Some Reflections on the Failure of the Modern City to Provide Recreation for Young Girls, December 5, 1908

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Some Reflections on the Failure of the Modern City to Provide Recreation for Young Girls

Jane Addams
Hull House, Chicago

Nothing is more certain than that each generation longs for a reassurance as to the value and charm of life, and is secretly afraid lest it lose its sense of the youth of the earth. This is doubtless one reason it so passionately cherishes its poets and artists as those who have been able to explore for themselves and to reveal to others, the perpetual springs of life's self-renewal.

And yet in spite of popular education, the average man cannot obtain this desired reassurance through literature, nor yet through glimpses of earth and sky. It can come to him only throught the chance embodiment of joy and youth which life itself may throw in his way. It is doubtless true that for the mass of men, the message is never so unchallenged and so invincible as when embodied in youth itself, never so poignant and appealing as when seen in a young girl. One generation after another has depended upon its young to provide it with gaiety and enthusiasm, to persuade it that living is a pleasure, until men everywhere have anxiously promoted channels through which this wine of life might flow, and be preserved for their delight. The classical city, provided for play with careful solicitude, building the theater as it built the market place and the temple, and it came to anticipate the highest utterances of the poet at those moments when the sense of pleasure released the national life. In the medieval city the knights held their tourneys, the guilds their pageants, the people their dances, and the church made festival for its most cherished saints with gay street processions. Only in the modern industrial city have men concluded that it is no longer necessary for the municipality to provide for the insatiable desire for play, and they have therefore entered upon a most dangerous and difficult experiment.

Unhappily this experiment of failing to make adequate provision for play is being tried just at the moment that modern industry has gathered together multitudes of eager young creatures from all quarters of the earth as a labor supply for the countless factories and workshops, upon which the present industrial city is based. In the United States alone, 3,000,000 of these are young women.  Never before in civilization have such numbers of girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon city streets and to work under alien roods: for the first time they are being prized for their innocence, their tender beauty, their ephemeral gaiety. Society cares more for the products they manufacture than for their immemorial ability to knead over the bread of life and reaffirm the charm of existence.

This stupid experiment of organizing work and failing to organize play, has of course, brought about a fine revenge. This love of pleasure will not be denied, and when no adequate provision is made for its expression, it turns into all sorts of malignant and vicious appetites. Seeing these we, the middle-aged, grow quite distracted and resort to all sorts of restrictive measures. We even try to dam up the sweet fountain of life itself because we are affrighted by these turgid streams. But although we vex ourselves with restrictive measures and complain of their futility, we do not see that the city itself has failed in its obligations in the matter, and that the root of the difficulty is due to the fact that the modern city has turned over to commercialism practically all the provisions for public recreation. We need only to look about us to perceive that quite as some set of men have organized the young people into industrial enterprises in order to profit from their toil, so another set of men and also women, I am sorry to say, have entered [page 2] the neglected field of recreation and have organized enterprises which make profit out of their invincible love of pleasure.

In every city arise so-called "places" -- "gin palaces" they are called in fiction -- in Chicago we euphemistically say merely "places," -- in which alcohol is dispensed, not to allay thirst, but, pretending to stimulate gaiety, it is sold solely in order to empty pockets. Huge dance halls are opened to which hundreds of young people are attracted, standing wistfully outside a roped circle, for within it five cents will procure for give minutes the sense of allurement and intoxication which is sold in lieu of innocent pleasure. These coarse and illicit merrymakings remind one of the unrestrained jollities of Restoration London and they are indeed their direct descendants, properly commercialized of course, still confusing joy with lust, and gaiety with debauchery. Since the soldiers of Cromwell shut up the people's playhouses and destroyed  their pleasure fields, the Anglo Saxon city has turned over the provision for public recreation to the most evil-minded and the most unscrupulous members of the community. We see thousands of girls walking up and down the streets on a pleasant evening with no chance to catch a sight of pleasure even in such an unsatisfactory manner as looking through a lighted window, save as these lurid places provide it. Apparently the modern city sees in these girls only two possibilities, both of them commercial: first, a chance to utililize by day their new and tender labor power in its factories and shops, and then another chance in the evening to extract from them their petty wages, by pandering to their love of pleasure.

As the overworked girls stream along the street, it is easy to see only the self-conscious walk, the giggling speech, the preposterous clothing. And yet through the huge hat with its wilderness of feathers, the girl announces to the world that she is here. She demands attention to the fact of her existence, she states that she is ready to live, to take her immemorial place in the world. We are quite accustomed to this bragging announcement on the part of the boy. When he restlessly looks upon the world as a theater for his self-assertive exploits, the city makes haste to provide him with an athletic field where he may safely demonstrate that he is braver at jumping and climbing than any other boy on the street.

But we are must less successful in making city provisions for the girl's needs, and slow to realize that while there is something of the mating season in both demonstrations, there is also much more. The most precious moment in human development comes when the young creature asserts that he is unlike any other human being, and has an individual contribution to make to the world. It is this variation from the established type which is at the root of all change, it is the only possible basis for progress, all that keeps life from growing stale and repetitious. It is as if our eyes were holden to the mystic beauty, the redemptive joy, the civic pride which these multitudes of young girls might supply our dingy town.

It is only the artists who really see these young creatures as they are, the artists who are themselves endowed with immortal youth, who recognize through the headstrong follies but a record of youth's divine impatience with the world's inheritance of materialism and dullness: who see through all the tawdry adornment and cheap merrymaking a determination that the romance and joy of life shall not miserably perish upon our city streets, but shall be perpetually revived and reassured. Which one of Raphael's great contemporaries said, -- Leonardo himself, was it not, -- that Genius alone can paint the Child? Is it our disregard of the artists' message which makes us so blind and stupid, or are we so under the influence of our zeit-geist that we can detect only commercial values in the young as well as in the old? Certain it is that because the modern city allows the money maker to minister to youth's unfailing demand for pleasure it too often sends the boy to gambling and drinking in order to find his adventure, and drives the girl  into all sorts of absurd and obscure expression, when she endeavors to voice her love and yearning towards the [page 3] world in which she forecasts her destiny.

The young creatures themselves piteously look all about them in order to find an adequate means of expression for their most precious message.  Perhaps you will permit me to illustrate:  One day a serious young man came to Hill House  with his pretty young sister who, he explained, wanted to go somewhere every single evening, although she could only give the flimsy excuse that "the flat was too little and too stuffy to stay in." In the difficult role of older brother, he had done his best, stating that he had taken her "to all the missions that he could find, that she had a chance to listen to some awful good sermons and to some elegant hymns, but that some way she did not seem to care for the society of the best Christian people."

The little sister reddened painfully under this cruel indictment and could offer no word of excuse, but a curious thing happened to me. Perhaps it was the phrase, "best Christian peoople," perhaps it was the charming colors in her blushing  cheeks and her swimming eyes, but certain i is, that instantly and vividly there appeared to my mind a delicately tinted piece  of wall in a Roman catacomb where the early Christians, through a dozen devices of spring flowers, skipping lambs and a shepherd tenderly guiding the young, had indelibly written down that the Christian message is one of inexpressible joy. Who is responsible for forgetting this message delivered by the "best Christian people" two thousand years ago? Who is to blame that the lambs, the little ewe lambs, have been so caught upon the brambles?

Already some American cities are making a beginning. Boston had its municipal gymnasiums, cricket fields and golf grounds. Chicago has seventeen parks with playing fields, gymnasiums and baths, which at present enroll thousands of young women and girls. These same parks are provided with beautiful halls which are used for many purposes, rent free, and are given over to any band of young people who wish to conduct dancing parties subject to city supervision and chaperonage. Many social clubs have deserted neighboring saloon halls for these municipal drawing rooms, beautifully decorated with growing plants supplied by the park green houses, and flooded with electric lights supplied by the park power house. In the saloon halls the young people were obliged to "pass money freely over the bar," and in order to make the most of the occasion, they usually stayed until morning. The ecnomics necessity itself would override the counsels of the more temperate, and the thrifty doorkeeper would not insist upon invitations but would take in anyone who has the "price of a ticket." The free rent in the park hall, the good food in the park restaurant supplied at any cost, have made possible three parties closing at eleven o'clock instead of one party breaking up at daylight, too often in disorder.

Is not this an argument that the disorder, the drinking, the late hours, the lack of decorum, are directly traceable to the commercial enterprise which administers to pleasure in order to drag it into excess because excess is more profitable? We have no business thus to commercialize pleasure. It is as monstrous as is the attempt to commercialize art! It is intolerable that the city does not more rapidly take over this function of making provision for pleasure. Almost instant success attends the first efforts of the city in making provision for pleasure. Hundreds of Chicago citizens will always remember a long summer day in one of our large playing fields, which was filled during the morning with groups of little children romping through the kindergarten games; in the afternoon with young men and girls contending in athletic sports and the evening light made gay by the bright colored garments of Italians, Lithuanians, Norwegians, and a dozen other nationalities reproducing their old dances and festivals for the pleasure of the more stolid Americans. These old forms of dancing which have been worked out in many lands and through long experience, safeguard unwary and dangerous expressions and yet afford a vehicle through which to joy of youth may flow. Their forms are indeed those which lie at the basis of [page 4] all good breeding, forms whihc at once express and restrain, urge forward and set limits. Thousands of city girls who are being taight at the small parks, are there being equipped with a technique through which they may express their insatiable desire for gaiety and motion. Are these parks but a forecast of what the commercial city may yet see accomplished through playground associations, and through a dozen other agencies which are springing up in every city in America, as they already are found in the huge towns of Scotland and England?

Let us cherish these experiments as the most precious beginnings of an attempt to supply the recreational needs of our industrial cities. The discovery of the labor power of young girls was to our age like the discovery of a new natural resource. In utilizing it thus ruthlessly we are not only in danger of quenching the divine fire of youth, but we are imperiling our civilization itself if in the moment of its most pronounced materialism we dry up the very sources of romance, of variety, of joy which these charming creatures have always given to the world.

To fail to provide for the recreation of young girls is not only to deprive all of them of their natural form of expression and to subject some of them to the overwhelming temptation of illicit and soul-destroying pleasures, but it furthermore pushes society back into dreariness and into a sceptism of life's value, that shadow which lurks only around the corner for most of us, -- it deprives us of the warmth and reassurance which we sorely need and to which we are justified.