Jules Aarons and Boston public life

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.

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4 thoughts on “Jules Aarons and Boston public life

  1. Hi Morgan,

    Living in the Boston area I sometimes hang out in North-End. Actually there are still kids playing out there. I am confident that the same sort of pics that Jules Aarons did can be shot today as well. The problem is more that taking candid photographs of kids in the street is a risky business today, because of high suspicion on the practice of street photography, especially with kids as subject matter. I saw the BPL show of Aarons pics as well, it was very nice. And I have just completed a little project of rephotography of some of his North-End shots. check out my blog if you are interested: http://jophilippe.wordpress.com/
    (more to come)

    Also if you do like these street photographs with kids playing you should check out Helen Levitt’s work. She was a master at that.

    1. Ooh – thanks for the recommendation! Her stuff is great! I’m glad you still see kids out – and agree that photographing other people’s children can be a risky business. The difference that strikes me between the older people I’ve interviewed about their childhoods and the children I’ve asked about theirs today seems to be the amount of time spent outside, unattended by parents, forming distinct social networks. That said, I’ve seen a few instances of children’s public lives, and always hold out hope for more!

      Your reshoot work is very interesting – especially this one – so many places where children used to play are now formalized into fixed equipment playgrounds.

  2. Playground equipment is a debatable thing IMO. Though they certainly have positive aspects, for parents as ell as for Kids’ motricity (I assume) I am not sure of the impact on imagination development. Kids playing without external help tend to organize their game in a way of their own very more often than not appears to be chaotic to us adults. When they are given a support to their games, some “rules” I believe they respond differently – though some of them probably managed to make their own stuff as well. But as a matter of fact as you say street games are now largely confined to dedicated areas.

    1. Actually, I totally agree. I think that fixed equipment playgrounds developed out of the misguided notion that play is primarily a way for children to burn off ‘excess’ energy. The vast majority of these sites feature opportunities for gross motor play as islands in blacktop behind fencing – something that looks more like a prison exercise yard than a place for developing social networks or the imagination.

      I also think you’ll see from elsewhere on this site that it’s the child-initiated and child-determined play that I love best, and that that’s what I make a living from supporting and advocating for.

      The best thing I can say about most fixed equipment playgrounds is that they stake a claim for children on one small piece of public space and so protect it – but even then I’d rather see the whole landscape become more friendly and open to play!

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