The image of a group of kids shooting craps in the street has for decades been a quintessential scene of growing up in New York. The history of street games is as old as the city itself but the life of children on these streets has not always been merely about a free-spirited and carefree childhood. The young have been on these streets for a variety of reasons, and little more than a century ago children dwelt there not for play but for work. In too many cases it was home. In the City Museum archives are photos that document the many different forms of street life experienced by children stretching back into the nineteenth century. They illustrate for modern audiences the evolving notion of “childhood” in our nation, but they also served in their own time as tools for activists who sought to win rights that we all take for granted today.
Children earned their own money to contribute to family income. Due to the long working hours for all members of the family, youth who lived independent lives, with no formal education, learned from the streets. Under harsh vocational conditions, they were no strangers to violent social interactions. They often recreated these interactions in rough play and developed their own social hierarchies in “mini gangs.” 19th century city streets teemed with “street urchins” out at all hours of the day. In New York City laws were established prohibiting playing outdoors in an attempt to tame the rampant street-culture.
Activist and photographer Jacob Riis championed the Child-Saving Movement to build supervised play spaces as safe-havens for children. In 1897 Riis was named secretary of the Small Parks Advisory Committee by Mayor William Strong. Using photography, Riis illustrated the harsh living conditions of impoverished children and also documented the positive effects of the playgrounds and vacation farms that he lobbied for. These spaces were influenced by the ‘sand gardens’ developed in Germany as part of the naturalist movement inspired by Darwin and Fröbel (who introduced kindergarten) to promote physical perfection in a system of strong moral values toward a more promising civic society.
The first playgrounds in New York City featured challenging outdoor gymnasiums, which required hired supervisors to attend.
In her report on the Henry Street Settlement (a social service organization in which she founded to service the poor immigrants living in the Lower East Side), Lillian Wald noted:
“Once, when the playground was filled to capacity, and the sidewalk in front of the house was thronged, the Olympian at the gate endeavored to make it clear that no more could enter. One persistent small girl stood stolidly and when reminded of the
condition said, Yes, teacher, but can’t I get in? I ain’t got no mother.”” (Wald, Lillian D., The House on Henry Street, p. 84)
Although progressive, municipally ordained playgrounds were built to protect children from dangers within the urban environment, they can also be seen as deterrents from the imaginative culture that flourishes with less regulation. Other ‘play’ spaces included gardens and work areas known as ‘vacation playgrounds’ where urban-dwelling children could experience working with the land–which was considered superior to factory life. Fresh-air play was seen as an important therapy to combat epidemics such as tuberculosis, polio, and diphtheria. Heliotherapy (sun therapy) and hydrotherapy (water cures) were used to treat and prevent childhood disease.
Because of the heavy use of the playgrounds and need for municipal workers to supervise, funding was often a struggle. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) commissioned photographers such as Arnold Eagle to participate in the Federal Arts Project, specifically to document the harsh living conditions in New York City tenements. The photographs were used to support government-funded programs to build and modernize play spaces for impoverished children. Under Robert Moses’ term as Park Commissioner, the City saw the number of its playgrounds expand from 119 in 1934 to 777 in 1960.
At the same time, Roy Perry’s documentary photographs display the harsh conditions many youths during The Great Depression endured, they also depict the unique ability of children to overcome their situations with imagination and ingenuity. To adults, a condemned building or disheveled lot is an eyesore and a symbol of economic failure, but to a child it is an incredible opportunity for exploration.
Unsupervised play allowed for the development of children’s street culture, a domain in which secret languages, legends, and special games were born. Stickball, punchball, skully, ringolevio, jump rope and craps are just a few of the iconic New York City street games that required nothing more than urban asphalt, a few bottle caps, or a broomstick and cheap rubber ball. The PBS documentary New York Street Games directed by Matt Levy recounts in detail the traditions and cultural importance of these pastimes.
Helen Levitt is perhaps the best known observer of New York children’s street culture. Investigating the special language of chalk drawings, she discovered a universe below the eye level of most adults. She recorded the politics, the economy, the wars, and camaraderie staged between children in city streets in her celebrated work In The Street: chalk drawings and messages, New York City 1938–1948.
In a New York magazine article, artist Fab 5 Freddie re-accounts: “Man, I wish I had just one Spalding to have on my shelf—that was so key to so many games. It only cost 50 cents, and you got to play for hours and hours, or until you lost that damn ball…On almost every street you’d see either jump single rope or double Dutch. The girls did that all day. I could jump the single rope, but to do double Dutch—that was unfathomable!” Spike Lee’s 1994 film Crooklyn nostalgically depicts the freedom children had to use the city as their playground before the dangers of crack and gun violence. Although not as visible as in the past, in the outer boroughs street play continues to be a vibrant culture. It will be interesting to look back on the evolution of childhood in New York City through the eye of kids who have smart phones equipped with Facebook, video games, and YouTube, who have a secret language in Twitter instead of chalk.