Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Child's Play in the Alley
Alleys have long been stigmatized as places of poverty, pestilence, pissing, puking, pugilism, putrefaction, procreation, panhandling, prostitution and porn just to mention a few appellations. This is probably an unfair universal characterization. Many of Washington’s Alleys became daytime playgrounds filled with exuberant children inventing new toys and games. The alleys were relatively free of traffic and safer and infinitely more interesting than the surrounding sidewalks and streets. A collective of mothers and other family members and friends protectively watched over the children from second floor windows.
Children chatting with a blacksmith in 1900.
The blend of commercial and residential elements in the alleys was critical because it created a diversity of activities that offered rich interpersonal encounters for everyone.
“Dancing was not the only activity that required exertion. ‘The children in the alley engage in games which require much physical energy … Racing around the alley to the street and back is often enjoyed’ as was ‘wrestling with one another.’ The children played ‘very rough, often bruising each other in play.’ This rough physical play, of course, is functional to the adult lives they will lead, the demanding physical work of the day laborer and the equally demanding work of the washerwoman or domestic.” (Alley Life in Washington by Borchert, page 156)
Row houses in 1938 Ambridge PA
Life was not entirely innocent for alley children. In about a quarter of cases, parents were deemed unable to look after them due to poverty, illness, death, crime, “incorrigibility” or parental neglect and abuse. Children often formed gangs and stole from stores because of hunger. The children also worked hard doing “adult chores” such as carrying coal or ice. They performed domestic duties such as ironing and cleaning. Consequently the generation gap was small and they grew up quickly. They also grew up very tough, yet there was a tight affiliation with one another in contrast to the “outside world” beyond the alley confines.
1943 East Side New York City http://www.shorpy.com/node/1303
Jane Jacobs wrote about “lively city sidewalks” with “eyes on the street” where children frolicked under the watchful gaze of storekeepers and many others in an extended community. There was a high ratio of adults to children. This was in contrast to parks that were devoid of supervision and rife with crime and danger for unattended children. Jacobs felt that sidewalks needed to sufficiently wide to accommodate child’s play. As sidewalks narrowed, rope jumping became the “first play casualty” followed by “roller skating, tricycle and bicycle riding.” Narrow sidewalks led to sedentary lives for urban children. (The Death and Life of Great American Cities) Alleys provided the ideal sidewalk being between 15 and 30 feet wide!
Above: - skipping rope, south side of Chicago http://www.shorpy.com/node/1724
Today in Washington one almost never sees groups of children spontaneously playing with each other in the alleys or on the sidewalks or in the parks. It’s a sad paradox that the world outside the home is now considered much more dangerous than ever. Perhaps some aspects of the old alley sociology were not so bad.
Easter morning outside church, Southside Chicago. April 1941
The children learned and created their own “rules of the game.” They were fit and thin interacting with each other all day. They learned about leadership and loyalties. I wonder what they would think of the world in which today’s children live without “active play” and settle for being entertained by little hand held “joy boxes” and “remote clickers”? One can’t help but think that it must have been more rewarding to have been able to create your own toys and new games using the breadth of your own imagination. How is today’s child going to solve the world’s problems of the future and play with others, deprived of the experience of spontaneous enthusiasm of child’s play from the past?