College Terrace – what does it take to make a neighborhood family-friendly?

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Around this time every year my family pins a group portrait from our annual Halloween party onto our kitchen bulletin board.

Children from Simon's most recent Halloween party.

From the first party four years ago, held soon after we’d arrived in the neighborhood, there’s a group shot of six diminutive three-year-olds looking adorable in their costumes. By the next year we’d come to know more families and the group shot features twelve one-to-four-year-olds – we had to line everyone up on our hall staircase to get them in. Last year we hosted twenty five or so children and we ran out of stairs. And then this year, with some forty kids invited, we had to go outside for the group picture. We even limited the invites to neighborhood children with whom our kids played regularly, because now we couldn’t accommodate everyone we knew. Plenty of other parents in the area had their own parties, though, and once it was dark, College Avenue, the boulevard that gives our neighborhood its name, was thronged with little ghouls, princesses and superheroes in a fair approximation of what a perfect Halloween night is supposed to be.

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College Terrace in Palo Alto is often sold as a great neighborhood for families and, for the most part, that’s been our experience. But just as it takes a bit of effort to throw a decent Halloween party each year, making a neighborhood conducive to family life also doesn’t happen automatically. It takes both luck and some active effort on the part of parents to pull it off.

Here’s the luck part. We’re fortunate in that our neighborhood has good bones. It’s easily demarcated, for example, because ours is a two by twelve block finger of Palo Alto that juts into Stanford University’s land. That makes its identity clear, which in turn encourages the sense of belonging that’s a prerequisite of neighborhood pride. Each of our cross streets are also blocked at one end, making for less cut-though traffic than we’d otherwise see. Then we have a high performing elementary school right next door, and four small ‘pocket’ parks (two with play structures, one with a pair of tennis courts, and another housing a small library and child care center) to play in. At one end of the terrace we have a retail area with stores, banks and a weekly farmers market. At the other we can easily walk to open space.

All of those family-friendly features make it highly sought after, which unfortunately puts serious upward pressure on the price it takes to call the area home. But here luck saves us again. Dotted between many of our single family homes are clusters of small rental units, built to attract Stanford graduate students, which keep us from being socio-economically monolithic.

Thanks to the avarice (or could it be the pro-neighborhood leanings?) of our subdivision’s late nineteenth century developers, our lots are small, which means our houses are fairly close together. And that means we all see each other often. It’s how, soon after moving into our new home, my wife and I found five families living just a few blocks of us with children the same age as ours. We’ve been getting together, in what we simply call ‘the Playgroup,’ roughly once a week ever since.

If we’ve started out with such good fortune, what work does it take on our parts to make our neighborhood family friendly? Well, it takes honoring the basic commitments we make to each other, like turning up regularly at the weekly playdate in the face of social and economic pressures that give us plenty of reasons to be elsewhere. And it’s in the many small things we do to act upon our pro-family intentions and values. It’s the time we give to watch each other’s children when we can. It’s in the way we share with each other our frustrations and triumphs as parents. It’s in how we help each other – to make meals for a family facing an emergency, perhaps – through hard times.

There’s nothing hugely heroic about any of that. But over time these many small actions build relationships of enormous resilience and power. Networks of old but far-flung friends are hugely life sustaining. Neighbors without children are great to have around. But people who see you and your children every day, and whose children you see, who are literally there when you need something as simple as a child watched for an hour by someone you trust, a loan of a car seat for a day, or just a smile of ‘I-was-doing-that-yesterday’ understanding as you grumpily push a wailing toddler around the block, are worth their equal weight in gold.

Much of what sustains us as Playgroup neighbors comes from the work we do in our own families to figure out what is manageable in our lives. We all have at least one spouse, and sometimes two, in a high-pressure professional job. We’re all pushed just to get our children to eat well, spend the time with them we want to as a family, get some exercise, maybe the odd date night with our husbands or wives – the whole juggling act that is modern parenting.

To figure out how neighborliness fits on top of everything else takes measuring our expectations of each other against how busy we know we all are. It takes recognizing the limits to the commitments we ourselves are able to make—as well as a faith that such commitments will add to our family lives. And all of those calculations require regular recalibration as our children, and our circumstances, change.

So here’s where all that calibration has taken us: to one afternoon a week when we know where to find children roughly the same age as ours to play with. We meet at a park close by. The kids run their own games – although sometimes we’ll bring bats, balls, stomp rockets or sidewalk chalks to get things going.

On top of that we automatically invite all the Playgroup kids to each other’s birthday parties. We work to avoid party inflation – where each family tries to outdo the last. And we have a few other parties through the year. There’s the Halloween party my family tends to run, and a couple of pot lucks we have in the spring and fall that include the wider neighborhood.

It’s not neighborhood nirvana. It’s not how things used to be in communities where one parent was always guaranteed to be at home all day. But it is sustainable. And it does add something overwhelmingly positive to our lives.

Just following that simple pattern of friendship over nearly five years has meant that we can walk down the street to the store – as I did with my family only today – and pass by two or three houses with kids playing outside and be met with anything from a friendly hello to an invite to an impromptu full-day play date. It’s a small thing, but in a sense it’s what defines a great neighborhood– a place filled with people you know and like, and with whom you and your children are at ease.

College Terrace old timers, with kids long flown, tell stories of children cycling in mobs round our streets unchaperoned. Their youngsters would often walk alone to a friend’s house, then go play unsupervised in the park until dinner. Or they’d cycle the six or seven blocks down to the store to get a pint of milk that the owners would happily put on a tab to be paid another time.

We don’t live those kinds of lives. Too many people, we all feel, simply drive too fast down too many of our streets to let young children walk or cycle by themselves to the park or down to the store. And our children don’t have as much free time as generations before. Many of us run TV-free households, but our elementary schools give out homework these days and many of us do want to expose our children to soccer, ballet, or any of the myriad other structured activities that eat into opportunities for unplanned play, even if only once a week.

Thanks to homework and after-school events, we’ve seen attendance fall off on our afternoon play dates recently; with three or four families there more often than five or six. People were also away over the summer and got out of the habit of coming, and then the start of school saw a lot of the six-year olds going to a full day schedule. We’ve had to change days in the past, so maybe we’ll do that again.

In one sense, though, our Playgroup’s work is done. It’s gelled us into a community of neighbors who know each other really well. Through it our children know most of the kids who live around here. They know all the houses they can go by any day and see who’s up for play – even if a mom or dad is there to do the hand off. It means our kids entered school easily, with friends looking out for them from day one.

But as our kids are turning six and seven, the rules of social games are suddenly something they can both follow and relish arguing over. All of a sudden, they’re ready for serious group play. Capture the flag, anyone? Simon Says? Great, but you can’t play them alone.

So perhaps our weekly Playgroup has reason to live on for good while to come. Come find us some Thursday afternoon on Dartmouth Street – my guess is we’ll still be there.

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