Long gone are the days when the New York City subways were overrun with graffiti as they were in the 1980s.
I called my mom yesterday afternoon to quiz her on my childhood. “How old was I when you first let me ride the subways alone?” I asked.
She paused, unable to come up with the answer off the top of her head. “Um, 12, maybe?” she said. I thought back to a few nights during the winter of 1995 when I would traipse off to my friends’ B’Nai Mitzvot parties on the subways all by myself. While I have no recollection of the first time I rode the subway alone — it was that monumental a part of my growing up in New York City — I was at most 12 years old.
To me, riding the subways alone was a non-event. It was just another part of living in and growing up in New York City. We learn to cross the street alone; we learn to go to school alone; we learn to take the subways alone. We survive and thrive. A child of New York can tell you how to get from Bay Ridge to Bedford Ave., from TriBeCa to Tremont Ave. Sticking them in the woods with a map and a compass is another story altogether.
But something happened two weeks ago that has been an utter surprise to me. It started when New York Sun Lenore Skenazy left her nine-year-old son — at his request, mind you — in Bloomingdale’s with a MetroCard, a subway map, a $20 bill and no cell phone. She told him to find his own way home. Lo and behold, he did it. By using his city smarts and taking the subway and bus, he managed to make his way home in the middle of a Sunday among some of the city’s most crowded transit corridors.
Still, the backlash has been borderline ridiculous. Skenazy and her sonappeared on the Today Show (video in the link) seemingly to defend her actions when her New York City-based friends started calling her crazy and a bad mother. Their rationale? These parents were afraid that Izzy, now 10, would get abducted in the big, bad New York City subways.
They told stories about Elizabeth Smart and some girl in Florida who took the back way home through vacant lots and found herself in some trouble. What if that happened to poor Izzy on a Sunday in New York City, one of the safest large cities in the world, and in the subways where crime is at a record low?
Meanwhile, other bloggers started to weigh in. Louise Crawford of SmartMom fame wrote that she supports Skenazy but wouldn’t allow her daughter to do the same thing. Crawford blames parents today, and so do I. Parents who coddle their kids because they’re afraid of something that in the vast majority of cases doesn’t happen are engaging in urban behavior that is counterproductive to the surrounding environment.
I grew up with my parents’ trust. They allowed me to ride the subways by myself, and I grew to love the subways because these underground trains shepherded me around the city. But at the same time, they also taught me how to ride the subway from an early age. They taught me how to read the subway map and where to wait for trains. They taught me to avoid empty cars and ride with the conductor. That’s still sound advice now that I’m far removed from my 12-year-old self. This type of urban education starts young, and it can’t happen until parents remember how they learned the city and remember that Bad Things do happen but now if you’re careful.
Skenazy has continued to rail against the way parents shelter their children because of the way the media overplays one-off incidents. And she’s right. Her son proved that children today can fend for themselves, and even if he did it on a crowded Sunday afternoon along well-traveled routes, it’s refreshing to see some urban independence these days.