Arts & Culture

Reviewed: “New York Street Games”

My grandmother grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn during the 1920’s and would occasionally tell me about neighborhood kids playing stickball, stoopball, kick the can and a series of other games that, to a boy raised on Sega … Read More

By / June 24, 2010

My grandmother grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn during the 1920’s and would occasionally tell me about neighborhood kids playing stickball, stoopball, kick the can and a series of other games that, to a boy raised on Sega Genesis and ESPN, evoked absurd images of sepia-toned cartoon characters in knickerbockers with old tyme accents dodging cars and listening for their moms’ whistle from down the block as they argued over who got to be Jackie Robinson. As it turns out, I wasn’t far off. New York Street Games, a documentary directed by Matt Levy, is a fascinating look at a culture of urban recreation that sadly seems to have become extinct. With notable interviewees like Regis Philbin, Whoopi Goldberg, Keith David and Ray Romano as well as less famous but equally intense New Yorkers like Paddy Guido, who looks just like what you think he would and is described as an ‘entrepeneur’ as well as people called Mike "The Kid From Brooklyn" Caracciolo and Bev "Da Bronx Babe" with accents out of another era, we are given a detailed and passionate rundown of all the major games played on the stoops, sidewalks and streets of New York. Most of the games were baseball derivatives, seeing as it was by far the most popular sport at the time. Stickball was baseball played with a broomstick and the ever-important Spalding bouncy ball (originally defective tennis balls from the Spalding fatory in Massachusets, it was pronounced ‘Spaldeen’ and was the lynchpin of street game culture). Slapball was baseball played without a bat – you just slap the Spalding with your hand and Punchball was Slapball but with a punch. There’s also Stoopball, where the players throw the ball against a stoop, inducing a pop fly and hoping for it to ricochet all the way across the street for a home run. And Ringoleavio, a brilliantly simple game of team tag that would often span whole city blocks and have kids climbing fire escapes and scaling rooftops to get their teammates out of ‘jail’. And Skelly (or Skully, depending on who you ask), a game like marbles but played with bottle caps filled with wax which would provoke kids to go on long spiritual sojourns through garbage dumps to find just the perfect filling for their skelly cap. As the boys engaged in these games and others like Johnny on a Pony, where guys would chain up to form a human bench and see how many kids could leap on top of them, and Under The Mill, where a kid would have to crawl through a gauntlet of other kids’ legs as they pummeled him, the girls tended towards games of a less violent and more cerebral nature. Games like jump rope and double dutch, which included wordplay and timing (chanting as they skip rope ‘A is for Alice and her sister’s name is Anna and they live in Albany. B is for Betty and her sister’s name is Beatrice and they live in Baltimore…’). Sigh – yet another example of women as the more rational and insightful gender. The very process of going outside to get a street game going instilled basic principles of compromise and diplomacy in the participants. With limited space to play and only one ball, you have to work it out. If you wanna play slapball but there’s already a stoopball game going on, you have to work it out. If Billy says it’s a double and Lenny says it’s a triple, you have to work it out. And while it may sound trivial, in a city filled with a myriad of languages, customs and modes of expression, the street games forced children to search for and find a common language and reach a compromise with their bretheren. New York Street Games is more than a nostalgia-soaked trip down memory lane, hearkening back to the New York of our grandparents, an overcrowded city teeming with immigrants where the only place a kid could play was on the street and the only thing he could play with was a broomstick. It’s also a keen comment on how far we’ve progressed (for better and worse) past this kind of recreation. As technology tumbles ahead at the speed of thought and virtual reality supplants real reality as the preferred form of reality, the thought of actually going outside to play seems disturbingly antiquated. And our children’s interpersonal skills suffer as a consequence, as do their feelings of connectivity to their physical environment, not to mention their weight. Regis Philbin tells a story of how the best game of stickball he ever played was one that ended with him and a girl crouching behind a car alone, sharing their first kiss. Contrast that with Ray Romano’s tale of his son who had an online girlfriend with whom he would chat constantly, but upon meeting her in person, was too shy to say a word. There’s also a collective reluctance these days to allow children to go unsupervised in public for any extended period of time. Watching this movie, I found myself thinking ‘These kids are out all day in the street? Climbing rooftops? Rummaging through garbage? Without parents? Without cell phones?’ Yes. Yes they were. And they were fine. Granted, the world is a huge place filled with many people, some without the best of intentions, but are we over careful with our children these days? This past month in New York there was a "Take Our Children To The Park…and Leave Them There Day", echoing the sentiment that we have grown too fearful of leaving our kids alone, outside, in public. I tend to agree, but then again, I don’t have any kids. But if I did, I’d like to think I’d let them play stoopball all day long.