Boomers Walked and Played On Sidewalks

Have you thought about sidewalks lately? In Mister Boomer’s constant examination of the boomer years (which he considers the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s — the heyday of boomers approaching adulthood), he recalled the sidewalks on his block some sixty-plus years ago. The entire idea of sidewalks has gone though great changes in the decades since the boomer years. So why ask the question now?

Mister Boomer contends that boomers didn’t think much about sidewalks; they were just a fact of both city and suburban life. Rural living didn’t have much need for sidewalks outside of the nearest town, but practically every area where multiple houses were built next to each other in the post-war decade were linked not only by roads, but sidewalks — paved passages, most often built parallel to roads, but intended for pedestrians.

How did we, as boomers, get to take sidewalks for granted in most urban and suburban locales? The story of sidewalks goes back thousands of years. Some mention Ancient Rome’s stone “ways” as among the first. Certainly Medieval Europe had forms of sidewalks in some areas — walkways constructed of slabs of stone or cobblestones. Our modern, western notion of sidewalks may have begun in London after the city was rebuilt following the Great Fire of 1666, when paved walkways for pedestrians were codified in city planning. European immigrants to the Colonies brought their notion of city design with them.

Mister Boomer recalls with no small measure of nostalgia, the sidewalks on his and neighboring blocks. He grew up in a subdivision built in the 1940s, while the War was winding down, presumably in anticipation of the need for housing once soldiers returned home. The sidewalks were striking examples of 1940s concrete construction in that they were filled with visible aggregate — stones, pebbles and seashells that fascinated a young Mister Boomer. When the county installed a sewer sytem in the area in the beginning of the 1960s, the wonderful sidewalks Mister Boomer enjoyed walking and examining were replaced by more modern concrete with a smoothed top surface.

In those early days, boomer mothers told their pre-teen children to stay on the sidewalk. Boomers learned to ride bicycles on sidewalks; they learned about respecting traffic and when to cross streets to sidewalks on the other side. Sidewalks became an area of play, for games like hopscotch to tic-tac-toe, and making chalk drawings. Still, sidewalks provided the safest, most direct way for boomer families to walk to nearby shopping, churches, friends and neighbors. Sidewalks were especially important before the idea of two-car households became the norm.

Walking was part of daily life, but as boomers aged into teenagers, car culture also grew. With it began the decades-long decline in the amount of walking people do on a daily basis. Consequently, by the 1970s, many new subdivisions in sprawling suburbs were built without sidewalks. That practice continued into the 1990s in some areas.

Today there is a renewed interest in sidewalks. From coast to coast people are asking whether we need more, and safer, sidewalks. Boomers, as well as Millennials and Gen Xers, are looking to live in communities that embrace walking, with accessibility for all, easy walking distance to goods and services, and livability as the goal. While concrete continues to be the most widely used building material on the planet, after wood, people are also becoming aware of the impact that concrete production has on the environment. Change is inevitable.

Boomers have witnessed the coming and going — and returning — of sidewalks in their lifetimes. The next generation of cities and suburbs will plan for more environmentally-friendly methods of building and production, but will definitely include sidewalks as a vital part of life — something boomers knew decades ago.

Do you have specific memories of sidewalks in your neighborhood, boomers?

Boomers Did Garden Chores By Hand

According to Mister Boomer’s thoroughly unscientific research — namely, asking other boomers — he has discovered that most boomers were required to do chores around the house. For boys, like Mister Boomer and Brother Boomer, that meant outdoor work throughout the year. Some boomers were paid by their parents for completing tasks, others were not. Mister B and Brother Boomer were not paid; their work was expected. In the summer, the outside work included everything from painting the house to mowing the lawn, plus, weeding and lawn edging as well.

The Boomer Brothers were given the tasks by the time Mister B was eight years old. Brother Boomer, being three years older, had first pick of the jobs he wanted to do, and left the rest to Mister B. Most of the time, the jobs were shared. For example, Brother Boomer mowed the front lawn, while Mister B did the back; never mind the back was larger. When it came time to paint the house, the brothers had two sides each. For the most part, Mister B didn’t mind too much, with the exception of weeding and edging the lawn. Both of those tasks were physically demanding and often accomplished in the late morning, as the sun heated up the surrounding concrete sidewalks.

Weeding meant pulling weeds along the backyard fences, as well as in between shrubbery and the flowers Mister B’s mother was growing. On both the front and back lawns, there were dandelions, crabgrass and other weeds to pull. The Brothers were given a hand tool that supposedly made the job easier. Trying to grasp a weed with pre-teen hands and successfully dislodge it from the ground without breaking the root was difficult if not impossible. Often the weed was so entrenched that the boys didn’t have the brute strength needed for a clean extraction. That’s where the tool came in.

The weed puller, as the Brothers called it, had a wooden handle on the end of a metal shaft that was bent in an exaggerated “s.” At the end of the shaft was a flattened area that was split to form a two-pronged fork. The idea was to get down on hands and knees and plunge the pointy fork end into the ground next to the weed target, with the goal of setting the main root between the two prongs. Then, when it all worked according to plan, pushing down on the handle would dislodge the weed from the ground. It could then be completely pulled out as one plant unit. Remaining clumps of dirt that clung to the roots could be removed by a slap or two to the ground. For Mister B, that scenario was the ideal that more often than not, he did not achieve. If a root was left in the ground, the weed would quickly grow back, and that meant future work. So Mister B found himself digging into the lawn with the tool’s fork end to remove as much of the root system as possible. The result was a lawn that looked like it had been attacked by groundhogs, with filled patches of bare earth dotting the lawn space.

An even worse job for Mister Boomer was edging the lawn. The Brothers were not required to perform the job every weekend, so it became more difficult than it could have been. For this chore, there was another hand tool. This tool was the size of a shovel or hoe, with a long wooden handle that was fastened to a sharpened metal, multiple-edged star-shaped wheel. Attached next to that was a rubber wheel. Its use was deceptively simple: slide the sharpened metal edges of the star wheel into the edge of the lawn, using the sidewalk as a guide, and push it forward and back to clip grass that grew over the sidewalk, and form a groove to denote the lawn’s edge. The rubber wheel was meant to remain on the sidewalk. If the operator had the strength to push the contraption, it would work. However, the summer ground was often hard and brittle, and Mister Boomer acquired many callouses on his fingers and broken skin between his thumb and forefinger while using the apparatus. In addition, trying to keep cutting a straight line was not as easy as advertised. Often Mister B would push the thing, only to have it veer off into the lawn, away from the sidewalk. For these reasons, it was Mister Boomer’s most hated summer chore.

A quick search online shows these tools are being sold as vintage lawn and garden implements, but a hand lawn edger that boasts two rubber wheels is still being manufactured and sold. The one Mister B used may have had two wheels, but he remembers it having only one rubber wheel. He has to wonder if having an extra rubber wheel would have made a difference in his ability to control the thing.

How about you, boomers? Did you have chores to do outside the house during your summer vacation?