Before my toddler could walk, we took him to the old gem and mineral room at the American Museum of Natural History, where we parked our stroller and let him cruise and crawl around, holding on to those fabled ‘70s-style carpeted stairs (were they eggplant-purple? Brown?) and feeling the staticky energy in the air as the gems glowed in their glass cases.
We took him again a few months later. He was a new walker, so we spent our time chasing him up and down the ramps, pointing out the colors of the rocks—colors, a concept which he now miraculously understood!
After that second visit, we got home and in the course of our typical evening Twitter check, learned that our visit had been devastatingly well-timed. The museum’s gem room would be closing in a matter of days, and city parents were in mourning. The photographs that circulated of the new plan for the wing were sleek, minimalist, stunning—and the opposite of homey.
As a native New Yorker who grew up near the museum on the Upper West Side, less than two miles from where I am raising my son in Harlem, it was hard not to see this news as a metaphor.
Being a city kid raising your own child in the city is like being caught between two opposing forces. On the one hand, you can feel stuck, perpetually in the world’s smallest and most insular town (Manhattan is only a few square miles, after all). But it’s also a few square miles that are changing at such a rapid rate you often feel disoriented, and keep re-emerging like a stranger on the same corner that’s no longer the same.
When I was as a toddler myself, I attended preschool two blocks from the AMNH; after school, the moms and babysitters would take us to the gem room and let us run free, ragamuffin-style. We slid down the smooth jade stone. We gazed into the depths of the massive amethyst geodes, like they were the treasures from our favorite cartoons come to life. We hid and we sought.
Like the New York of my childhood, the gem room was a shabby, well-worn place that I romanticize the way other people do their free-range suburban childhoods. And my Upper West Side was legendary, a place where we slipped in and out of playgrounds using openings provided by bent fence-bars. It was the neighborhood of fabled lines outside of H&H bagels and late night meals at Big Nick’s diner, and a million Chinese places, and no tapas or small plates or “artisanal” anything to speak of. Morris Brothers, a sprawling kids’ apparel store, helped everyone get ready for camp and school, while bakeries like Grossingers were where we got dry, crumbly pareve cookies on the way home. The neighborhood was encapsulated by the bear outside of Penny Whistle Toys, a weather-worn little guy, posted like a sentry at the gate, who would mechanically raise his arm and blow bubbles into the air all day.
I could go on and on, eulogizing my favorite establishments, but you get the point. All these places (and bears) are completely gone, and in their absence the Manhattan my kid will grow up in has become a glistening, repetitive, expensive place, dotted with gourmet food chains and makeup stores and organic supermarkets, glamorous restaurants and wine bars, a million and one shiny, packaged children’s classes and activities. There used to be so many spots where everyone in town could kind of muck together in all their ordinariness: Delis and diners and dive bars and libraries. Now everything feels more well-regimented, shinier, and harder.
But not everything has altered. The rocks and trees of Central Park that I used to climb are just waiting for my son to climb them, too. I still appreciate friendly smiles on the city bus when a cute kid boards. I still love the way New Yorkers, supposedly unfriendly, talk and roll their eyes at each other when the train is late or the weather is ridiculous.
The city has changed, but the fundamental joys it offers for kids remain intact, for now. Take the museum, which we’ve visited again, the untouched animal dioramas and whale room like the city itself: Overwhelming, crowded, well-worn, and dingy—and yet perfectly comfortable for the tiniest people who roam there.
Sarah M. Seltzer is a writer, editor, and mother in NYC. Learn more about her at sarahmseltzer.com.