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Downtown

The Child in the City

by Colin Ward
Pantheon, 221 pp., $6.95 (paper)

The pieman, the apple-woman, the catsmeal man. The bagpipe-player and the ballad-singer. The rat-killer; the water-carrier: the knive-grinder. The German band. The hurdy-gurdy player and the penny jester: the cheap john and the screever. The Punch and Judy man. The old-clothes man, the buy-a-broom girl. The eel-man and the muffin man. The hird-seller, the flower girl. The rug-picker, puckman, street photographer, patterer, basket-maker, pavement artist.

In 1851, when Mayhew surveyed the life of the London poor, these were some of the people that the city child might have met on the pavement. As Colin Ward, quoting London’s Evening Standard. says: “A huge range of activities went on before his eyes—buying, selling, exchanging, displaying, mending, cajoling, courting, procuring, bribing, and simply meeting people. All London was laid out on the pavement.”

On his way the city child would also probably have met, say, a couple of aunts, a cousin and a grandmother, the corner shopkeeper, the publican, and a dozen children from down his alley. He might have hitched a ride on a tradesman’s cart or held the horses’ heads for a penny while the doctor visited; he could have seen sheep and cows in the park. and if he lived in a house with a few square of back yard there would have been chickens and a pig. Within his own “village” he would have been connected by invisible threads of kinship and acquaintance to most people he met. and if he wanted to explore outside it the roads were open, innocent of flyovers and ring roads, free of anything more lethal than a hansom cab.

He might, on the other hand, never have had the energy to explore beyond the square half-mile where he knew there were crates to sleep under, dustbins to forage in. and a crossing to sweep or a stretch of riverbank to cumb for old nails and lumps of coal. He might have had cut feer and caked rags, been unable to write his name or say where England was, have lost his parents to childbirth and cholera; he might himself have been the water-carrier or rag-picker. When he went back with a few pennies from the day’s work to find some shelter, though, it would have been through a scene like this!

Women were seated on the pavement, knitting, and repairing their linen; the doorways were filled up with bonnetless girls, who wore their shawls over their head, as the Spanish women do their mantillas; and the youths in corduroy and brass buttons, who were chaning with them, leant against the walls as they smoked their’ pipes, and blocked up the pavement, as if they were the proprietors of the place. Little children formed a convenient bench out of the kerbstone; and a party of four men were seated on the footway. playing with cards which had turned to the colour of brown paper from long usage, and marking the points with chalk upon the flags.

Good old days or bad old days? Of course the antithesis is meaningless. Running through Ward’s sympathetic study of the child’s position in the modern city is the question of whether some valuable essence of urban life is fast draining out of it, leaving not even a concrete jungle but a concrete wasteland. The old days were bad, atrociously so; but it is nevertheless disastrous that because children have been rescued from a jungle and fed; clothed, housed (more or less), and schooled (more or less),complacency about it allows the heart to be taken out of communities casually, like some essential vitamin, and replaced by fenced-off corners of “play space,” a purpose-built “community center.” Colin Ward’s plea is for a city that is “more accessible, more negotiable and more useful to the child”—one shared with adults. not segregated. His arguments are not new, but they need to be stated and resisted for as long as it takes to effect a change in policy.

As well as with the devitalization of city communities, Ward is concerned with the actual indifference—contempt, I would call it—of contemporary. planning toward a large proportion of their inhabitants. Cities are designed now mainly with the needs of middle-class male motorists in mind, and the rest of the population must manage as best it can (the motorist, of course, is not a bogeyman but someone who has been a child and will one day be old, and will need different things from the city at different times).

Flashback to nearly twenty years ago: my children (in London) were lucky both in having a back garden and in being surrounded by middle-class knowhow about how to use a city, though there was no car (45 percent of British households now have a car. but few indeed are the young, impoverished mothers who have the use of one during the week). Shopping meant parking a baby carriage or stroller dangerously outside a shop, or carrying and steering children somehow around the store. Choosing library books could be a nightmare. Breastfeeding of course was impossible out of the house—a taboo that an African Candide would find Incomprehensible. Traveling about the city involved folding up a stroller while lifting children onto a bus in three seconds flat. The clinic, the paddling pool, the playgroup all involved these journeys (and since then, the local Council has put in a system of stairways and under-passes at the crossroads that must make it a long; difficult business to take children across on foot); for years there was no Question, because of traffic, of the children going far on their own. More acutely than these specific problems, some of which were obviously unavoidable, I remember the feeling of being an intruder, a guilty nuisance, disrupter of a plan that was never designed for someone with the apparently rare handicap of having young children.

This was in a fairly gentle part of one of the world’s gentler great cities, very far, socially if not geographically, from the public housing development, and lower blocks that loom behind Ward’s argument, and some of his photographs. Though these settings are British, the problems they raise are just as relevant to all highly industrialized countries. Ward is not afraid to say what is often glossed over: that the survival of a working-class housing block depends on the children, and where buildings have been damaged beyond repair it has been by the children and adolescents. In Britain the annual cost of vandalism—mostly committed by people under twenty—has been assessed as at least £114 million. Who are the monsters who hate and defence their environment so? Some, presumably, are the angry, unregarded rejects of the meritocratic system. Others may only be typically active children: many older children’s games, particularly boys’, involve defence and danger. Of the twelve categories listed by lona and Peter Ople in their Children’s Games in Street and Playground at least half do so—chasing games, racing games, duelling games, exerting games, daring games. Ward describes the modern version of “Last Across” or “Cat and Mouse”:

Interviewer: Can you tell me what Knock Down Ginger is?

Child: Well you knock on the doors and then someone holds the lift and you run away and sometimes people chase you and sometimes they don’t. And you can tie a string to one door and two doors are opposite each other and you knock on one door and they open the door and the other door knocker knocks…. We play Run-Outs in the lifts. A team stays here and 1 team goes up in the lift and you can go to any floor you like and then the other team gets in the lift and they have to get the floor you’re on and then they have to “Had Yet”

The lower block’s “streets” run vertically: balconies and elevators are the play space for such games—with what diabolical effects for the rest of the in-imbitants can easily be seen.

In the subculture of poverty represented by Mayhew’s street scene—the women outside with their knitting, children perched on the curb, coster boys smoking, card players marking up their scores in chalk on the pavement—there was, in spite of innumerable pockets of horror, a certain amount of nourishment. Harpo Marx’s agreeable autobiography, 1 for instance, tells us something about the self-education of a very poor boy on East 93rd Street early in the century. Deciding against further schooling at the age of eight, he based his reading on signs like “Execisior Pool Parlor” and “Keep Off the Grass,” his mathematics on a study of poker and pinochle. Geography meant exploring the city by hitching rides on the trolley: religious education. German, and oral history were available from grandpa at home. Economics were learned at the pawnshop and by buying and selling secondhand junk, handicrafts by building go-carts and braiding stolen hanks of horse tail. Sports were skating, swimming through the garbage in the East River, and ball games played with balls earned by working at the tennis courts. And then there was dramatic education to be had watching melodramas from the gallery at the local theaters; and a deceased aunt’s old harp….

There was continuity too in poor districts: in New York a block was identified with a close-knit ethnic group, in England cramped houses were passed on from generation to generation within a family, the network of neighbors and kin was stable; families were not necessarily “problem families” except that they all had one problem, extreme poverty.

Now, as we know, anyone who can move to a greener place gets up and goes. The loss was well and unsentimentally summed up by Jeremy Seabrook in City Close-Up:2

The feeling they had once of their shared and universal predicament was something more intense than what is commonly understood by the word “solidarity.” It stretched to a metaphysical level—a sense of unity and compassionate understanding in the face of human mortality itself, rather than simply social or economic solidarity. The fact that the economic machine took on the attributes of a malignant fate, encouraged the fusion between alterable social conditions and unalterable natural laws. This was the great strength and beauty of their sub-culture. It caused them. ignorant and ill-educated as they may have been. to confront the inescapability of human dereliction in the universe. The fact that death and decay are the only certainties on this planet was thrust every day into their life, and their response was one of helpless social revolt, although they knew they could never win. The conditions that caused them to face this were a cruel affliction. And the bitter thing is that with the removal of the conditions the attitude that was their concomitant has died also.

Children are in the front line of the dispossessed, even though they never knew the values they have lost. An English survey of ten-year-olds found a far higher rate of maladjustment among inner-city children—immigrants were excluded—than among a rural group. Another recent study found a strikingly high incidence of unreported depression among young working-class mothers in London. (It might be valuable, in thinking of young children’s deprivation in the city, to see mother and child almost as one unit: the loss and the frustration are similar for the mother, and as acute.)

The Child in the City is not, however, an angry or polemical book; Ward’s arguments run gently but firmly through his text. which is, also about a whole range of urban experiences. He has an unsentimental affection both for children and for cities, and especially for the interaction between the two, for children’s remarkable ability to colonize a stubbornly unpromising environment. The photographs bear him out; often, as he says. “the words spell deprivation but the pictures spell joy.” He is sensitive to children’s unerring search for basic things—water, earth, sticks and stones. He is good, for instance, on the uses of the suburb in all its variety—the new suburb that has rich potentialities in unfilled hollows and corners, and piles of sand, bricks, and drainpipes, the more intimate texture of the suburb with a former village at its heart, the mature suburb that has acquired a patina of character. He understands the importance of access to undisciplined land, and quotes Herman Wouk’s City Boy:

In Public School 50, teacher were always trying in vain to wake the love of nature in the boys by reading poetry to the. The compositions on the subject of nature were the dreariest and most banal of all the writing efforts wrong from the urchins, and the word “lots” never appeared in them. But the moment the lads were free of the prison of school they scampered to the lots, chased butterflies, dissected weeds and flowers, built fires, and watched the melting colours of the sunset. It goes without saying that parents and teachers were strongly opposed to the practice of playing in the lots, and were always issuing orders against it.

Ward has a solid faith in children’s potential for directing their raw energy into constructive forms if they are given a chance. By becoming purely a liability, economically, to the family they have the last much;in some ways, he are gives, they have worst of two worlds today—indulged and wooed by advertisements and instant entertainment on television, and at the same time deprived of the dignity of contributing to the family’s welfare. He gives an important places to part-time work for the city child to counteract boredom and vandalism (in the country, it is rare for children not to have tasks to do as a matter of course). Certainly if you are very young or old or handicapped you want to be used and taken for granted, not caught in a double bind of contempt and sentimentality.

Ward cites some encouraging projects that have been set up in Britain and the United States; a children’s center for urban studies’ in one of London’s worst slums: itinerant street-teachers and storytellers; a book-shop/publishing firm in another deprived neighborhood that has facilities for community projects and has published books of local history compiled by schoolchildren; an open arts center in Liverpool equipped with printing press and video and sound facilities; photographic records and oral history collected by children from elderly neighbors; a successful petition organized by a school to save a historic house from demolition. Although some of these cost money, he emphasizes that “the obstacle to matching the urgent community need with the bored and rejected teenagers is not fundamentally one of money, and is certainly not one of premises. It is one of unwieldy procedures, professional status-anxiety, and our belief that nothing worth doing can be improvised”—which applies almost as well to projects for younger children.

Ward is optimistic in the face of a deeply depressing picture. The processes that have produced it sometimes seem too inevitable and inexorable to reverse by efforts, however well-meant. What can be or anyone else now suggest, for instance, to offset the fragmenting effect of heavy motor traffic—obviously here to stay—on the cohesion of city life? (He mentions causally that in Britain during the 1960s the rate for adult pedestrian deaths and serious injuries rose by 9 percent, For those below seventeen by 52 percent.) The measures that would reverse the trends affecting cities would seem top require not only basic economic change—a lowering of the inflated price of inner city hand—but no less than a change of heart, a leap of the imagination on the part of those whom we allow to run our cities.

  1. 1

    Harpo Speaks, by Harpo Marx and Rowland Barber (Random House, 1961).

  2. 2

    Bobbs-Merrill, 1972.

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