Being new to the world, you probably haven’t given much thought to everything you want to get out of childhood. Perhaps I can help. As the editor of New York Family magazine, and a city parent of a 12-year-old girl and an eight-year-old boy, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about just this topic—at least as it relates to New York City kids. And since your parents seem committed to raising you in the city, my own thoughts and experiences might be relevant. Since I hardly know you, I’m not going to put these in any kind of prioritized order. But if I could wish for you 25 special and distinctly NYC experiences in the course of your childhood, here they are…
I hope that you get to see a Broadway show and, really, I mean a big musical. All that spectacular acting, singing, and dancing; a great big theater; a special trip to Broadway—it all adds up to a childhood enchantment.
I hope you get to visit Central Park at least six times as you grow up. Once to ride on the Carousel. Once for a family picnic. Once to go on a rowboat out in The Lake. Once to go ice skating at the Trump Rink (also known as Wollman Rink). Once with the sole purpose of wandering around the north end of the park and enjoying the natural wonders there. Once to see Shakespeare in the Park during the summer.
I hope you get to go to Yankee Stadium. Mind you, this is coming from a Knicks, Jets, and Mets fan. Of all our great local teams, the Yankees (and Yankee Stadium) have that legendary tradition like no other in professional sports. So, yes, while I hope you get to see a lot of our teams play in their respective arenas, I hope there’s at least one visit to Yankee Stadium. (Okay, I hope you see a Knicks game at Madison Square Garden, too; I’ve just been a little frustrated with them the last ten years.)
I hope you have friends of different races, ethnicities, and family histories. The city is more diverse than ever. There were over 40 countries represented at International Day at my son’s grade school—a public school in the famously monotone Upper East Side. A varied bunch of BFFs won’t necessarily make you a better person, but it may make you a more open-minded and knowledgeable one as you head into a future that is likely to be ever more diverse and global.
I hope you experience the full gamut of public transportation—subway trains, buses, taxis, taxi boats, the Staten Island Ferry, the Roosevelt Island Tram, the commuter trains out of Grand Central and Penn Station/Long Island Rail Road. When you’re older, they all get a little wearying. But when you’re young and you only have to do it now and then, all these modes of mass transit can seem like a really cool adventure.
I hope you visit the Statue of Liberty, but you have to promise to really try to relate to all the info they’re going to serve up about immigrants and freedom. I had a grandmother who came here when she was five, and seeing the Statue at night as her boat came into New York Harbor was her first memory. If you’re not from a family of recent immigrants, have your parents introduce you to someone who immigrated here and ask them why they did it and how their life has changed for better or worse.
I hope you have a favorite playground. The city has a number of awesome and high-profile parks, but it also deserves a lot of credit for developing a lot of amazing playgrounds that are a very important part of family life in almost all neighborhoods around the city. My children virtually grew up at the playground in John Jay Park, at 77th Street and the East River. (But if I had to recommend a modern playground that works perfectly, whether you’re in diapers or in grade school, it’s the playground at Union Square Park.)
I hope you learn to walk—and by that I mean I hope you put that one-foot-before-the-other routine you discovered as a toddler to good effect as you get older and enjoy just walking around. Whether it’s for running errands in your neighborhood or as part of a larger adventure, like a trip to a park or a museum—walking the city often offers unexpected joys and simple pleasures, like bumping into friends, discovering a new store, or sampling a very tempting food truck.
I hope you get to the top of the Empire State Building and look all the way around the observation deck—and make sure you have a handle on how the five pieces of the puzzle fit together: Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island.
I hope you have a passion and a dream, for this city loves to cultivate both. Whatever your interest may be—dance, math, gymnastics, fashion, fencing, chess, writing, baseball, banking, photography, etc.—there are mentors around (including within your school and family), but you may have to take some chances to find them. When I was a news clerk at the Times, one day a 14-year-old boy stopped by to ask for a job. Be that boy.
I hope you walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. In either direction. It’s a cool thing to do, but it’s also an important lesson in history and technology if you read up on how those brave late-19th century pioneers somehow managed to build the world’s first suspension bridge.
I hope you go to Dylan’s Candy Bar. I know there are a few lovable little retro-candy emporiums around the city, but once Dylan’s made a serious commitment to oldies but goodies, it really is Sweet Tooth Heaven.
I hope you go Toys “R” Us and FAO Schwarz. Same idea. While we love a good neighborhood toy store, for a kid there’s just nothing like the breathless excitement of being in an immense toy mecca. (We’d put the American Girl Store in this category as well.)
I hope you go to the Bronx Zoo and the New York Aquarium. Every kid has their favorite aspect of the Zoo, and I leave it to you to discover what yours is. (When I was a kid, I loved the Monkey House, which recently closed.) The city’s aquarium is really good, too—and the bonus is it’s in Coney Island (which I talk more about later).
I hope you spend many Christmas weeks in the city, delighting in all the treats we associate with that time of year—the big Rockefeller Center tree, the department store holiday windows, the Santas, the “Nutcracker” performances, the ice skating rinks—and underpinning it all the pervasive kind and generous vibe of the city.
I hope you are a part of some special communities or groups—be them your school, local religious institution, the Y, a sports team, dance club, or some kind of group of locals with like-minded interests. Why? Because they turn the big city into little circles of friends—and children need friends.
I hope you eat a lot “foodie” food. Like Paris, New York is well on its way to becoming a place with an incredible culture of good eating that’s not only reflected in our restaurants but also our day-to-day lives, from our love of green markets to how much more we’re cooking at home. I hope that this trickles down to you in the variety of foods you eat (in addition to mac and cheese and chicken nuggets) and also that you grow up with some cooking and food shopping skills.
I hope you go to the American Museum of Natural History. As a little kid, just to gawk at the size of the giant blue whale and the dinosaur bones. And as a big kid, to learn the history of our planet and possibilities in the stars.
I hope you experience four distinct seasons. I don’t know where global warming is taking us, but I know as a kid growing up here, I got to experience the snows of winter (with sledding in the city), the rebirth of spring (when we peeled off our coats and returned to the parks, playgrounds, and schoolyards), the high sun of summer (we have great beaches), and the crisp invigoration and beauty of fall (back to parks, playgrounds, and schoolyards). There’s always the feeling of loss in seasonal change—but there’s also so much to gain. Enjoy.
I hope you visit your neighborhood firehouse. It’s sad to admit this, but for many of us adults it took the epic tragedy of 9/11 to remind us of how lucky we are to live in a stable society buoyed by so many well-trained and dedicated everyday heroes like firefighters, police, doctors, nurses, EMTs, and other emergency professionals. As much as a visit to a firehouse is a gift to a kid, it’s also a gift to the firefighters.
I hope you find a museum of your own. We are so lucky to have these havens of culture and curiosity—and almost all of them now have programming for children. Find one that you love and grow up with it.
I hope you visit Coney Island. City officials and others have been talking forever about how to turn it into a mega-destination like Disney World, but with the help of a number of intrepid pioneers it’s made quite a comeback already. Let’s count the family-friendly joys: new rides, Nathan’s, a minor league baseball team, the boardwalk, the beach, the aquarium, and, if you really do your homework, the legendary pizza joint Totonno’s.
I hope you go to the Big Apple Circus. Yes, there are other circuses that are more spectacular in size and effect. But how wonderful is it that a big city like ours was the birthing ground of a one-ring, one-tent troupe grounded in traditional circus feats and classic clowning? When they return in the winter months every year, it feels like they’re home again, and the bargain they strike is beyond value: every seat is good and every kid has a good time.
I hope you float on the Hudson, whether it’s with the help of the Circle Line or something more adventurous like a sailboat or a kayak. Think about what some of our first European settlers saw when they came here, how that land has evolved into arguably the most famous city in the world. Why do so many people still want to come here to visit and to live? What do they appreciate that maybe, already being here, we don’t appreciate enough?
Finally, I hope you get out of the city now and then. Part of being here and being content, actually, is balancing the pace and the noise and the crowds of NYC with visits and trips to places that are nothing like the city, like a day trip to Bear Mountain or a week at a resort in Puerto Rico or a weekend to Washington, D.C. But you have to promise to always come back and tell everyone what you saw and learned.
Eric Messinger is the Editor of New York Family. Still, that doesn’t seem to give him any more credibility with his wife and children.