As part of the consultation work for PATH I conducted a short and informal interview with some teenagers hanging around the open space of their housing estate. There were two young people, Asian-British males about 17, who had been born and raised on the estate and talked with me about local play opportunities. They were perched against a railing in between a torn-up playground and a parking lot. Their responses are as follow my questions.
What happened to the playground over there?
“The council came and tore all that (equipment) up. About five, maybe ten years ago? They were going to build flat there, tear up those buildings behind as well. Didn’t take those though. But there used to be loads of kids playing there. Every summer there’d be loads of kids, just running and that. They had parties there and everything.”
Where do kids play now?
“In the stairwells. The hallways in those buildings there, and there. It’s a bad place though, the walls are covered in piss. Even the police don’t like coming in. His little brother nearly died, man. He climbs stuff, and so he was climbing up that scaffolding there and fell off.”
Where else might kids go?
“There’s some playgrounds that way, but it’s across the road. Besides, that’s the E3/E14 boundary* right? So even if the kids could go over there, they wouldn’t. That’s why they’re indoors all the time.”
Who uses that former playspace?
“It’s for dogs now. They just come in, drop the dogs in and shut the gates. They run all over there now and it’s dirty as hell, man.”
And for the teenagers?
“There’s a youth club. It’s supposed to be open 6-9, but you know. The workers are all old, it’s so funny. They’re all smoking all the time, before they arrive, you know? They’re all getting sacked now, because of that but because they’re old so none of them went to school, no degrees or nothing. Some of them play mad pool though!”
We wandered around that torn-up playspace, now yet another dog toilet, and read the scars on the tarmac for original design in the way we do every time. On this project we have been to place after place, once designated playgrounds in the centre of housing estates, but now vacant lots. We see places where equipment has been torn up, where it’s cracked or shredded from people training their dogs to attack the seats, and we see peeling safety surface that’s become a Petri dish for varieties of mould. That mould is the only growing thing that seems at home there.
Each time we see the sign of the thing – the thing being play, a place for children outdoors – but we do not see the thing itself. We see the shape of its absence, conjure up the ghosts of games, laughter, the testing of growing selves that must have happened there. On that last grey wandering, the repetitive sense of loss and emptiness reminded me powerfully of trips to old European cities and all those signs one sees that say “This used to be the ghetto”. This sounds like an extreme comparison (perhaps especially when made by a Jew), but when I go to all these different places and find that people in power have attempted to remove play from the public sphere, all at roughly the same time, it feels culturally deliberate. It feels like the erasure of children from the public realm, and I think it is. Why and how were children’s places, children’s tangible rights as citizens, eradicated from the centre of public housing? From the centre of public life? And why would the people looking out their window prefer a socially sterile and abandoned-looking dog toilet to a thriving play space?
* E3 and E14 are East London postcodes and all-too-often the front lines of street gang warfare in which young people are particularly implicated.