N Street: Kids’ Lives

[This is the second of a series of four articles on N Street, a retrofit cohousing community in Davis, CA. I visited there on October 1, 2007. The other three articles published thus far are: N Street: An Introduction to Cohousing and Retrofit Cohousing, N Street: Where Everyone Knows Your Name, and N Street: Making it All Work.]

The lives of kids at N Street, presently numbering 12 among the 19 households, are significantly different from kids’ lives in other neighborhoods in a number of ways. Kevin Wolf, co-founder of N Street, describes three primary ways they’re different:

A 'Burning Girl' is the climax of a girl's 16th birthday celebration ritual.

Deep Relationships With Multiple Adults

It may or may not take a village to raise a child, to borrow from the same African saying that Hilary Rodham Clinton did, but it sure is nice to have a whole village help you raise your child. At N Street, the entire cohousing community gets involved in the lives of all kids who live there.

I witnessed this firsthand in my visit to N Street. For instance, an impromptu group dinner I attended at one house – i.e. not an official community dinner at the common house – had five adults from different households and a 15-month old girl. It really felt like a family dinner in every way. The baby girl sat next to her mother and got most of her care from her, but it was clear that many, if not all, of the adults there would be perfectly comfortable taking over primary childcare duty.
As I’ll show in the section below called A Distinct Kid’s Culture, N Street’s special 16th birthday celebration for kids creates a special bond between the birthday kid and three adults.

“I know every kid in the community, I play with every kid in the community, I do different kinds of things with every kid in the community,” Kevin said. “There are many adults here who care about the kids and play with the kids.”

Kids benefit from this because they have more adult guidance and more potential role models. Parents, especially single parents, benefit because they can rely on neighbors to pick up the slack when they need help, whether it be childcare for young children or another moral voice for older children.

Lots of Things to Do in the Backyard and Common House

In their common backyard, kids at N Street have a trampoline, a small field to play ball, a play structure, places to build forts, trees to climb, numerous vegetable gardens, and a little pond to fish in. In the common house, they have a foosball table and a ping pong table. Most important of all, there are usually other kids and/or adults around to play with these facilities.

Everyday kids are doing something in the back yard. Particularly impressive to me was the fact that, according to Kevin, there was an improvised game he recognized as similar to “kill-the-guy-with-the-ball” between a few boys there the day before I was there. I loved that game when I was a kid, but I didn’t think anyone was playing it anymore.

A Distinct Kid’s Culture

One way anthropologists distinguish one “culture” from another is by finding different rituals practiced by different groups. Using this definition, one could identify distinct kid’s cultures in many neighborhoods decades ago. For instance, kids in my neighborhood invented some of our own games or rules to games that were unknown to kids from adjacent neighborhoods.

Today, one would be hard pressed to find a distinct kid’s culture in any single neighborhood in America. Kids’ lives today are defined largely by media-based or adult-organized institutions, so they rarely define their own culture locally.

N Street is the only neighborhood I’ve encountered in contemporary America that has a distinct kids’ culture. Probably the most important kids’ ritual at N Street is the 16th birthday. It’s a “rite-of-passage” into adulthood ceremony like a Jewish bar-mitzvah.

Months prior to a kid’s 16th birthday, the kid picks a team of three adults, not including his or her parents, to plan the event. The event comprises a set of rituals common to all N Street 16th birthdays that are customized to each individual kid, much like weddings in America comprise a set of rituals that are customized by the bride and groom.

It usually starts with some sort of afternoon play like paint ball or capture the flag or soccer. Then, the community has a meal with food chosen by the kid. Next, there is a presentation of memorabilia of the kid, such as a video, scrapbook, or a mobile, made cooperatively by the community.

Most often, the community gathers in the back yard around a “burning boy” or “burning girl,” reminiscent of the Burning Man festival held every year in the Nevada desert. Prior to the birthday, the chosen adults and the kid create a sculpture out of burnable materials. On the birthday evening, the kid recites things they want to get rid of from their childhoods or things they want to do in their adulthood, and then the sculpture is ignited. Finally, there are usually some games after the burning.

This 16th birthday ritual is very enthusiastically embraced by the kids themselves – i.e. it is not forced on the kids. Young kids start thinking about their own events when they attend the 16th birthdays of older kids.

The community treats this ritual as a “rite of passage,” so adults tend to treat kids more as peers after they go through it.Most adults stop strictly censoring their language and conversation topics around 16-year-olds, and they can block consensus in community meetings. The kid and the three adults who worked with the kid on the event tend to grow closer because of the bonding experience they had.

Day of the Dead procession.

Another important ritual for kids at N Street is the “Day of the Dead” parade the first Saturday of November. This is patterned after the Mexican “Dia de los Muertos” celebration, but N Street members have transformed this into their own event. They dress up in black faces with white gowns and carry big paper maché objects that they have created over the years. They burn incense and play drums and other musical instruments as they parade down neighborhood streets to the local cemetery about a half mile away. The parade consists of 50-80 people, including a few non-N Street members who join the procession.

In the cemetery, they form a big circle and people yell out names of people they’d like to remember. It could be deceased people they know, animals, or famous people.

Finally, the members of the procession return to the community house for a big potluck dinner party. Members offer “remembrance boxes” of memorabilia there on makeshift altars.

In the two upcoming articles on N Street, I’ll discuss the special social ambiance there and some nuts and bolts about how the community works.

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