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When “play streets” let New York kids run free

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It’s unusual to see groups of kids playing in the streets of New York City anymore. (At least without an adult supervising.)

But in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with parents at work and tenements too crowded for game-playing anyway, kids were free to roam the cityscape—running around sidewalks, playing ball in the middle of the road, or just sitting on the curb, horsing around.

The street wasn’t a safe place to play, of course. Newspapers headlines of the era tell the stories of countless children being injured or killed by cars or horses.

A public playground movement was underway. But by the 1910s, only 30 had been opened, and not always in the poor neighborhoods that needed them most.

So park officials and the Police Athletic League came up with a novel alternative so popular, they still exist today: play streets.

“Every afternoon (except on Sundays), New York City’s play streets were closed to traffic so children without easy access to parks or playgrounds could have a safe space to run, play games and practice sports,” explains Thirteen.org, the website for Channel 13.

The first play street opened in July 1914 on Eldridge Street between Rivington and Delancey Streets. Signs were posted so motorists knew to drive elsewhere; vendors were shooed away.

“The Parks Department brought in two of their street pianos, and the Eldridge Street Settlement organized a folk dance festival—turning a block that normally bustled with commerce into a place for music, sport and recreation,” stated Thirteen.org.

Soon, play streets began popping up everywhere, with 29 more opening in Manhattan that year. In 1924, play streets came to the outer boroughs, too.

Clearly play streets were a lot of fun for kids. What could be better than running free across the block with your friends, without worrying if you’ll be crushed by horse hoofs or run over by a car?

But parks officials had different motives for opening play streets. One was to prevent kids from becoming criminals.

“What would these children be doing if they were not playing in the street? Many of them would be learning to become criminals,” stated a 1915 New-York Tribune article, quoting a committee of officials.

“A boy must play, so must a girl. If it is made illegal for him to play the natural and pleasant games of childhood, he will substitute something else.”

Another play streets goal was to solve what the Tribune called the “dance-hall problem.”

“Let boys and girls become accustomed to each other. Let them think of each other as playmates and not mysterious creatures whom they may not know until they grow older, and foolish and sentimental, and much of [the] vice problem will be solved,” the newspaper quoted Charles Liebler, the organizer of the original play streets.

Whether the “vice problem” was solved or not, play streets and the street games kids played are memorialized in this plaque on a Mulberry Street fence.

[Top photo: The Atlantic; second photo: MCNY, 1900, 90.13.2.250; third photo: MCNY, 1908, 93.1.1.3171; fourth photo: MCNY 96.184.197; fifth image: NYPL 1936; sixth photo: MCNY, 1935, 43.131.11.183]



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