The Park at the End of the Street

When I became a dad, I had a very specific idea of the childhood I wanted my kids to have. I wanted it to mimic my own as closely as possible.

From the ages of 2 to 12—the true childhood years, when children are most childlike—I lived on a short, unassuming street in Upper Montclair, NJ. Most of the 20 houses were similar to ours: shallow front yard, three bedrooms, 1½ baths, and an attached, one-car garage with a not-new car parked in it.

Beyond its modest look, however, the street held two very special bits of cachet: 1) it’s where my mom grew up, and where my parents met (she was literally the Girl Next Door), and 2) it dead-ended into Brookdale Park.

When I was younger, the park loomed like a Sendak illustration at the base of the street, where Mrs. Nichols’s meticulously kept yard abruptly gave way to a wall of 40-foot oaks. My neighbor friends and I ventured into it like we were crossing into Narnia, half-expecting Mr. Tumnus to leap out while we played hide-and-seek. And when we got older, we built a ramp over the hedge that guarded the end of the road and spent our afternoons Knievel-ing over it with our bikes.

The park had everything: acres of woods, three playgrounds, a duck pond, an omnipresent ice-cream truck—and lots of athletic facilities I was too young to care about. And the best part was, all the neighbor kids and I could hang out and play together with total autonomy, with no sign of hovering parents. Our time was unplanned, unstructured, and unsupervised, and the only stipulation was to remain in earshot later in the day so we could hear the dinner call.

One of the things that irked me about having my sons in New York City was that nothing even close to that kind of pure autonomy was possible. In Ann Arbor, though, we’re surrounded by parks. Magda lives across the street from one, and my house abuts another. And the security of the neighborhood makes it possible for us to observe them from a far greater distance and leave our boys to their own recognizances and imaginations. A privilege of which too many kids in the 21st century are sadly deprived.

I lost all ties to that neighborhood when my parents retired to New England, but when I take my kids to the park, I often think of Brookdale. It’s a big reason why I feel so lucky to have gotten the childhood I had, before the big square world intruded. And thanks to Coca-Cola’s America Is Your Park program, I have the chance to give back. Here’s the scoop:

  • Coca-Cola is offering grants to American parks, based on the votes of readers like you. (And writers like me!)
  • Click here to find your park on the interactive map and vote for it.
  • If you’re on Foursquare, you can check in from the park and get more votes.
  • Put the word out on all your social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, semaphore flags, etc.) and urge your friends, family, and total strangers to help out.
  • The contest ends on July 15, 2012.
  • The winning park will receive a $100,000 grant, and the second- and third-place winners will receive $50,000 and $25,000, respectively.

I’ll be voting for Brookdale, not just because of the myriad ways it breathes life into my hometown, but also because of the life it breathed into my brain, back when it was able to spend most of its day wondering.

Photo Credit: Coca-Cola

This is sponsored content from Babble and The Coca-Cola Company. All opinions expressed in the post are my own and not those of Coca-Cola. NO PURCHASE NECESSARY. Only legal residents of the 50 U.S. (and D.C.) who are at least 13 years old and reside within the U.S. at the time of participation are eligible to vote for a Park. Participate on behalf of a Park by: July 15, 2012. The 3 most popular Parks will be offered a grant and there will be 1 Wild Card drawing at the end of the Contest to award an additional grant. To participate, for Official Rules, and complete details including grant descriptions, visit Void where prohibited. Click here to see more of the discussion.

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