A Generation of Preschoolers Trapped in Their Yards

Wide sidewalk with houses visible from the street. Photo by BF Newhall

A neighborhood with wide sidewalks, open yards, porches — and big front windows.

By Barbara Falconer Newhall, The Oakland Tribune, June 10, 1987

“Do you care about sidewalks?” the realtor wanted to know. My friend Chris, fresh from the Midwest and shopping for a house in the Eastbay, was puzzled by the question.

Doesn’t every street have a sidewalk, after all? Isn’t Main Street, with its shade trees and toy-strewn walkways, as American as apple pie and working motherhood?

The realtor persisted. In California, you have to choose.

Here, you can live in places like Piedmont, East Oakland, Pleasanton, San Leandro, Albany and Moraga – where streets are straightish and houses are arranged in neat, Eastern-style rows.

Or, you can opt for the likes of Sunol, Montclair, Orinda, Lafayette and Kensington – where residents live in rustic, sidewalkess seclusion, on mini-estates tucked behind redwood fences and pyracantha hedges.

In the first type of neighborhood, sidewalks are busy with preschoolers riding tricycles up and down the block, calling playmates out of their houses as they go.

Bay windows provide a clear view of grassy front yards, children at play – and the bay window across the street.

A residential neighborhood where fences are permitted and sidewalks omitted. There are houses, and maybe even kids, behind that fence and those trees. Photos by BF Newhall

In the second type of neighborhood, you can gather your nude sunbathing deck, your hot tub, your gazebo, your Weber barbecue, your redwood swing set, and your loved ones behind a hedge or fence, safe from the eyes of neighbors, joggers, bicyclists, motorists and the occasional oddball pedestrian.

At our house, we never have to close the draperies on our view. Most of our windows overlook a hillside thick with poison oak.

When we first moved here, we liked our privacy. Now, we are not so sure.

Nelson is 6 years old, just Peter’s age and an ideal playmate. He moved in two houses up the street a year ago – but it was four months before we knew he existed.

If our neighbors come out of their houses, it is through the garage door – seatbelted into air-conditioned Volvos with the windows up.

Nelson may live right across the street, but he might as well live in Daly City.

If he and Peter are to play, an appointment must be made by telephone and an adult escort arranged to see one child or the other safely across the minefield that is our trafficky street.

In their book, “The Serious Business of Growing Up,” a group of the University of California at Berkeley researchers who studied the after-school lives of 764 Eastbay children described an Oakland neighborhood that resembles ours.

“You do not see children when you drive (these) hilly streets,” they wrote. “There are no sidewalks. Many houses are set back from the road, their windows turned to catch a view of the San Francisco Bay. There is . . . a feeling of isolation, a sense that residents want to be left alone.”

The children of the neighborhood “interact with few adults other than their parents,” the report continued. They have “few opportunities to do things and go places on their own.”

Go places on their own.

A neighborhood should give its children familiar, safe places to play, Margaret Mead once wrote. But it also should allow them to move out on their own, “to live dangerously part of the time.”

As citizens of the 21st century, our children will need “the confidence and the kind of autonomy that can be translated into a strength to bear the strange, the unknown and the peculiar.”

Country estate neighborhoods do little to invite small children out of their own backyards and into the wider world of people. Yet they continue to be built.

Chip Pierson, an architect for Dahlin Group Architects of San Ramon, said that sidewalks are

A house is hidden behind a hedge in a suburban neighborhood. Photo by BF Newhall.

A house behind a hedge — private or isolated?

being omitted in many Eastbay neighborhoods because they make front yards look small.

And, according to one Contra Costa County city planner, “in the places that are most prestigious, no sidewalks are planned because developers don’t feel people will be walking.”

Adults and children old enough to drive may not do much walking.

But how is the 3-year-old or the 8-year-old to get about? If he lives in a secluded, sidewalkless neighborhood, he remains dependent on his adults to get him where he wants – or they want – him to go.

Meanwhile, more and more fences are going up along our street. One of them is six feet high and 50 feet long. It is looking less and less like a rustic country road and more and more like a Los Angeles Freeway.

I’d rather live on Main Street.

Reprinted by permission of The Oakland Tribune

Peter was fully ten years old before we allowed him to cross our busy, curving, hilly — sidewalkless — street to “Nelson’s” house by himself. 

Peter’s doing just fine in “the strange, the unknown and the peculiar” 21st century. He went off to college in the Midwest, traveled to India with his friend Praja, criss-crossed Europe on his own, and now lives in Minnesota with its strange and peculiar subzero winters.

As for Nelson, his real name is Leo Moses Kremer and he’s not afraid of the world either — he’s played bass for the alternative rock band Third Eye Blind and now he’s getting ready to open a taqueria in Manhattan; watch this space. Update: It’s called Dos Toros and it has three locations in Manhattan.

Read more about being Peter’s mom at “How Selective Service Made a Man of My Son.” 



  1. Thanks so much for the note you left on my short comment at Ronnie’s story place. Yes, weren’t those Crisco cookies mouth melting. My mother used real butter, and if I have a twinge to make cookies, I do too.

    My current search is for volume I of the Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I lent it out, and out it has stayed. I wanted to use Julia’s recipe for been burgundy again. 🙂

    • I used olive oil, instead of Crisco, once in a recipe for banana bread. I have to say, it was fantastic. Lost the recipe though.


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