Sidewalks a benefit of Bangor

Posted July 19, 2009, at 8:11 p.m.

One of the first things we noticed and loved about Bangor was the sidewalks shaded with trees.

We didn’t have sidewalks in Florida, and their absence made it both hot and inconvenient for our young children to play outside. Instead, they were relegated to the backyard, which was fully enclosed by the surrounding yards’ 6-foot privacy fences. We rarely saw our neighbors. When one of the boys’ baseballs disappeared behind the fence, someone would throw it back over, and we’d shout, “thank you” through the cracks in the wood. I knew only one of our neighbors well.

Last July, when I came to Bangor from Florida to search for a house, I commented again and again (until I’m sure our Realtor was sick of hearing it) about the way people here congregate on the sidewalks. My mom, who was with me, said it reminded her of neighborhoods from the 1950s, where you didn’t need a pass code to get into your friend’s gated community and calling the kids home for dinner was as easy as opening the front door and shouting their names.

Indeed, one year later, our boys enjoy the sidewalk in front of our house from morning until night. They run through multiple backyards, never meeting a blockade of privacy fences. I can think of 12 neighbors offhand whom I know well and who know my boys’ names and where to send them if they get into trouble. On most nights, after Dustin gets home from work, he and I stand in the yard and watch our boys ride their bikes up and down the sidewalk.

The only thing I haven’t loved about our neighborhood is that people drive too fast through it. We don’t live on a main street. Nor do we live on a busy street. Ours is a residential street with shade trees on either side and no lines to mark the lanes. Still, people use it as a shortcut between other, busier routes. Although the posted speed limit is 25 mph, I’m certain that many drivers are going faster. Some are probably pushing 40-50 mph.

I mistakenly believed that drivers would notice the recent influx of children on our street (there are several other new neighbors with children) and make a mental note to slow down in the future. I especially thought people would be cautious when they saw plastic toys and bikes strewn across the grass. But no, drivers fly down the road as if they are on the highway.

Then a curious and totally unexpected thing happened. People started blaming me for having my children outside and on the sidewalk. A few drivers actually stopped and got out of their car to complain.

“Children shouldn’t play so close to the road,” they said.

“On a sidewalk in a residential neighborhood?” I asked sarcastically. We don’t live on Union or Hammond streets, after all.

“Someone is going to get killed,” another person said. “We have to slam on our brakes when we see your children on the sidewalk.”

If you have to slam on your brakes, perhaps you are going too fast. A car that is cautiously driving the speed limit through a residential area doesn’t need to slam on the brakes. You brake suddenly when something unexpected — a moose or a squirrel — crosses your path. Children playing in a neighborhood shouldn’t be a surprise.

After so many scowls and secondhand complaints, I got the feeling that drivers value their need to move fast over my children’s desire to have a childhood spent playing outside in a safe neighborhood. If I would just keep my kids locked up inside, these people could travel as they please and not have to worry about killing a child.

Thirty years ago, my husband was, in fact, run over by a car, so we know the dangers. Our boys do, too. They know what happened to their dad, but we won’t shelter and coddle them. Keeping them inside all day is out of the question. They are boys who need to run and play, which is why we chose a residential road with sidewalks.

All we can do is give our boys the skills and lessons they need to stay safe. But they are still young and immature, so I can’t guarantee that they won’t chase a ball across the street or fall off their bike and land in the road. I can teach them, but until they are grown, I can’t count on them to use their head 100 percent of the time.

I had hoped to count on the adults to drive safely 100 percent of the time. Because one thing I can guarantee is that our children’s lives are worth more than whatever made you take a shortcut and speed in the first place.

Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Her book “I’m Just Saying …” is available wherever books are sold. She may be reached at sarah@sarahsmiley.com.

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