Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Childhood in New York

Two years ago, this magazine decided to celebrate its birthday with an anniversary issue and to mark the passage of time by dipping into the city’s past. We’ve made it into a tradition. That first "yesteryear" issue explored the history of apartment living; last year’s splashed around in three centuries of New York scandals. This year, well into our middle age (45), we’ve focused on childhood. READ MORE [+]

Growing up in New York is different from growing up anywhere else—there’s a lot less grass, for starters. And many more people, speaking in many more languages and scattered in many more neighborhoods, each as big as a city to even the most adventuresome 6-year-old. In other places, children often imagine their futures unfolding somewhere else (New York, maybe). Wanderlust is less common here. Some native New Yorkers do leave, of course, and many never come back. But even those émigrés (to Hollywood, to the Supreme Court) still speak proudly in their New York accents, the romantic city looming so large that their private early memories—of stickball, candy shops, subway rides—come wrapped or reimagined as city myth.

Many Americans, and even some New Yorkers, may feel that childhood and New York are fundamentally incompatible, that it is as cruel to raise a child amid sirens and concrete as it is to keep a big dog in a small apartment. But for years, the New York kid was on a very long leash. Trusted (or ignored) by parents, children were free to explore the weird, enthralling, sometimes scary city of strangers. This independence has been vastly curtailed, and yet some things about growing up in New York remain as true as ever: It happens fast. You learn to be tough and when to cede to someone tougher. You get a privileged view into the behavior of adults, or at least adults on the train.

As the centerpiece of the issue, we assembled a sort of oral history of childhood in New York, as it was lived by many of the troublemakers (and the terrified) who became its most famous and alluring native sons and daughters—from Colin Powell to Whoopi Goldberg to Larry David to Antonin Scalia. City kids are known for precocity and skepticism, and for growing up into prideful seen-it-alls who refuse to be impressed. But they are not unenchantable, and as we sorted through our many dozens of interviews, we marveled at how much each rhymed with each and with the city’s shared public memory. Could it be that Fab 5 Freddy played the same street games as Mel Brooks? Or that every kid knew (as we heard again and again) that the better way to spell Spalding is S-P-A-L-D-E-E-N?

“I swear to God, I couldn’t have been more than 9.”

58 memories of growing up in New York.

See 48 More Memories »

Current Issue
Subscribe to New York

Give a Gift