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Poll: How Did Sesame Street Influence Your Childhood Perceptions of Urban Neighborhoods?

November 10, 2013 Featured, Popular Culture, Weekly Poll 21 Comments

Forty-four years ago today  a new children’s program debuted that was very different from predecessors such as Howdy Doody (1947-1960), Captain Kangaroo (1955-1984), and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968-2001). These earlier shows weren’t set in the gritty inner-city. I was a few months shy of being 3 years old when Sesame Street first aired on November 10, 1969, so I didn’t notice the change. Mister Rogers Neighborhood had only been on the air a year.

The Sesame Street set represented a very different place from where I lived
The Sesame Street set represented a compact, dense urban neighborhood. Image: Muppet Wiki

Officially located in New York City, as is often confirmed by regional references and the adjacent New York subway, Sesame Street was designed to resemble an urban, inner city landscape, recognizable to children although slightly idealized (though urban grunge was still well accounted for thanks to Oscar the Grouch). While many of the inserts took place in puppet-scale interiors, ranging from Ernie and Bert’s apartment and Charlie’s Restaurant to the countless walls or the varying game show sets of Guy Smiley, the main storyline scenes have always focused or at least begun on the street and its environs, outside of special location episodes. It serves as a meeting place for human and Muppet cast members alike. (Muppet Wiki)

My family moved into a brand new home in suburban Oklahoma City just months before I was born. Our subdivision lacked sidewalks, we had a 9-car driveway (3×3).

??
In February 1972 I posed for a pick on my new Big Wheel,
my mom’s 1966 Plymouth Fury III is behind me.

To my eyes Sesame Street seemed exotic, nothing like where I lived. Sure, I’d see neighbors, tinkering in their garages or sitting in a lawn chair  — on their driveway. But the interaction was different on Sesame Street, they couldn’t help but run into neighbors as they went about their lives. Since my dad worked on new homes, I rarely got to experience older/walkable neighborhoods closer to those on  Sesame Street.

Thankfully our family doctor had his office in OKC’s Capital Hill area, a once-thriving shopping area similar to the Wellston Loop. My father would also do carpentry work on his personal home from time to time, it was located in the historic Heritage Hills neighborhood, just north of downtown Oklahoma City. Otherwise I saw new homes going up in subdivisions far from the center. We drove to buy groceries, clothing, etc. — anything really other than a few things I might get at a convenience store I could walk/bike to.  We shopped at an L-shaped strip mall built in 1965 called Southwestern Plaza 1+ mile away, or a big Sears, also from 1965, a mile further away.Watching Sesame Street though, I knew there was another way to live.  I’m not sure when I got too old for Sesame Street, but the images of the conversations on the front stoop stayed in my memory.

Looking back, I think Sesame Street gave me a very positive image of urban neighborhoods.  This is the subject of the poll this week, the question being “How did Sesame Street influence your childhood perceptions of urban neighborhoods?”

 

Answers provided in random order are:

  • Very positively
  • Positively
  • Neutral
  • Negatively
  • Very Negatively
  • Unsure/No Answer/Not Applicable

The poll in the right sidebar for one week.

— Steve Patterson

  • JZ71

    Not at all. In 1969, I was nearly 7, and the show was/would have been too juvenile for my tastes, plus we didn’t have PBS among the three channels we could pick from.

  • moe

    Don’t poo on the roo! And you forgot Romper Room and the mirror: Be a good do bee.

    • http://urbanreviewstl.com/ Steve Patterson

      I don’t think I’ve ever seen Romper Room.

  • Bee Girl

    There is no way any child watched Sesame Street and thought, “Wow. What a vibrant neighborhood!” None.

    No child thought Sesame Street was “exotic.” Children like puppets, songs, skits, etc. That’s it. Don’t try to advance an idea that’s not even close to reality.

    • http://urbanreviewstl.com/ Steve Patterson

      I didn’t have the words as a kid, but I knew I wanted to live in a place like Sesame Street. When I post the results next week I’ll talk about the wide influence of the show has had.

      • JZ71

        Many children want to live someplace different from their parents / where they grow up – farm > city, city > suburb, suburb > farm, north > south, midwest > coast – and one can find TV shows that illustrate any and all of these aspirations – Green Acres, Captain Kangaroo, Road Runner, Mickey Mouse, Three Stooges, Roy Rogers, Gilligan’s Island, Father Knows Best, Andy Griffith, etc, etc, etc.

        • moe

          Loved Green acres. Cross the Munsters with Leave It To Beaver and you get today’s tea party.

    • 94103er

      Not true. Given how quick to criticize you are, you must not have been very thoughtful in your childhood, either.

      Plenty of thoughtful commenters on Streetsblog (who is linking to this post) agree.

    • Evan Derickson

      I’m with Steve. Grew up in a suburban/rural area and thought Sesame Street was way cooler than my neighborhood, which had only a few other kids, most of whom were much older or jerks. My home has its benefits, too, but “exotic” is exactly the right word for the show’s setting, as it appeared to four-year-old me. I’ll ask my little brother, who’s three, what he thinks this Thanksgiving.

  • Jeremy Rabus

    The show’s format, setting, and tone was developed at a time of heavy urban-related issues- the Great Society, white flight, poverty, etc, to provide a sense of the familiar for young, inner-city audiences, as opposed to the commercial stations’ ongoing quest for toy, candy, and cereal dollars from the more affluent suburbs. My earliest memories of watching Sesame Street took place while growing up at my grandparents’ house in Jennings, MO (which, for non-St. Louisan readers, is an older, inner-ring suburb of STL), and many shopping trips were made in the adjoining Baden neighborhood, and some north side areas as well. The older brick buildings and streets lined with storefronts sort of rhymed with the look of Sesame Street, as I remember.

    • Eric596

      Exactly. Sesame Street’s intended audience was deprived inner city kids.

  • http://atlurbanist.tumblr.com ATL Urbanist

    Thanks for writing this! I had the same experience growing up in the drive-only suburbs of Atlanta in the 1970s. I saw Sesame Street (and the Bloodhound Gang and other things) where kids were walking around a city with homes and businesses all together and loved it. It was a kind of freedom of movement I didn’t have, playing only with other kids on the cul-de-sac. There’s no doubt that Sesame Street contributed to my love of walkable cities.

  • https://greenwaycommuter.wordpress.com/ Tal F.

    Unfortunately the Sesame Street environment was no more real than Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood of Make-Believe. I actually lived in the real NYC back then, and it was far from neighborly. Sure, there were people in the streets, but if you were smart you kept to yourself and tried to avoid eye contact. Things are, if anything, a bit better today, but it is still true that the sort of random interactions with neighbors depicted on Sesame Street are very few and far between. I don’t think it affected my perception of urban life because it was so clearly made up.

    • Michael Bierman

      Couldn’t disagree more, though I lived in Brooklyn from 1995-2010 (Prospect Heights, Park Slope and Sunset Park). Wherever I lived I was acquainted with most of my neighbors, the shop owners nearby, and folks I’d see regularly. And when I had a kid these people became fast friends. It’s an overly rosy picture but, um, it’s for kids. I’m certainly not going to criticize the show because there were no fuzzy, elephant-like creatures on my blocks. And Bee Girl: everything you say a kid coudn’t think I thought. I grew up in Creve Coeur and certainly noticed the surroundings in the show and did think “exotic!” (In my case, JZ71 might be right on the money. I loathed the suburbs from very early on and couldn’t wait to get out).

      • https://greenwaycommuter.wordpress.com/ Tal F.

        It’s very hard to know what we thought back when we were kids. Our perception is undoubtedly colored by our experiences since then. I’d rather look at how my kids react to today’s TV shows, and I think the best example is a recent comment my daughter made while watching Curious George during one of the “country/rural” scenes. She asked how he knows his neighbor’s names.

    • gmichaud

      Sorry your experience in New York was so bad, I lived in Soulard in the seventies and early eighties and everyone knew everyone, even blocks over and throughout the neighborhood, but it is the only original old St. Louis walkable neighborhood left. Even off of Grand where I live now, I know people up and down the block. The corner stores are fewer and row housing is nonexistent, so the dynamics of interactions change with the architecture and urban design.

      • https://greenwaycommuter.wordpress.com/ Tal F.

        The experience was not bad at all. New Yorkers generally revel in the anonymity the city provides them. After a while you start to recognize characters you see over and over again, maybe occasionally exchanging comments about the weather or other such banalities, but it is rare that you get to know someone random you meet on the street.

        Don’t get me wrong, though. I had plenty of friends growing up, and some of them happened to live close by and so were neighbors, but I didn’t know the vast majority of neighbors and certainly didn’t know the shopkeepers.

        It just wasn’t Sesame Street, that’s all.

    • Seanna Walsh

      I am an architect and urbanist in my early thirties who grew up watching Sesame Street. I hail from a very rural area, beautiful but isolated, and yearned to live in a city as soon as I was old enough to know what a city was.

      I now live in Manhattan and just last night had one of my Sesame Street moments on the 1 train. I was sitting (I sheepishly admit) in a slumped fashion on the bench, thumbing absently through a magazine, when I noticed an elegant, elderly African-American woman sitting across from me and smiling sweetly but pointedly at me, as the Queen of England might if your elbows were resting on the table. I corrected my posture immediately and proceeded to ask her how she was that evening. We engaged in pleasant conversation until she got off the train at the next stop and kindly bid me good night.

      I experience moments like this almost every day, and even when I am working 80 hour weeks at a demanding job, they make me feel as though I am never alone. The dream I had as a 7 year old playing alone in my backyard did come true, and it is the reason I have no qualms about paying a big pile of rent to live in a small and simple apartment. In my early twenties, when my budget meant I lived in more ‘up and coming’ areas of the city, I took chances going out at night that I probably shouldn’t have as a young woman- I have been robbed and followed and have had my share of unpleasant incidents in which I was lucky never to be harmed. But I’ll take it all in exchange for the feeling of community I get from this city, which to me is priceless.

  • Seanna Walsh

    Amazingly, I was just speculating about this the other day! I hope that more research is devoted to the relationship between the show and the resurgence of urban living’s popularity.

  • Stew

    I grew up in suburban Dallas wishing that I live on a street where people hung out on their front steps and you could walk to the corner store.

  • WithheldName

    You’re barking up the right tree that the media has shaped our perceptions of the world more than anything else. But Sesame Street was just the tip of the iceberg. The 2 biggest media centers are Hollywood and New York City. Tens of thousands of movies and television programs have been filmed in New York City. New York City has received exposure like few other cities in our country. It’s no surprise that this created a latent demand that was bound to manifest itself sooner or later. But don’t get too cocky. It may seem like everyone in the country wants to live in Brooklyn right now, because it’s trendy. But in a few more years, people will yearn for the other great stereotypes of America.

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