In old movies and photographs, you sometimes see kids playing in the street, even in big cities. Today, cars and bikes have taken over the streets.
But in Seattle, that old idea of street play is making a comeback.
They’re called Play Streets, a program through the Seattle Department of Transportation. The city started testing the idea last year. The premise: Shut down a neighborhood street for a few hours so kids can play. It’s free – all you have to do is fill out a sheet of paper and send it to the city.
Most of the Play Streets are in North Seattle, like this one on 36th Avenue Northeast where water wars were underway on a recent evening.
Grade schooler Kyra Stream gripped a squirt gun, her face determined.
“We’ve started the war," she said as I approached. "All of us are soaking. Don’t pass the circle."
Passerby Peter Berry happened to be walking by the street on his way home from work. Unknowingly, he passed the circle.
“I got squirted," Berry said in disbelief. "By a big squirt gun! I’m not totally thrilled about it. But I’m laughing now. Sort of."
This block shuts down every week. "The sun’s out late and the kids aren’t in school so they have a lot of chance to hang out together,” neighbor Riki Wells said.
It’s not just the kids who benefit. “You have to have kids to get the neighbors together," said neighbor Harvey Meulbroek. "The kids make relationships real easily. Neighbors not quite as easily.”
“I know people on my block so much better than I did even at the beginning of the summer,” said neighbor Juli Bressie.
Neighbors can still drive into the closed street, to access driveways. Often this means dragging a couple recycling bins out of the way.
Play Streets are hardest on drivers who rely on residential side streets as short cuts. In some parts of the city, such drivers sometimes rev their engines and curse at the lawn chairs blocking the street. But neighbors said most of them find another route. And the people who actually live on the street get drawn into the fun.
“We’ve got ping pong,” said Mark Foster, handing me a plate and a hamburger. "Grown-ups are having fun too. They kind of lose track of maybe where their child’s at, what they’re doing.”
Word has been spreading about the program. The pace of applications coming in to SDOT each month has more than doubled this year.
Parent Christy VanBuskirk has been telling all her friends. “When people hear about it initially, they are just blown away by the idea. That it’s something so novel. And then they want to do it also.”
SDOT hopes Play Streets will take off in South Seattle too.
Odessa Jones watched a play street from her front porch in the Central District. "It’s better than the parks," she said. She said a nearby park on Martin Luther King Way has a playground, but the people who hang out there aren’t so inviting to kids. "You never know who has guns over there," she said.
Here on her street, she knows most of these kids and their parents. "I’d rather see kids playing over here than going over there," Jones said.
There have been similar programs in at least a dozen other U.S. cities. In Seattle, SDOT says it will report to the City Council next spring about how well the pilot project went. If the council likes what they see, Play Streets could become a permanent program.