Recalling Jane Addams’ lost classic, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets
By Greg Moses
Chicago is bleeding, and the Mayor has called the citizens to action: “I don’t want people to wait for Mayor Daley to call a meeting. I want you to call a meeting in your home with your children and loved ones. I want you to go next door and talk to those children next door. I want the parents of the block to say ‘This block will be free of violence.’ Suddenly, all voices converge upon the insight that if nobody else actually provides time or space for youthful thrills, the gun industry will.
Ninety nine years ago Jane Addams wrote about “the stupid experiment” of American life that she saw all around her in Chicago. The adult world had thrown together a city based on round-the-clock work. Impressive piles of cash were daily stacked and sorted. In the hustle-built streets meanwhile stood all the children dropped and stranded by a colossal shift of economic priorities. Stranded youth were symptom to a deeper cause, argued Addams. In modern life the whole spirit of youth has been exiled and detained.
“This stupid experiment of organizing work and failing to organize play has, of course, brought about a fine revenge,” wrote Addams in 1909, pre-dating by a full decade the better known thesis of Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. Adults were damming up their own “sweet fountains” of pleasure, “but almost worse than the restrictive measures is our apparent belief that the city has no obligation in the matter, an assumption upon which the modern city turns over to commercialism practically all the provisions for public recreation.”
Public recreation? “Only in the modern city have men concluded that it is no longer necessary for the municipality to provide for the insatiable desire for play.” SWAT teams and jobs programs are what headlines call for today; more “restrictive measures” and “organizing work.” According to the Addams formula, these can only add up to another “fine revenge.”
Cromwell’s Puritan dictatorship stripped communal life of adornment and joy, recalls Addams. Then the liquor stores stepped in. As a result, people in the modern Anglo city work to make money, then spend their money buying liquor.
Young women in this new economy could be turned into one of two things: working hands by day or working bodies by night. Bitches or hos. Missing everywhere now was joy. And the young men under this new regime? Well, there was one sanctioned public endeavor that would guarantee them some hope of adventure. Didn’t Addams virtually predict a century of war?
As the pleasure intensity of adult play grew, so did the distance between adult society and children. Is the Playboy mansion the kind of place one brings actual boys? Communal festivals used to be different, argues Addams, where adults and children could dance together. If children obviously get lost in this new industrialized strandedness, adults also fail to find refreshment from an authentic “spirit of youth.”
Everyone fails to listen to the one voice capable of instructing Socrates. It was Diotima, recalls Addams, who said that love is an attempt to give birth to beauty. There is an essential lesson here for any republic that wants to be something besides ugly. When we have come to a crisis where men chase killer kids with SWAT teams and jobs, it may be time to follow the example of Socrates. There is a woman here talking about city-centered love and joy. Shut up and learn.