Norman M. Klein

Recently, I watched crews in Los Angeles tear down the largest urban ruin in America, step by step, over the course of a year. Originally, in 1926, it was nearly two kilometers long, a subway tunnel underneath downtown, then heading northwest into Hollywood. Known as the Belmont Tunnel, it was abandoned in 1955, when the vast trolley system was torn down. However, by 1985, Mexican youths reclaim the ruin—as the hub of graffiti art throughout California, as well as the setting for a ball game known as Tarasca, with rules dating back to pre-Columbian Mexico.

The Belmont Tunnel was turned into the ultimate urban ethnographic playground, transformed by the poor Latino community around it, even used as a location for many neo-noir and sci-fi films (Predator 2, Colors, Training Day), as well as television shows about alien invasions (V, 1983-2004), and music videos (Red Hot Chili Peppers, etc.). And yet, this graffitied tunnel was understood by LA City Council as anything but a playground. It stood in, even in the movies, as the ultimate alternative to healthy play. It was a noir grotto, a journey into the underworld. Soon, a massive apartment complex (276 units, over $60 million) will overwhelm it, literally cover it over.

This tunnel symbolizes the confusions over how to protect childhood—and play—inside the city, at least the American city, and probably elsewhere as well. After 1875, the movement to build playgrounds grew quickly across the US; it was seen as a statement against child labor in the late nineteenth century. Playgrounds were an answer to industrial modernity, a piece of old nature woven back into the city, where children could recover what they had known in rural places, a bucolic, nostalgic senses of play.

By contrast, the dense streets were seen as the violators of childhood, by theorists and social activists alike. The public sector needed to grow, to protect the young, allow the inner-city child to grow up slowly, “normally.”

As a child in the fifties, I played regularly at one of these improved (ca. 1930) schoolyards, in Coney Island. The Irish gangs dominated, but the much tougher Puerto Ricans were just arriving. They were like tanks rolling over the cavalry. But since I was too skinny to be a mark for anyone with a reputation, somehow the Puerto Ricans took pity on me. Enos, the teenaged Apollo of the Puerto Ricans (at least to me) forced Irish kids to give me back my stickball bats and balls.

As for advice from my parents, I was told simply to not get run over by cars. And this from a mother who was perversely overprotective, but never bothered to protect me when I got into trouble on the street.

My father, formerly a semi-pro soccer player, was even more neutral. He was simply waiting for me to toughen up (I never did). His advice was Darwinian: if some kid hit me, hit back, even beat the living shit out of him.

All this is to say that the streets were indeed not quite safe, but the fears that have emerged over the past thirty years were unknown—and would have been seen as exaggerated. I actually loved the smell and rhythm of the “slums” back then. But I was definitely afraid to deliver that experience to my own son in the 1990’s. I moved us away from an LA slum when he was eleven and relatively tall, about to become a mark (there were shootings, etc., but also a very supportive community).

That brings me to the subject that will dominate the rest of this essay: how childhood is being redefined in the “globalized” economy, at least in the US. And clearly, I have no moral high ground here, nor should I belabor nostalgically.

The way children are treated is essentially a measure of how much the culture trusts daily life. In our very conservative era, very little is trusted. Increasingly in the US, the streets outside are treated as no longer safe for kids. Nor are children treated as resilient enough to handle much on their own. And government, like the streets, is treated more like a panderer and corrupter of youth.

Policies based on the distrust of childhood have increased steadily over the past twenty years. Much of this is an expansion of classic suburban paranoia. Since 1875 at least, saving children from the immoral city has been a rallying cry for the growth of suburbs in the US. The goal was to build safe zones for children, to convert the house and yard into a magnet for child-rearing, even more than for the pleasures of the parents. Carnivalesque terms like “adult playground,” or Coney Island as the “people’s playground” were replaced by children at play as the path for healthy development.

Today, despite a gothic revival fantasy among the middle class—to move back to return to the inner cities, essentially suburbanize the urban—the old Victorian paranoia remains. From “v” chips to private security cops, what dominates often are obsessions about customizing the world of children, very much in the spirit of 1875. And since 9/11, this anxiety about children has grown even more intense, almost as a corollary to the war on terror itself.

Of course, schools have been sliding in the Los Angeles area. I can understand some of what generates this paranoia among parents. So I cannot claim any moral high ground here. As a father, I searched for a healthy balance, as much as anyone I knew, but clearly no more effectively. Nonetheless, in the spirit of playgrounds as symbols of childhood play, I can say this much: the obsession to customize your child at play is a quixotic fantasy, but impossible to stop, like a lingering case of malaria.

I started out by sending my child to a progressive pre-school, with a vast play area that turned into a “lord of the flies” nightmare. Kids ran like a herd of confused buffalo. Those in charge were incompetent and cruel. In their anxiety, they even sat on children who talked back. My son threw furniture at one caregiver who was mistreating his friend.

Then his mother and I decided upon a “progressive” private school that was filled with boomer hippy types. there, we discovered that my son was sewing button eyes on teddy bears instead of reading in the second grade. In search of higher standards, obviously, I tried a highly rated middle school next, but discovered that it promoted hand-gun magazines for the wealthy, and turned English literature into isolated words to memorize for entrance exams to college—in the ninth grade.

Next, I next tried a wealthy beach-town district with high scores (Pacific Palisades), but with one third of the students bused-in from black and Latino neighborhoods. My son was so outraged by the corruptions in this high school that he initiated a radical pornographic newspaper attacking the faculty. The entire LA school district (the largest in the US) went into a fierce campaign to destroy his education—and threaten me—as if we were robbing trains in broad daylight. He became a newspaper item, almost famous for a few months, but not much of a student.

Overall, I discovered that learning is a failing art in a world where shrinking public investment and right-wing politics combine. At the same time, I was writing books on the future of play—became an expert on media, entertainment, animation, commodification, Disneyland, urban boosterism, Las Vegas. To be honest, while trying to be a cultural guide for my son, I have been living inside the stomach of the entertainment dragon for thirty years now. I can’t hear myself screaming, barely notice while I am probably being digested, radical politics or no.

But enough ranting (I feel better already). Imagine that we were having a coffee over this problem. I just spoke to my son, who now lives happily in New York, not far from where “Dead End” was imagined. He seems to have long-since recovered better than I. So let us return to that list, work more on that model. We need to review the past thirty-five years, how playgrounds—and childhood—were significantly redefined in the US. The changes are well known to all of us, so I needn’t belabor them.

  1. For much of the last century, unstructured play has been a centerpiece in theories on child development, from Melanie Klein’s object relations to D.W. Winnicott’s Potential Spaces—and for hundreds of theorists since. However, over the past thirty years or so, the entertainment economy has done something odd to what we imagine is “unstructured.” It has recoded play for licensed toys and franchised designs. These games and accessories ask the child to imitate, to repeat slogans and codes—but in an unstructured way. Or more like a fiction about free will and making your own rules. The program structures every possible move. But some experts feel this is a great step forward. They insist that these puzzles set up by the entertainment economy make children great problem solvers. What kind of problems, and what kind of solutions remains to be seen. I am singularly impressed by how disengaged the multi-tasker can be, disengaged from social and political history, and so on. However, as a media specialist myself, I am obsessed with how to invent new forms to close this gap; or at least discuss how invaded our psyches have become.

    Kids are taught that clicking is the newest way to learn, that computers are unsupervised, but carefully monitored play. Computer games become the new model for ludic freedom.

  2. The relative collapse of the public sector: That is certainly a familiar theme. Over the past thirty years in particular, the investment in public services, including playgrounds, has shrunk enormously. Thus, the playground is increasingly identified as a suburbanized, privately funded, isolated alternative to the city (either that, or an unsafe, underground, inner-city zone of poverty).

  3. Shopping and scripted spaces change the ludic patterns of the city. By ludic, I mean homo ludens, collective play, as defined in the groundbreaking book by Johann Huizinga (Homo Ludens, 1938). Then we fit this term into the matured suburban answer to childhood. Since 1970, play areas for kids have been recoded, to resemble theme parks, shopping malls, glossy toy stores, relying more on bright TV colors and cartoon-like plastic. Probably the models are as much playgrounds at McDonald’s as a Disney park. Agencies like Kaboom! in the American Southwest help community groups build these more scripted, “safer,” playgrounds. As Kaboom! warns:

    According to a Gallup Survey commissioned by Kaboom! and The Home Depot, less than 50% of (American) children across North America have a playground within walking distance of their homes. That means that right now, children across North America are playing games in garbage-strewn lots, abandoned cars and boarded up buildings. Some are playing on outdated playground equipment with unsafe surfacing, and more aren’t going outside at all, getting their fun from TV and video games.

    The rhetoric is very loaded. It suggests that playgrounds have become as dangerous as cities themselves, unless parents intervene. The playground must now serve as a public square, as a model of civic virtue for the urban community that has been lost, as the classes widen. The gulf between the richest and the poorest in the US has more than doubled since 1980. In Los Angeles, it keeps widening by nearly 1 per cent each year. Clearly, the panic is on, to customize the middle-class child before it is too late.

  4. Play areas in the city are increasingly identified as crime-ridden, often ethnically and racially identified (Latino and black youth gangs, etc.). The old class-driven hyperboles are as hot as ever. I am reminded of Lillian Hellman’s play Dead End (1935, later a classic crime film, 1938): Manhattan slum kids use the river’s edge as a grimy playground, and get into trouble, along with everyone else fighting the gloom of poverty—high melodrama. In 2005, the play was lavishly revived in Los Angeles. The orchestra pit was filled with water, like the movie set for a Roman sea battle. Hellman’s depression-era cry for social reform turned into a nostalgic look at how much more innocent poverty was then, compared to druggy, gun-ridden kids today. One critic called it “sweet sepia-tinged reminders of the past.”.

  5. Women increasingly in the workplace: We must include changing definitions of domestic life. In the US, nearly seventy per cent of all children under twelve have mothers who work. This has reinforced the idea that playgrounds must be engineered as a “stand-in” for parenting, since neither parents have all the time they think is necessary to nourish a child’s intellect. a very complicated version of unstructured play indeed.

  6. Many more single mothers: In 1950, only 2% of mothers in the US were unmarried. By 1980, that figure jumped to 15%. By a1998, it rose to 40%. Today, one out of three children are living below the poverty line. The widening of the classes is self-evident, but often painted over by the new “densification,” the return of the middle class to the inner cities, as suburban urbanites.

    Also, the paranoia of the nineties has grown worse, turned into what I often call a national low-grade nervous breakdown. The shootings at Columbine High School in 1999 essentially ushered in the War on Terror in the US, particularly the war against bored, spoiled children. Now “zero tolerance” is a watchword in many schools and playgrounds. And spaces increasingly need to be panoptical (easy to watch)—to guard against kidnapers, terrorists, Asian flu bugs, sleepy inattentive parents. Alertness means good cameras. Parenting is never enough.

  7. Smaller family size in the US and Europe: Another key change in domestic life—the increasing number of children in the US, Europe, China are “singular,” without siblings. This further ratchets up the expectations for the twenty somethings today, the so-called Millennial Generation, the next cycle beyond Generation X or Y. I personally believe that “Millennials” will meet the political and educational challenges much better than their harried parents imagine. But the weight upon them is colossal, both financial and moral. This is a generation whose cultural memory was built by the entertainment economy; in a world dominated by neo-conservative politics.

  8. The collapse of the urban-centered, industrial culture (1850-1970): This becomes a matter of collective memory. While many American middle-class kids are far more progressive than one might suspect—both culturally and politically—they are also mired in abject tourism. They labor under ignorances of the deadliest kind. Nuances have been muted out (amazoned out). As a result, they have trouble caring about literature, history, philosophy, political science, basic timelines, basic geography. They grew up playing fancy “interactive” suburban games that specialized in conservative disengagement. But many, many students I meet know precisely what was done to them. They are hungry for alternatives.

  9. Fear of children drifting through cities unsupervised: You would think that with all the real-estate apartheid throughout American cities, this fear of the streets would diminish. Certainly the reaction against this fear is evident. The Millennial generation often wants to return to the older cities. They often tell me that they hate suburban scripted spaces and commodification.

    But play itself has become a scripted experience, where one is provided the illusion of free will, of being unsupervised. It has always been a kind of theater. Now it is particularly the artifice more than the natural—how artfully entertains us (or should I say manipulates us?). There is even a growing tolerance, even love of well-designed surveillance. Cybernetic, ergonomic, structured play feels homey. Thus we become tourists at home, even in our own bodies.

  10. Cultural Tourism: This has become a buzz word for educators, urban planners, museum directors. But it certainly applies to theories of play. First, the difference between child development (play) and tourism rapidly narrows. As a result, we become tourists in our own cities (increasingly after 1985); then tourists in our bodies. For children, knowledge becomes tourism: “fun-ucation,” in schools, on line, in libraries.

    Libraries over-react. The number of open shelves assigned for library books steadily declines. Computer work stations multiply like mushrooms, into where bookshelves used to be. “Data”—as in games and hyperlinks—becomes the basis of new library education. In other words, book culture is gobbled up entirely, like Jonah into the whale, by the entertainment economy.

  11. Selling our dwindling free time: Play was always, by definition, an escape. It turned a few open hours into “pretend”—the illusion of freedom, a few days of carnival between months of deadening, endless work. It was the illusion of free time. In that sense, play in 2006 may be no more odious than in 1700, but quite different.

    Today, global entertainment delivers the great cover-up about free time. The opposite is taking place. The average American work week lengthens every year—along with increasing job insecurity and widening class structure. Leisure is a shrinking market (even among retirees). Entertainment searches high and low, like sharks, for any sign of free time they can commodify. But the trend is unmistakable: Americans multi-task; they work and play at the same time, a profoundly anxious place to be.

    Even our leisure is organized like work—particularly our playgrounds, retooled in ripe cartoon colors, like a Vegas burger stand, or a computer game. By contrast, the inner-city playgrounds look increasingly like skeletons from a dead age. The industrial city is a dead issue. Only the suburbanized tourist version of play is actively promoted, even for cities. This increasingly begins to model itself on a private gym.

  12. Fat Children: Entertainment is very committed to serious eating, even eating disorders. Food as fun has had a poisonous effect on children’s bodies here in the U.S. Obesity among the poor is particularly fierce. Generally, being overweight is considered an epidemic among all American children. Crusades to slim kids down are failing at the moment, but are often centered on playgrounds, on how to make children sweat to defeat obesity. Their play is increasingly a workout, learning to exercise in the Victorian sense, to cleanse the body of evils, of sloth.

    However, the entertainment economy does not teach media-driven children to burn calories. So this exercise model turns into a glorified coffee break, an alternative to snoozing in front of a plasma screen. After all, every minute of a child’s life should be entertainment driven. The economy requires it. Every breath is for sale, even naps. And with growing competition for jobs worldwide, your child presumably needs media tools to compete, must learn them at work or play, asleep or awake. Even playgrounds must supply the perfect ergonomics for media oriented, paranoiac, overworked families.

    Can a playground be as safe as the home? Your home apparently needs better surveillance to shut out the world—to privatize for those precious few minutes alone. Why? Because parents become more anxious at work. In turn, children work more anxiously at play. Then, everyone calms down by over-consuming at home.

  13. Supervising the Natural: For centuries, child’s play has been defined as natural, by way of European theorists dating back to Comenius, Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Frederick Froebel. Experts in playgrounds after 1820 argued that this kind of nature required indoor exercise machines taken outdoors, often in sand boxes; but with flowers nearby, almost as memorials to the end of true nature (landscape) in cities. Playgrounds were not supposed to be carnivalesque, not that ruefully playful. They were for running hurdles, or hanging from steel bars.

    They were an extension of the work ethic, to save children from rural and urban laziness. They used play to add vigor, through structured exercise. Playgrounds kept kids away from those odious empty lots, where the wrong games were played.

Thus, playgrounds symbolized a desperate search to build natural work habits at outdoor gymnasia. They were built to prove that highly structured play was more natural than impulsive free-for-all. Nature was a script, a social contract on a sand lot. The script taught you how to play at being free, because the world outside was trying to ruin you.

Thus, playgrounds always were more dystopic than nostalgic. Even in the Victorian era, they were promoted as the last natural moment in the city. They were the end of Rousseau, a last glimpse of freedom outside the grueling social contract. There a child could still be a child, could still be natural at play.

But in my experience, coming from a dysfunctional family, the feeling in playgrounds was never all that natural, or free. More likely, it was savagely unnatural. Many children find playgrounds just as grueling today, I would guess—in this terror-driven, hyper-commodified, slippery slope that is the American psyche.

Anxieties from the world outside creep into playgrounds very easily, at least once you’re ten years old or so, past the cute stage. At the outdoor jungle gym, you get the same jungle bruises as in school, the same class struggle, the usual cruelties. Big kids still make the rules. Or you kick a football inside gilded cages while big parents worry about you.

Nonetheless, playgrounds remain a fantasy metonym for the natural, for moments of innocence that must be perpetuated against the evils of city life. But what becomes of natural play when the evils in front of children are magnified, when the distrust of childhood grows? Increasingly, the playground serves younger and younger children, who might still be unspoiled. It is preschool, reserved for tots who can still be inoculated against the problems to come.

Of course, many reformers in child development want to reshape playgrounds. They want to structure out bullies, etc., what you might expect. But more unusual, they are often calling for playgrounds to serve all age groups, for the public at large. They want to recover “community” in playgrounds, to bring back collective play there. Reformers want to design leisure without consumerism; build local controls against the shaky globalized economy that violates so much of the US today. Perhaps playgrounds as town centers will be the wave of the future, one way to recover local power.

Let us review where we have gone: Playgrounds evolved under the shock waves of urban industrialization after 1850, particularly in the US after 1906. They borrowed from pop Romanticist brios about play as creativity designed to teach you to succeed in middle-class capitalism. They were alternatives to myths about artists as martyrs to play, as mentally ill from an addiction to aesthetic play. Playgrounds were less playful than illustrated children’s books, for example. They tend to be more cautionary, the anxious side of myths about storied mini-worlds just for children, in a lustrous family life. They warned parents and educators alike that health and exercise must be ritually acted out; they were another public service to help save the family from the evils of capital.

Then after 1960, in the heyday of suburban playgrounds, this myth was adapted to the advice of Doctor Spock, among other pop psychologists. Playgrounds would become laboratories for inspiring the well-adjusted child, for play therapy. The old muscular civic virtues were less relevant. This was now a suburbanized model of childhood. The peaceable world that had been promised for a century now was at hand.

But over the past twenty years, this peaceable world (if ever it was) has been steadily declining. The middle class has lost ground. And over the past decade, old victories were reversed; integration, growth in real wages has reversed. In response, an era of enclaving, of protection against the terrors replaced the well-adjusted playground of 1960. Now, the playground has become dystopic/nostalgic in a new way. It must harbor “traditional values,” in a world dissolving under the shocks of warlord capitalism—or so it seems to many Americans. The playground Must be re-imagined as a panoptical slice of nature stuck under a hole in the ozone layer.

Peter Friedl’s photos stare relentlessly at spaces set aside for children to play—old and new, for the rich, and for the poor. The locations seem barely inhabited, but they are loaded with phantoms, like implied myths about how to balance childhood against the perils seen outside. Despite the detachment and chance Friedl uses, they are an intimate reading of the outside, for a culture where intimacy seems very difficult to achieve.

This paradox about intimacy as detachment is extremely vivid for Americans right now. So Friedl’s photos have been helping me think through a problem in a book that I finished writing a few weeks ago. There, I set up a simple psychological model that is somewhat parallel: In a culture more involved in dozens of ways to medicate itself (from drugs to tourism to media), private spaces keep growing, while intimacy, even for children, becomes daunting, more pre-set, ergonomic but never unsupervised. We play at being intimate. We imagine that children playing at it much better.

For a moment, the stages of our life make sense, though frankly, I found my hours watching my son not fall off the monkey bars a strange activity, not at all a glimpse at nature, or purity or innocence, or even vigor. It was like watching hunters and gatherers in a Darwinian prehistory. More often than not, the tots ignored each other. It felt more like social irony than a dose of “real” childhood, much less true nature, social or otherwise. The truest play between my son and myself came when we talked about movies and politics on the way to the movie multiplex.

For a few years, I co-owned a cabin in snow country. It was quiet, rustic, but only a mile from the ski tourists on the slopes. Certainly not urban. However, I noticed that my son, then ten, felt more comfortable drifting through the streets in this odd little town than in Los Angeles. He was going through an urban experience by way of Tom Sawyer, archeologically searching through empty corners and roads. He made friends with an older boy, who turned out to be a bit of a leech, but a lovable kid. His mother was busy trying to write a hopelessly improbable crime novel, to get off welfare essentially; so that bastard, her husband, wouldn’t have a hold on her. The simple drama of all of it gave my son an easier way to play, to use to space around him. I realized then what play in childhood actually was, certainly not a playground. It was bouncing off the uncertainties of the world around you, but knowing somehow that none of it will knock you off your feet. It is the sense that your childhood is inviolate, but not innocent. The rest of it—social, proto-sexual, familial, fun-filled—whether the play was too structured or not, seemed less relevant. What matters most is that play is filled with surprises you can handle. Children want to merely test the world on their own terms, even more than play in it.