The Fountains of Boston: Childhood is a Commons


August 8, 2007


Browse in Childhood Commons

Am I the only one who thought of Huck Finn and the Mississippi when I read Efren Gerardino’s post about the river of his youth in the Philippines?  There was the absence of fences and boundaries, the openness and sense of possibility – an American story but also the story of childhood everywhere.  Efren remembered “the good life” even though he and his friends had very little, materially.  Childhood is a commons. Where it is abundant, children can feel rich so long as they have food to eat.

The commons of my own childhood was abundant in its own way. We lived in an old, close-in Boston suburb, with meandering streets that followed the contours of the land.  We played in the old aqua-duct, and at the swamp that formed a wooded basin behind the houses.  By unspoken agreement, the entire neighborhood was open to us kids.  We played football in one yard, wiffleball in another.  We didn’t know the owners, and no one seemed to care.

Most of that world has gone the way of Efren’s river. People with chemically enhanced trophy lawns aren’t the only problem.  Kids now are caught in the temporal rhythms of their parents’ business lives: classes, schedules, day-calendars even.  When they aren’t marching to the clock they are locked into commoditized entertainments.  A woman from England observed to me not long ago, “The children here – they don’t know how to play.”

The inability to play is a symptom of commons deprivation, which is the genus of which nature deprivation is the species.  I have a suspicion, which I cannot prove, that much depression and so-called “attention deficit disorder” is at least partly a result of hyper-enclosed and commoditized lives.  It is revealing that they call it attention deficit rather than, say, attention depletion.  The defect always must be in the child, never in the commercial culture in which the child is immersed.

We internalize this state of enclosure so much that we are surprised when we encounter something different.  That was my response to the splendid children’s play area at the Chek Lap Kok Airport in Hong Kong.  In the U.S. you sometimes find a perfunctory play structure stationed in a cramped corner by someone who obviously didn’t much care. In Hong Kong, by contrast, the space is expansive and inviting, with a foam floor (remove shoes!) and play structures that kids run for.

Someone there actually realized that children about to embark on a 16 hour journey in a cramped plane might need to let off a little steam. Amazing.  Even more amazing for an American, it’s free.

We had a similar experience is Boston recently.  Boston is, on the whole, a hospitable city for kids.  There’s the public garden and the swan boats, just as they are in Make Way For Ducklings. There’s Old Ironsides, the Revolutionary War battleship;  the Science Museum, Paul Revere’s house, a host of other things.  On this trip we discovered something else:  public fountains, where kids can splash and wade on hot summer days.

We encountered several: one in the Boston Common, another at Copley Square, and a third at the Christian Science Center.  We were there during a heat wave.  I was working, but my wife and son were trekking around to the sights.  In the late afternoon, they would stop by the fountain at Copley, where Josh would take off his shirt and socks (he’s four) and jump in with the other kids.  It was a happy festive scene.  People dropped their urban guard and became accessible if not instant friends.

The laughter of children is not a common sound in American downtowns.  Why exactly is that?  What is a more natural use of urban space in the hot summer than a fountain in which kids can play?  I couldn’t help reflect once again on the strange psychological disorder that sees evil in such scenes because people are not paying money to a private owner for an allotted use.  Thankfully someone in Boston is resistant to that inner dysfunction that is so prevalent in America today.

I have no idea whether these open fountains are official policy or whether something slipped through the cracks.  Perhaps it is best not to ask.   I like to imagine that somewhere on the Boston streets there is a police officer like Michael in Make Way For Ducklings, a hulking Irishman with a big heart (excuse me, hahhhht), who saw the laughter and, in the best tradition of that city, decided that the enforcement of the laws in question could wait for another day.