Recreation as a Public Function in Urban Communities, 1911

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Chicago, Ill.

That wise old dame, Nature, has always shown an anxious care that men should reveal themselves to each other, and she did this apparently ages before the scientists discovered it or realized the importance of social intercourse in developing and humanizing the race. It is, in fact, the foundation of all the great human relationships, political as well as social.

In a great city, just because men are crowded into hotels, apartment houses, and tenements, and constantly jostled each other upon the street, they are often deluded into thinking they have it. Therefore, unless the apparatus for social intercourse is formally provided by the city, it is possible in the midst of the crowd to cultivate habits of solitude and great secretiveness just because people are deceived by the simulacrum of companionship. Many years ago Huxley contended that savages might easily be produced in the most crowded city quarter who would exhibit all the brutal characteristics which are supposed to be fostered only in isolation. Chicago has recently been startled by a very hideous murder committed by a group of six young Polish men and boys. They lived in that part of the city which shows all the unlovely results of overcrowding. None of them since they had left school had been provided with any means for social intercourse and companionship. Some of the aspects of this murder -- the senseless mutilation of the body of the victim, and others -- were incredibly remote from modern civilization.

If the city would preserve for its inhabitants the greater gift in its possession -- that which alone justifies the existence of the city -- the opportunity for varied and humanizing social relationships, it must undertake more fully than it has yet done to provide centers in which social life may be organized and carried on steadily and [page 2] normally. A fair argument may be made for the contention that this provision is a public function. It may even be charged that it is a solemn obligation of the modern heterodox city.

In the old city-states, such as Athens or Florence, local emotion could be depended upon to hold the citizens in a common bond. Each man could imagine that all his fellow-citizens were like himself and could draw from a fund of similar experiences. The area of government corresponded to the area of acquaintance, or at least to that of memory and filial piety. Such a basis of patriotism held as late as the time of Bismarck, for instance, who when he founded his great German Empire was eager to obtain Saxony and Hanover because he thought they could be easily assimilated to the Prussian type, while he was doubtful of Bavaria because he considered it too Austrian. Mazzini, in spite of his great humanitarianism, also believed that the New Italy must be held together by the similarity of the various states to a special national type. But in the modern city, and especially the cities in America, solidarity cannot depend upon any of these sanctions, for the state is composed of people brought together from all the nations of the earth. The patriotism of the modern state must be based not upon a consciousness of homogeneity but upon a respect for variation, not upon inherited memory but upon trained imagination. 

The scientists tell us that the imaginative powers, the sense that life possesses variety and color, are realized most easily in moments of pleasure and recreation. Social intercourse must be depended upon that men may be brought together through comradeship into a mood which discovers and respects this quality of human difference and variation. As immigrants to America work together in factories, every effort is made that they should conform to a common standard; as they walk upon the street they make painful exertion to approach a prevailing mode in dress; only on the playground or in the recreation center do they find that variety is prized, that distinctive folklore and national customs as well as individual initiative are at a premium. They meet together and enjoy each other's national dances and games, and as the sense of comradeship and pleasure grows, they are able to express, as nowhere else, that sense of being unlike one's fellows which is at the basis of all [page 3] progress. They meet in the kingdom of the mind -- in the empire of imagination -- as they discover that folk customs are similar in all nations. In the play festivals of Chicago sustained in the various small parks, the Italians, Poles, Lithuanians, and Norwegians meet each other with a dignity and freedom, with a sense of comradeship, which they are unable to command at any other time.

There is no doubt that the future of patriotism of America must depend not so much upon conformity as upon respect for variety, and nowhere can this be inculcated as it can in the public recreation centers.

There are yet other arguments for recreation as a public function: I have lived for many years in Chicago in a ward which has been represented in the Common Council by an alderman who is considered notoriously corrupt. I have always been  interested in his methods of procedure, and I was much startled some years ago, when Hull House was conducting a campaign against him, to be told by a wise man in the locality that such an alderman could never be defeated save by a candidate who had grown up in the ward and had a long experience in a gang. I have since learned to understand what he meant. The leader of a gang of boys gains his prestige largely through his power of obtaining favors for his followers. He discovers the alley in which they may play a game of craps undisturbed because the policeman is willing to pretend not to see them; he later finds the poolrooms in which minors may congregate undisturbed  in defiance of the law, the saloons which easily and readily sell liquor to minors, or the gambling places which are protected by obscure yet powerful influences. It is but a step farther when he and his followers are voters, and he is running for office, to extend the same kind of protection to all of the men who are "faithful." They will have special privileges of all sorts given through his bounty, and he will be able to protect them from the operations of any law which may prove to be inconvenient to them. He merely continues on a larger scale the excellent training he had in the gang, and continues to utilize those old human motives -- personal affection, desire for favors, fear of ridicule, and loyalty to comrades. [page 4]

While the power of a politician of this type is being rapidly abridged by the establishment of civil service in cities as well as by the operations of the various efficiency bureaus, to my mind it is being broken into more rapidly from the other end, as it were, by the gradual abolition of this particular type of gang training through the establishment of public recreation centers. A group of boys will not continue to stand upon the street corners and to seek illicit pleasures in alleys and poolrooms when all the fascinating apparatus of a recreation field is at their disposal. When such a gang enters the recreation field, the leader finds that this special power of manipulation which he has developed is of no use there. The business of the superintendent of the recreation center is to see that each gang of boys is fairly treated, that the "liberty of each is limited by the like liberty of all" -- to use an old Spencerian phrase. The boy who is admired is not he who can secure secret favors, but the one who can best meet those standards which boys maintain of running, climbing, turning, etc. They may seem like absurd standards to the adult, but they are at least universal standards, with the competition open to all and dependent upon personal prowess. The leader of the gang may or may not shine on the athletic field, and the boys who are there learn to resist exploitation; they come to despise and to bring opprobrium to bear upon any comrade who wishes to receive special favors either for himself or his fellows. A rude sort of justice prevails -- very important, because boys who have no opportunity to put in practice such notions of justice as they have when they are boys, it is safe to predict, will not resent social injustice when they grow to be men. The opportunity which the athletic field provides for discussion of actual events and for comradeship founded upon the establishment of just relationships is the basis for a new citizenship and in the end will overthrow the corrupt politician. In fact, I see no other way of overthrowing him in a crowded city quarter where people's prejudices are easily played upon, except this open air, widespread and opportunity for social intercourse when the boys are still young and full of initiative and enthusiasm. If girls were voting, I would of course say the same thing for them.

After all, a city is made up of an infinitely varying multitude, [page 5] working their way, through much pain and confusion, toward juster human relations, which are indeed the ideal political relations. These must be expressed first in social intercourse, and discussed with freedom and energy, if progress is to be made. The very size of the city sometimes intensifies this intercourse into a pathological condition, but nevertheless it is all the more necessary to put it under the direction of skilled instructors and to provide places where it may be carried on normally.

The fifteen Small Parks of Chicago, equipped with clubrooms, poolrooms, drawing-rooms, refectories, reading-rooms, gymnasiums, swimming-pools, and much other social paraphernalia, are, we believe, centers in which a higher type of citizenship is being nursed. Certainly the number of arrests among juvenile delinquents falls off surprisingly in a neighborhood where such a park has been established -- a negative measure, possibly, but one which cannot be disregarded. As the temple of the Greeks inspired the youth's patriotism, and as the city walls conserved but at the same time limited his imagination, so, we hope, these centers of public recreation, simply because they stand for high comradeship and intercourse, will inspire American youth to a sense of political obligation, while at the same time they teach him that the kingdom of the mind is without boundary and that he may find patriotic relationship with the youth of all nations.