Even in the city, this urban countryside, there is an air of summer celebration around at the moment.
Driving down Grove Road at the weekend I passed the summer fete held by the friends of Mile End Park. There was a dog show, and little stall. The W.I. were there with cakes and there was a whole village of blue and white stripy tents, balloons and bunting.
Strings of little flags flappering away in the gentle breeze, dancing out directions to a blooming party atmosphere like a little swarm of bees. The invitation was there, a clear play cue, a meta-communication. The siren’s call tempts you away from the fast flowing traffic and lures you into the park, step out of the grey humdrum, into the party. It was an island of fun and relaxation a chance to stop and just Be with folks, with nothing better to do ….
Most of the parks in Tower Hamlets were once filled with dense housing. Terrace upon terrace stood where this summer fair was being held.
Where ever you go in the borough you see the legacy left by the blitz.
Go down to Shadwell. Walk along the highway, if you can stand the noise and the fumes. Take a stroll along Cable Street, everything is grey and blocky. Everywhere there is a space, there is a sign promoting dys-play ‘No Ball Games’.
The homes are not designed with children in mind, many are high-rise blocks. Le Corbousier House is a ‘machine for living’, a ‘streetless house’ with no place to play. Children are as divorced for their environment as if they were little plastic people on an architects model. They are surrounded by lines of severance which make moving around the borough as difficult as flick-flacking your way through a mesh of laser burglar alarms. Everywhere is a space of exclusion for children. Fences, signs, attitudes, mutual fears meet children at every turn.
The lines of desire that should be worn by bare feet through wild-flowery grass meadow are municipally pre-ordained in tarmac through short back and sides turf. The only space where play is permitted are unsatisfactory little primary coloured play pens with tangles of metal inside. They accommodate only one play type. You cant dig in wet-pour or light fires or find loose parts to make a den.
There are usually two of these limited offers, both fenced in, both separate, one very small one infinitesimally larger. Two rows of railings separate the age groups. This is a way to sell more equipment and to make sure that we are keeping tight control on the children. It is obviously not considered safe for children of different ages play together.
Heaven forfend that an older kid in a hoodie, longing for the days when this travesty of a play ground was treasured as the only time and space in his life where his innate creative spirit was validated, should want to swing nostalgically in this space.
Now he is fourteen, we have to call him a ‘Youth’. He has to be ‘hard to reach’ if we are going to justify working with him.
Of course he is Hard to Reach we have made sure that his space is No Space. No Space is Hard to Reach alright.
So I walk along Cable Street. Cars fight each other to pass on the dogs leg of the road built along the ghost of a cattlehoof worn lane. It feels a little like walking along a gulley with slabs of rockface on either side of you and the constant nagging of the No Ball Games signs NIMBY-niggling away at the subconscious culture of the growing and grown community. A worm eating into its core spreading the virus. ‘playing is wrong, disapprove of play. ‘dis’ play whenever you come across it. Play is not cool or acceptable.’
Then I see it.
Another fence another sign of a land grab.. but this one calls aloud to me. There are giant cut outs of giant children drawn and painted by themselves. Making their mark. Claiming their space.
There are welcome signs that really mean it. ‘You may play here!’
There is a rule, written large for all to see. But it’s a rule of celebration not oppression. ‘There are no wars here. We are all Fantastic!’ And inside this wonderful fence? What treasures are hidden in the larger-than-life-sized walk-in button box?
A splash of colour, a riot of noise. The skeleton of a weird funfair or circus, one gone completely mad. Decorated with old road signs and traffic cones. Daubed with hamfisted paint with tender witty quirky touches. This is a zest for life. Not inane primary coloured Kodak moment that only understands play as fun.
It is concerned with creative living, ‘Living each moment anew’, ‘a lifetime burning in every moment’. Neophilia.
‘Roll up children welcome to Glamis Adventure Playground, the environment that compensates for Shadwell!’
The children live in high rise blocks but are unable to get any feeling of height. They will never have climbed a tree. Here they can scramble up the structures and test their nerves on the raiders of the lost arc bridge as they look down on the roofs of the houses around them. They can feel their own deaths on the backs of their necks and the pits of their stomachs as they tremble on the edge of anticipation, swing knotted seat in hand, before they plummet to earth… almost.
They can catch fires in the tip lengths of string, like catching tiddlers. They cook and share meals together.
They eat the grapes they grow and can have a plot of land to garden in if they want.
They can take a real risk and dress a shimmering ball gown and a red fright wig, make small world from tiny toys.. trying to make a world they understand and desire.
The teenage boys drag the crashmats to the stage and flump down on them together giggling and telling soft stories. The girls enjoy their scarves fluttering behind them as they fly, really fly, through the sky weightless, on the swing. The wait is over they are here.
Could this happen if the fence was not here to mark out the space of possibility?
The fence echoes the message of the zany towers, the minarets, calling the children to play, shouting out that children are welcomed here and their playing is the most important work to be done; the call bouncing off the walls of the tower blocks; the adventure playground as a permanent ice-cream tune proclaiming that this space is not even to be considered as another site for a new housing development
Every other tiny scrap of land is bristling with construction.
These new developments are required to accommodate play space for children, yet we know that the notion of Playable Space has been so abused by designers and architects that the spaces by a wheelie bins and between parked cars have been included in the allocation of children’s space. Squeeze those families in, sell them a space for living but don’t give them room to be alive.
Talk about spaces of exclusion.
We might as well try to will children into non-existence.
Here the fence holds the environment, gently protecting and nurturing, like embracing arms. Like a womb. A space for creation, a space that is different from any other.
One of the Glamis kids (8) said.. ‘out there on the streets I have to be so cool and hard. But in here I can just relax and be myself and play.’
The fence as Bunting, as Celebration. As a triumph of sanity over commerce.
A tangible manifestation of the child’s right to play.
The quirky superseding the cool.
Copyright July 2008.
Not to be re-produced in part or as a whole without the author’s permission.