How many times have you played street bocce or jumped off the dock for a dip in the Hudson?
Pouring through some of the 180,000 hi-res digital images just released to the public domain by the New York Public Library, we were especially fascinated by all the images of recreation and leisure. We tend to relate the Lower East Side’s history to, say, Jacob Riis’s photos of grungy, overcrowded tenements, but over and over photos jumped out from the archives showing kids from the turn of the century swinging in new playgrounds, reading books at Hamilton Fish Park, or playing a massive game of London Bridge in a back alley. We’ve gathered some of them in the slideshow below.
In the early 1900s playgrounds were a pretty new phenomenon, and a big upgrade for kids from the large families squeezed into railroad-style apartments. The “playground movement,” a coalition of reformers who believed outdoor play would fortify the hearts and minds of these “poor souls,” gathered steam around the 1890s, lobbying the government for more recreational spaces. In fact, Seward Park, established in 1903, was the first permanent municipally-built playground in the entire country. Its style, with newfangled play equipment and a small building for reading and activities, provided the blueprint for many city-built playgrounds to come, including Hamilton Fish, Tompkins Square, and the East River Park.
Still, it wasn’t as if New York was a giant jungle gym. Lewis Hine, a sociologist who began documenting New York’s immigrants in 1904, took many photos of kids at story time and play. But the majority of his early work focused on the darker side of childhood. He spent ten years working for the National Child Labor Committee, often using disguises, like postcard vendor or bible salesmen, to get access to terrible working conditions. His stark photos of scruffy kids working in sweatshops, glassworks factories and cotton mills across the country were instrumental documentary evidence that helped change child labor laws.
By the photos from the 1930s, its clear that playtime still wasn’t only confined to the “recreation playgrounds” circumscribed by the reformers. Alexander Alland, a Crimea-born photographer, must have been working on his collaboration with Felix Riesenberg on the book Portrait of New York when he captured images of people jumping into the river off Corlear’s Hook, or children and adults playing cards in the middle of the street. Alland would soon turn his camera on the “Russian Gypsies” of the Lower East Side and the “Royal Order of Ethiopian Hebrews” in Harlem, but his practice ground included the street life of New York leisure, with intimate portraits of the lively community activity that most residents took for granted.
Click through our slideshow to see some his photos and others recently released by the NYPL.