Caine’s Arcade in social context

By now I’m sure that you’ll have seen this short film showing Caine Monroy and the elaborate cardboard arcade he built in his father’s auto parts store in East L.A.  It’s pretty amazing and yes, I totally cried.

It’s also been a blisteringly popular internet phenomenon – liked by over 94,000 people in Facebook, it has now been used to raise over $169,000 towards scholarships.  This amount will be matched up to $250,000 by the Goldhirsh Foundation to help build “the Caines Arcade Foundation – which will help find, foster, and fund creativity and entrepreneurship in young kids”.

People have been interpreting this in any number of ways.  The Christian Science Monitor saw it through the lens of crowdsourcing, and two articles have addressed it in Forbes – covering its “Nine Hidden Factors” as well as its “Three Economic Lessons“.

It’s easy to see why people connect to it on so many different levels.  It’s heartfelt and emotional, addressing such issues as the loss of community and loneliness tangentially.  You might already know that East L.A. is an area of socio-economic deprivation, but the film isn’t about that.  Caine’s marvelous and determined construction isn’t about that.  Both are, instead, about love of something for its own sake.  Both are about the potential of things and people to become something astonishing.

I couldn’t help but view it as a parable for community organizing behind play.

It begins with a child, given time and space and freedom by a father who sees that this undertaking is important to his son – and who is happy to see him so occupied all summer long.  With these and whatever materials he can scrounge together, Caine constructs a detailed world of startling imagination and life.  What he needs then is other people, “customers”.  This is where his neighborhood falls short.

It’s hard for me to imagine why so many people walked past without going in.  People used to walk past the Play Shop all the time and stare in with a fascinated horror, sometimes with an expression of curiosity or longing, before walking right on by.  For many, it was as if we weren’t there at all.  I don’t understand that, but then the time I’ve spent with children has retrained me in the arts of curiosity and opportunism.

It took one adult other than his father to make Caine’s arcade come alive.  That this one adult was a filmmaker was pure chance.  That he could use the internet to marshall hundreds – now millions – of adults in support was miraculous.

The sheer popularity of this video says to me that for all those adults who walked past the Arcade, too busy to stop, there are many, many more who are just as hungry for the sense of connection, the joy of playing together, as Caine Monroy.  They want to participate in any way they can, by giving money, by forwarding the link to their friends, by watching the video over and over again.  It serves a need they have too, a need that is currently unmet because we have allowed our world to become one where non-parental adults have little to do with children, and where children’s play is privatized, isolated, structured by professionals and hidden away from public view.

The loss of children’s opportunities for play hurts them most of all, without a doubt.  But it simultaneously hurts all of us, as we close off from children and from other adults, as we become less and less accustomed to being surprised, to being amazed by something low-budget and handmade, by something we can see and touch and participate in.  It is often said that children playing out is the symptom and catalyst of a healthy society – I hope that the popularity of videos such as this means that we’re getting ready again, as adults, to start working together towards something beautiful.



3 thoughts on “Caine’s Arcade in social context

  1. It has indeed been a heart-warming story, and one well told. It makes you think though doesn’t … what would have happened had a playworker walked past Caines’ Arcade one day?

    I’d like to think I know exactly what would have happened.

  2. Great video Morgan, and very true that people connect to it on many different levels. The line that triggered my thinking was Caine’s father’s: “Caine spent his summer vacation coming to work with me”. That was the beggining of Caine’s Arcade, Caine at work, with dad. Children not only no longer work but no longer see work. The only work children see is 1) so-called reproductive work at home (cooking, cleaning, etc.) which being indispensable, valuable and enriching, is completely undervalued by our patriarchal society (undervalue associated for more than a century with women and children, whose proper place was/is? home), and which is thus in a low standing compared to productive work, and which children, for these reasons, don want to engage in; and 2) work which is done “on” them, such as the work of teachers, carers, social workers, playworkers…, in which they are the objects of somebody else’s work, and thus completely alienated from the working experience as working experience. But Caine went to work with his father, and from the debris of his father’s work, he came out with something which was neither play, nor work, or which was both, a coming and going from play to work, something fun, but –eventually- profitable. The fact that this way of growing up, of learning, of “socialization”, was normal in the West until a couple of centuries ago, and is still normal in non-industrial societies should prevent us from seeing it as extraordinary. The extraordinary is to put children away in children´s places (schools, day care centres, playgrounds), away from their families, their communities and life itself.

    1. I think this is definitely true – children are kept out of the adult, public, work-for-money sphere almost entirely, so they often have little understanding of how it works and no chance at all to participate.

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