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posted: 4/23/2013 12:23 PM

Vacant Arlington Hts. lots were kids' playgrounds

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Old friends rang our doorbell this week to bring us a new book of poems by their friend John McNamee. Because I was thinking of spring and what kids did 100 years ago, I was caught up instantly by McNamee's April poem about old lots in the city putting "on green/to ease the emptiness ..."

My impression of early Arlington Heights lots is that they were never empty. They were a vast playground for kids with great surges of energy. Picture for yourself blocks that had been subdivided and then left fallow.

To the irritation of drivers for the next hundred years, many blocks were never cut through north of Northwest Highway. Think Evergreen. Think Belmont. Think Vail. The kids knew what to do with the empty spaces left by streets that were never cut through.

West of Arlington Heights Road and north of Euclid there was a long meadow in the middle of the block, belonging to no one as far as the kids were concerned, so large there could be a football game at one end, baseball practice at the other, and room for girls to play house and picnic in the surrounding copses.

In a similar configuration east of Arlington Heights Road and north of Euclid, there is a line of pines reputedly planted by the Duntons. They are something of a historical wonder. But between the first World War and the second, less reverent users, that is to say, the kids, used to tie long ropes into the tops of the trees and use them to swing through the pines like Tarzan in the movies soon to be popular.

The kids on the block between Dunton and Highland had something of a similar setup, but their version of "easing the emptiness of the lots" was an early variety of the zip line. They got the same Mid-America thrill.

Not too far west of Highland began an area that had been subdivided but never built up. This was a play area for tag. But young Arlington teens were past playing tag on foot; they were into flivver tag.

As Steven Urich told me long ago, "You could buy a car that would run for $10. When three or four of us got together, we played car tag. We chased each other around. Sometimes we went up over curbs and drove across uninhabited blocks. You could be 12 years old driving a car."

As the man who fixed my water softener told me, "When we were kids, there was a stand of trees south of the St. James parking lot. Tall trees. Boles like 10 inches. A bunch of kids would climb a tree.

"Another bunch of kids would take an ax and cut it down. The tree would fall with the kids in the branches. A great ride because when it hit the ground it would jounce up and down and give us kids a wild ride.

"Kids did a lot of dangerous things in those days."

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