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 Lived Through and Celebrated Presidential History

Another Presidents Day is here. Mister Boomer has noted how the federal holiday came to be, and that boomers remember a time before Presidents Day (Boomers Said, “Hail to the Chief”). At this point in history, boomers have been living through the terms of fourteen presidents. However, the man who was POTUS when the first Baby Boomer was born in 1946 was Harry Truman, and not many boomers know much about this president.

If you are a boomer like Mister B, you were not taught much about President Harry Truman, other than he made the decision to drop first one, then another atomic bomb on Japan in an effort to end World War II. Germany had previously surrendered in May of 1945 following the suicide death of Hitler one month earlier. Two weeks prior to Hitler’s death, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt died suddenly, thrusting his Vice President, Harry Truman, onto the international stage. The fight with Japan continued.

It was surprising for Mister B to learn that the Vice President of the United States was kept in the dark about the program to develop the atomic bomb — the Manhattan Project. Historians record that Truman only learned of it after becoming President. The Russians, however, did know about it in great detail, due to a network of spies in the U.S. and around the world. Thus, the Russians were working to develop an A-bomb of their own, which ultimately led to the Cold War.

As boomers recall their history lessons, President Truman, when faced with the prospect of a prolonged bloody conflict with a ground invasion of Japan, ordered the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. When Japan failed to surrender after the destruction of that city, the president ordered a second bomb to be dropped on Nagasaki on August 9. Together, nearly a quarter million Japanese citizens were killed in the bombings. Japan signaled surrender, and on August 15, Emperor Hirohito announced it, ultimately signing a formal surrender declaration on September 2.

In 1946, President Truman dissolved the OSS (Office of Strategic Services), the Central Intelligence Group (CIG) and other war-related agencies that were created to gather intelligence during the War. To replace them, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Council (NSC) and others were created under The National Security Act of 1947. The purpose of these agencies was to oversee the gathering and sharing of intelligence that both military and political figures felt was necessary to protect a post-war America.

In early 1950, paranoia over the rise of the Soviet Union in the wake of the War led some American political figures, notably Senator Joseph McCarthy, to conduct hearings under the authority of the House Un-American Activities Committee. McCarthy, in a speech in West Virginia, specifically charged that the State Department was harboring Communist “traitors.” A reporter asked President Truman for comment, and Truman stated, “I think the greatest asset that the Kremlin has is Senator McCarthy.” The official response to the committee from the Truman Administration, residing in the National Archives, calls the charges rumors, lies, or based on no evidence.

An in-depth look at this underpublicized president is far beyond the scope of a boomer blog; Harry Truman was a complex man filled with contradictions and human emotions. His penchant for speaking his mind is why the phrase, “Give ’em hell, Harry” was attached to him when he began his political career. Records show, in his personal life, he was conflicted by ideas of racial equality. Yet in 1948 he ended segregation in the military, and supported civil rights legislation soon after the War.

In 1950, Truman’s fear of the threat of the spread of Communism led him to bring the U.S. into what was called a “police action” in Korea. Truman’s administration assembled a group of international allies to serve alongside United Nations troops. With the involvement of China and the Soviet Union, it became apparent that victory in Korea was far from a sure thing. Truman was advised to again use nuclear weapons. A World War I veteran himself, and in the wake of his overseeing the end of hostilities in World War II, he refused to do so. Ultimately, the U.S. and U.N. troops retreated to the 38th Parallel, which became the basis for the DMZ that marked the division between North and South Korea.

In January of 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower was sworn in as the 34th President of the United States. Boomers then began witnessing a new era of presidents.

Do you have any memories of learning about President Harry Truman, boomers?