Alleys of Our Youth
had a disadvantaged childhood. What's the use of trying to conceal
it? I admit it frankly. And every one of my friends was similarly
attended no antiseptic daycare centres, we were not driven to
school on rainy days, we swam in no ceramic-tiled swimming pools,
we flew to no vacations in Switzerland, we did not live in air-conditioned
homes, we had no manicured lawns to keep off of.
had no organized little leagues and no expensive tax supported
playgrounds, we rode no $2,000 ten-speed Pugeots, we owned no
record collections of Led Zeppelin, we ate no store-bought cookies.
were deprived. We spent long leisurely summer days building rafts
on the Detroit River's bank and sailing them down the weed-infested
shoreline. We spent innumerable hours riding shunting boxcars
in railway yards. We built tree houses in the old oak tree on
the spare lot down the street.
we played in the alleys of Walkerville.
term "suburbia" was not yet, thank God, even an aberration in
a developer's mind. Everyone lived downtown. We lived on elm and
maple-lined streets. Never far away were the streetcars, the factories,
the empty warehouses, the abandoned frame homes of the Depression,
and the dairies with stables filled with magnificent Percherons
and the pungent odour of manure.
never far away were the alleys.
the foot of every backyard was a high unpainted board fence. And
behind the fence was the alley: the centre of all of our social
activities. The streets were for the adults. For our parents,
for the policeman, the school teacher, the neighbourhood banker
and the corner druggist.
alleys were for us.
were dirty. They contained garbage and branches and ashes. They
were invariably sprinkled with broken glass. They were inhabited
by scrawny alley cats and lean mongrels gnawing on fly-covered
rats. Big, bold, voracious, flea-infected rats. In short, one
brief glance at our alleys would have brought an instant attack
of apoplexy to any social worker (had there been any).
our alleys were an integral part of our lives. In them on long
summer evenings we played hide-and-go-seek, run-my-sheepy-run,
red light, tag and hop-scotch. We rollerskated there and we raced
our second-hand C.C.M.'s wildly from alley to alley in hectic
rip-roaring contests of fox and hounds.
alleys led to the large garbage bins behind the factories where
we scrounged for stamps, broken tools, almost empty paint cans
("Hey, this red will be jim-dandy for my soap-box racer!"},
pieces of rope, broom handles, rusty razor blades, empty jars,
almost straight nails and pop bottles worth two cents each. The
treasure trove of youth.
down our Walkerville alleys rode the neighbourhood rag man blowing
his squeaky tin horn. On his rickety grey wagon pulled by a starving
bag of bones, listlessly clip-clopping along. A wagon filled with
old orange boxes, piles of newspapers and nondescript rags. A
guy who haggled us down to four cents for the Model-T tire we
had previously used as a yard swing.
we had none of the amenities, none of the luxuries, none of the
opulence of the 1990's. But then we had none of the consequent
frustrations, neuroses and vandalism which bedevil our society
today. Just the odd overturned garbage can or raid on a pear tree.
late Ernie Atkinson, Windsor Star printer, city controller, great
guy and roadside philosopher once told me why children no longer
play duck-on-the-rock. "Heck, Al", he said, "the kids don't play
it because you can't pay $10 for a rock."
think Ernie had something there. But I think there's one other
factor. The kids don't play duck-on-the-rock because there aren't
any alleys to play in. You can't heave rocks at a tin can in Dieppe
Park. The cops would haul you off to the slammer.
I were a city planner today I know what I'd do for the children.
I'd plan housing developments which include rivers and railway
tracks and factories and old oak trees and street cars and abandoned
frame homes and empty warehouses and dairies with magnificent
Percherons and the pungent odor of manure.