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Games Played In the Street Out of Bounds In Fairfax City
By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 18, 2002; Page B01

When it was game time on Oliver Street, Daniel would become Washington Capitals star center Jeff Halpern: "Halpern shoots. . . . He scores!"

Becky would play the Capitals' Peter Bondra. The no parking sign would mark the blue line, and the rest of the street hockey tumult -- the movable net, the orange plastic ball and the other swarming neighborhood kids in skates and sneakers -- would flow from there.

But the Oliver Street games, like street games in countless other neighborhoods, are gone now. The Fairfax City Council has ruled that, without exception, no playing shall be allowed in public streets. Police officers have twice warned Daniel and Becky's father about their games, curbing their street athleticism, literally.

"We want to send a message that it is not okay to play in the street," City Manager Robert L. Sisson told the council at a recent public meeting. If the Oliver Street games were allowed to continue, the "children may go to school and talk with their classmates about 'It's no problem -- you can play in the street.' "

And so it goes. In communities across the country, street games that just a generation ago were a fixture of childhood are fading under rising fear about traffic, the proliferation of homeowners association rules and neighbors who simply dislike the noise and hubbub.

Each year in the Washington area, scores of illegal street basketball hoops are removed under pressure or confiscated by officials. In Fairfax County alone, about 100 complaints about such hoops are registered annually.

And police logs from Gaithersburg to Manassas show officers being summoned to break up street games. Football. Basketball. Skateboarding. Street hockey. Even the once popular children at play signs, which used to warn of games on or near the street, are forbidden in Montgomery and Prince George's counties and elsewhere across the country. Despite regular requests for the signs, traffic engineers believe that they condone playing in the street.

In Virginia, it took an act of the General Assembly in 1997 to overcome resistance from state traffic engineers unwilling to post the signs.

"Our experience is that the signs provide a false sense of security -- that it is okay to play on the street," said Hadi Quaiyum, traffic studies chief in Prince George's County. "The street should be strictly for cars." But opinions vary, and the social upheaval moves block by block.

To some, any crackdown on street games is an assault on a vital part of childhood: the freedom for children to improvise and play their games right outside their front doors. The Capitals' Halpern, 25, a product of Potomac and a favorite of the Oliver Street youngsters, is among many who express shock that the games they grew up with are considered out of bounds by some people today. "It blows my mind," Halpern said of the Fairfax City ruling. "I played street hockey all the time growing up. It was the same six or seven guys, and my sister would play goalie. It's crazy that people would discourage kids from doing something that is fun and constructive."

To others, the waning of the games is a mark of progress. Traffic scofflaws make playing in the street dangerous, they say. More than 400 pedestrians younger than 15 were injured in Virginia crashes in 2000, according to state statistics.

The desire for calm and aesthetic conformity, moreover, has led many homeowners associations, which have proliferated in recent decades, to discourage street play and ban basketball hoops.

Consider Fairfax County's Crosspointe neighborhood, a group of 1,350 single-family homes. Neighbors and members of the community's Architectural Review Board have called in several hoops violations to the Virginia Department of Transportation, which then issues a form letter to the responsible party: "VDOT has received a complaint from citizens in the area. Please be advised that the basketball hoop must be removed within 10 days. If it is not removed . . . VDOT crews will confiscate the hoop."

"We see it as a safety issue," said Al Beyer, president of the Crosspointe homeowners group. "Some parents will argue that they live on a cul-de-sac. Well, I live on a cul-de-sac, and I see cars going down here at 40 miles an hour."

As in countless other communities, the mere sight of a basketball hoop has created friction. In Crosspointe, for example, hoops cannot be placed permanently by the street, in a front yard or in a driveway. Beyer pointed out that there are basketball courts in the development.

"The overwhelming majority of people comply with the standards," he said. "But you are always going to have a few people who feel the rules don't apply to them. We have a beautiful community, and we want to maintain our curb standards."

Some psychologists say that do-it-yourself street games offer children something often missing from today's highly programmed childhoods, when free time is parceled out between organized leagues and video games.

"The problem with so much of the things today is that there's no time for kids to play -- to take initiative and make choices," said David Elkind, a professor of child development at Tufts University and author of "The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast Too Soon," now in its third edition. "Kids learn by making and breaking their own rules."

Mick Greene studies street games like an anthropologist tracing a lost way of life. On his site, Greene catalogues the rules and lore of once popular games such as stickball, stoopball, curbball, boxball, skully and manhunt. He was at the Smithsonian's Folklife Festival last year demonstrating stickball.

"There was something that was really special not that long ago -- mid-20th century -- about the way that kids used to play," he said. "A group of kids could entertain themselves. You had kids using their creativity to negotiate the rules, to modify the rules based on the situation and to keep the game going.

"But there's a big difference in the ways kids grow up now," he said.

The ruling in Fairfax City arose out of the Oliver Street game. Police first visited Dan Conway, father of Daniel, 12, and Becky, 9, last summer and told him that an unidentified neighbor had complained about the children's street hockey game.

"I said, 'You're kidding,' and I was shocked that it was against the law," Conway recalled.

Said his son Daniel: "We could just go out and have fun. All that was lost."

The city codes on street play did include an exception. Conway applied for one, seeking to have his section of Oliver Street designated for play, while promising to limit games to daylight hours and to require adult supervision. He also added a written proviso that players must "yield to all motor vehicle traffic in a prompt and courteous manner."

City Manager Sisson and City Police Chief Richard J. Rappoport argued against the Oliver Street exception, however. And they went a step further: Rather than having a patchwork of laws that was difficult to enforce, they recommended removing the exception clause from city codes, making street play illegal.

Conway argued against a citywide ban. "Before we put a pen to paper, we ought to consider, 'What benefit are we seeking to promote?' and 'What evil are we seeking to prevent?' " he told the council last month. "This statute prevents the evil of Billy having a catch with his father. This statute prevents the evil of children playing in the cul-de-sac."

Rappoport responded: "The evil to be prevented here is the injury to small children or minors who are at significant risk by playing in the street." The council vote was unanimous. City codes now say that, without exception, "no person shall play" on public streets.

Though some council members indicated that they did not intend to outlaw street play entirely, Fairfax City police appear poised to enforce the rules, though not with citations. "Ninety-nine times out of 100, the officer goes out and says, 'Pack it up for the day,' " Rappoport said. "There are ways to resolve this without going to court."

The decision has shut down the game on Oliver Street. "The police have asked us to stop," Conway said. "I'm not going to tell my kids to do something the police have told them not to.

"It's truly a different world from the one I grew up in," he added. "These kids just don't have as much fun. It's a different world, and I rue it."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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