April 19, 2016

Play and Public Space

TigonzalesBy Teresa Irene Gonzales

As a sociologist, I often feel as though much of what I teach and research has a tinge of apocalyptic despair. As a result, I've started looking into topics that center on (or have an element of) joy, hope, happiness, laughter, or playfulness.

In searching for things that make me smile, I've come across a growing body of scholarship on the importance of play in social movements. The research suggests that play helps to build community, maintain interest in a social cause, invites people into the movement, fosters civic engagement, and diffuses power (e.g. clowns who confront police officers).

For instance, in his books Play, Creativity, and Social Movements: If I Can't Dance it's Not My Revolution (a shorter article on this topic can be found here) and From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization, Benjamin Shepard chronicles the crucial importance of play in providing a space for people to build their own "commons" or community spaces. Within this, Shepard argues, marginalized and oppressed groups can stake a claim to public place – such as parks, streets, sidewalks, and so on.

In addition to fostering engagement, scholars such as bell hooks have argued that play can also be used by marginalized groups, particularly African Americans, as a tool to both struggle against exclusionary practices and form counterpublics, where oppressed folks can tell their own stories, create counternarratives, and develop new social imaginaries.

Feminist Political and Social theorist, Nancy Fraser defines counterpublics as spaces of resistance "where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses, which in turn permit them to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs." (You can find a discussion of Fraser's ideas here.)

Drawing these concepts together, if we view play as both a social action and as a radical space of transformation, we can also see its potential for creating new spaces of political and social opportunities. These opportunities may manifest within geographic arenas, particularly if we think about the ways that Black and Brown bodies are policed and excluded from partaking in public life.

This is not to say that risk will disappear, but rather that play can operate to build communities in a way that embraces a spectrum of emotions, and that places joy and fun at the forefront (hooks talks about this in Teaching to Transgress). While engaging in play has been central to maintaining social movements, it is also possible for play to operate as a transformative process at a more mundane level, within the realm of the everyday (and among people who may not view themselves as political subjects).

So how does this operate in our daily lives? If we look at recent public events in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago, we can see some of these concepts at work.

Little Village (otherwise known as La Villita or South Lawndale) is a predominantly Mexican immigrant and Mexican American neighborhood on the South West side of Chicago. It's a densely populated community, with roughly 100,000 residents (documented and undocumented). According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 50% of the population had less than a high school diploma, 10.8% of the documented population was unemployed, 26.5% lived below the poverty line, and the median income was $33,593. According to the 2010 Chicago Police Department Annual Review, 2,326 crimes were committed in the neighborhood, and 13% of those were violent. While these numbers give us a sense of the neighborhood, they don't really tell us how people go about living their lives on a day-to-day basis. These numbers also highlight a variety of very real socio-political and economic issues that, on the surface, don't really have anything to do with play, joy, or laughter.

Yet, within Little Village, residents and grassroots organizations use play and playfulness in order to foster a deeper sense of community and rearticulate public spaces. For instance, starting in 2011, the arts organization, Villapalooza, began to host an annual, all-ages domestic and international music festival. According to board member, David Hernandez, the festival is built around one basic tenet: "to provide the community with a safe space to dance and laugh." This idea of reusing space and focusing on joy (rather than violence) is expressed by a variety of local organizations and includes reimagining public streets and sidewalks as spaces for music, dancing, eating, skateboarding (during the Skate Jam hosted by the local environmental justice organization, LVEJO), and just having fun.

While these spaces are constructed and framed with very specific goals and missions, whether it's to reclaim abandoned space, or to provide spaces for laughter and joy, or both, they also provide residents with opportunities to both learn new ways of using their neighborhoods and to unlearn behaviors that prevent them from going out, enjoying public space and engaging in placemaking on their own terms. Rather than allowing external forces to define these neighborhoods, these spaces provide opportunities (and can operate as flashpoints) for residents to create and highlight their own narratives, struggles, and desires on their own terms.

Not everyone is interested in joining a social movement or in becoming part of a political process of resistance. However, many people engage in play as a form of release, to connect with others, to imagine new ways of being, and as a way to maintain dignity within their lives.

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