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DVD Review: New York Street Games

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The documentary New York Street Games now available on DVD is as much a celebration of a simpler time in this country’s history, a time when parents felt the world was a safe enough place to allow their children to spend their days running and playing on the streets of the world’s biggest city, a time when a pink high bouncer and a sawed off broomstick were all the equipment a child needed to keep busy with friends from lunch to dinner, as it is a nostalgic look back on what for many of us were the games of our youth. The streets, the empty lots, the school yard—any place that offered the space to hit a ball or draw a court with a piece of chalk was ripe for a playground. Kids didn’t need organized sports like the Little League, whether it was Kick the Can or Punch Ball, they organized their own games.

Now their games are legendary. New Yorkers look back on them with a nostalgic passion for their idyllic youth. The film is filled with them waxing eloquent about the games of the streets. Whether it’s C. Everett Koop talking about Ringaleavio, Regis Philbin describing his first kiss during a game of Hide and Seek, or Whoopi Goldberg explaining how her brother sat her in the crate of his home made soapbox derby cart, these are people glowing with happy memories of a vanished past. While you may have to wonder if things were quite as wonderful as their rose colored visions seem to make them, there is no question they think so. There is nothing so powerful as the happy memories of youth.

Stick Ball is probably the best known of the New York Street Games. Played between the sewers in the middle of the street, the batter would toss a Spaulding—pronounced ‘Spaldeen’ by the true New Yorker—in the air and swat at it with a broomstick. If he hit it, he would run the make shift bases, first base at the right curb, second at the next sewer, third at the left curb and back home. It was the street urchin version of baseball. Good hitters could hit it over two sewers; great hitters three. Legend had it that baseball great Willie Mays would play with the local kids, and he could hit it two sewers down the next block.

With the profusion of cars clogging city streets today, Stick Ball and the other street games—Stoop Ball, Slap Ball, Punch Ball—are little more than relics of days gone by, although the documentary does describe some of the efforts to keep the games alive. For example, there are some streets in the Bronx, called Stick Ball Boulevard, closed to traffic on the weekend for a Stick Ball league. In Clinton, Wisconsin, a New York expatriate sponsors the Stoop Ball League of America. A day camp North of the city has a bunch of old timers showing off their skills at Slap Ball. Of course, more often than not these are adults reliving their past. Some of them may bring their kids along, but these efforts are less about the new generation than they are about themselves.

Like the games, this is a film that will bring joy to the heart of those of us who remember running around on those streets chasing after those pink ‘Spaldeens.’ Younger audiences may be more inclined to see it as an anthropological study, a kind of “Coming of Age in the Bronx.” I doubt they would have the kind of visceral emotional identification with the film. That said, this is a film that had me smiling from beginning to end.

Narrated by Hector Elizondo, the film includes reminiscences by Keith David, Curtis Sliwa, Joe Pantoliano, Ray Romano, Robert Klein, and photographer Arthur Leipzig along with more than a dozen others. Although there are no additional materials included on the DVD, there is a little spiral bound booklet attached which describes the rules and play of many of the games included in the documentary.

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