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A Kid at Large In the Center of the Universe

Manhattan was once accessible and enriching for children—even wandering on their own.

circa 1955: A young visitor at Guy Miller's Miniature City display in Coney Island. On the left is the Chrysler Building, and the right the Empire State Building. (Photo by Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images)

I did not know that moving to Manhattan in 1957 had anything to offer me because everything that fall seemed a form of cosmic punishment emanating from the breakup of my parents’ marriage. For three years before that, the family lived in a raised ranch in one of the earliest subdivisions on the north shore of Long Island. My mother called it “the country”—but then anyplace where you couldn’t step out the door and hail a cab was “the country” to her.

As soon as the ink was dry on the divorce decree, she sold the house and moved me, the only child, into the city, a place where, I learned pronto, you couldn’t play flies-up or hop on a bicycle, or do the other three or four things that eight-year-olds did in the suburbs. It took me a while to catch on to the hundred or so other things that an enterprising kid could do in the city.

We moved into a one-bedroom apartment on 93rd and Lexington. Luckily, I got the bedroom. My mom, who had grown up on Park Avenue in the 1930s, and was driven to school in a chauffeured LaSalle sedan, had to take the first job ever in her previously cushy life: selling stuff on the home furnishings floor of Bloomingdale’s department store. (She’d misbehaved with other men in the marriage and gotten a lousy settlement.) Her mother and father were dead and gone before I was three and whatever money she’d inherited was gone, too. The fall in our social status was vivid to me. 

I was a latch-key child from the start of that. On the plus side, with mom at work, I didn’t have to report home directly after school and was at large in the city after three o’clock. My primary school, PS 6, was a block away from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I soon discovered this palace of wondrous things. The museum was quite empty most weekday afternoons for the simple reason that New York was still—incredibly perhaps—a middle-class city, and most people were at work. It was also free. There was no shakedown for “contributions,” you just walked in.

I got to know the place so well that I could eventually navigate the galleries with a paper bag over my head. At first, I was entranced by the things that excited little kids—the Egyptian mummies and their after-worldly playthings, the arms and armor chambers, especially the beautifully tooled, early wheel-lock pistols, rapiers, dagger-guns, mace-pistols, and other lethal exotica. Of course, I also toured the vast sequence of painting galleries and couldn’t help becoming acquainted with the various sorts, schools, and persons who made them. By about the fifth grade, I developed a near morbid attraction to the recreated period rooms in the old American wing, in particular the old Dutch bedroom with its cabinet beds like Pullman car berths. I had the childish idea that if I stood there long enough wishing, I could escape out of modern life into old Nieuw Amsterdam.

Similarly, I soon discovered the Museum of the City of New York up on 103rd Street and Fifth Avenue with its splendid collection of dioramas. One especially captivated me. It depicted the 1626 purchase of Manhattan. Half a dozen Lenape tribesmen parlayed with Peter Minuet and his comrades in a forest glade by the riverside with a few pots and spoons on a blanket, while all around them stood glorious old-growth forest. The darn thing was barely 36 inches wide, but I longed to vanish into its miniature universe. There was also one of a street-scene during the Great Blizzard of 1888, men in top hats and scarves leaning into the driving snow under a tangle of telegraph wires, and another of the first stock exchange, established by 24 gentlemen on a May afternoon under a buttonwood tree (Platanus occidentalis) outside 68 Wall Street, not a skyscraper in sight, no checker cabs, no Sabrett hot-dog vendors, no winos.

The Museum of Natural History stood directly across Central Park—a scenic fifteen-minute walk from school—and it was free, too. I became an aficionado of shrunken heads, narwhal tusks, Coelacanths, and the inevitable dinosaurs. The Central Park Zoo was free, but in those pre-environmental days, the animals lived in quarters like cellblocks in a penitentiary, and you ended up feeling sorry for them. There was at least a score of movie theaters within a ten-minute walk of our apartment building, many of them the enormous palaces from the 1920s. I saw everything from Gigi to Psycho to Rodan the Flying Reptile, making me, I think, a well-rounded child. Later, I discovered the art cinema houses of the West Side where I caught La Dolce Vita in subtitles and the mystifying Last Year at Marienbad, which featured the then startling scene of a man seizing a woman’s breast. All of this was quite a rush of experience.

Perhaps most amazingly, a kid at large in the city then was generally not patronized, condescended to, or interrogated while going about his business. If you wanted a movie ticket, the adult in the little kiosk did not ask where your mother was. Bus drivers didn’t inquire where you were going. Before I turned nine, I knew how to order dinner in a Chinese restaurant, where I sometimes dined alone on the two bucks my mom left for me on the kitchen table when she was out on a date. That first spring, I found my own way up to Yankee Stadium on the Lexington Avenue IRT. It was a snap. I also took to hanging out in hotel lobbies watching people come and go—among them, Herbert Hoover and General MacArthur (they liked the Waldorf) and Harry Truman (the Carlyle), who stopped to shake my hand.

During those years I made mandated bi-monthly visits to our old subdivision in the Long Island suburbs. My father had married a divorced woman who lived just down the street from our former house. Out there I consorted with the same gang of little friends I’d left behind in the third grade, and after a year or two grew amazed at their cultural retardation. They were still riding their bikes ands playing flies up, and knew nothing of narwhals or wheel-lock pistols or the funerary chattels of the pharaohs. They’d never gone into a Chinese restaurant without a parent, or bought a subway token, or witnessed the pageant of the Waldorf lobby, or gone to movies where something besides English was spoken. They remained, for good or not-so-good, mere children, while the city had made me something else.

James Howard Kunstler is The American Conservative’s New Urbanism Fellow. He is the author of numerous books on urban geography and economics, including his recent work, Living in the Long Emergency: Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward.

New Urbs is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

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