Play has a funny way of balancing the opaque with the astonishingly familiar.
As an adult viewer, we may struggle to understand the content of children’s play while at the same time feeling a powerful resonance to our own childhood games, our own thrills and secrets.
That this can happen across generations and geographies demonstrates how, while expressions of play always occur within specific cultural contexts, play is the beating heart of our shared humanity.
While I was there the Boston Public Library had an exhibition of photographs by Jules Aarons. His photographs of street life in the city were immediate, compelling and often very humorous – but, of course, it was the ones of children that caught me by the strings.
Walking around the exhibition panels, I was struck again by that mix of the strange and the familiar – but this time, to do with the city itself. I was visiting a friend of mine on Hanover Street, the Main Street of the Italian North End. Many of Aarons’s photographs were taken there in the 1950s and show a vibrant and populated public life on the streets, young men preeningand women swapping gossip while filling their hair with pins.
The North End remains a busy place, but today is packed with college students in for the Improv club and families celebrating special occasions at long tables in restaurants. I’ve been there during hot summer days, when old Italian men sit out on the sidewalks on folding chairs, young tourists lick dribbles of gelato off their arching wrists, and anxious laptop typists caffeine-load in the windows of cafes.
But I have rarely, very rarely, seen any children.
There were certainly no children roaming around in adult-free groups, making up games and getting in and out of mischief. There was no indication of a children’s culture of the streets, in the way there is in these photographs.
I suppose that over time demographics change and what was once a neighborhood onto itself begins to serve a purpose for the city as a whole – to be the place where adults from all over Boston come to eat, to celebrate. I don’t know how many children are growing up today in the apartments around Hanover Street, but it’s safe to guess that wherever the children of Boston are growing up, it’s no longer out in public.