issue. He enjoys experiencing (and writing about) pretty much anything creative, explorational and/or adventurous, loves his ebike, is a better tennis player than he is horr golfer, and a lover of all creatures great and small -- emphasis on "all."