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Disempowerment of Play

Cathy Zhou's picture

I still remember the last family dinner I had before I left home. I have about twenty relatives invited and everyone had a talk with me, and there’s one sentence they have been repeating: Don’t wander alone in the city, stay in your dorm when it’s getting dark.

And when I take the class trip of play in the city, I have always feared the messed-up American metropolis would give me some scary encounters. Diversity of strangers----those who my parents always told me to stay away from has planted deep-rooted fear in my mind.

However, as the first trip started, sitting on the train with my group, looking out of the window, there was a transparent serenity lying in my heart. It feels safe----watching the boring horizon changing color, having the city popping up into my sight----there was a clear line cutting off the suburb from downtown reminding you where you are. And there is the city of Philadelphia. Concrete buildings with clear sky, and that was my very first impression of Philly. As we walk along the road, I see so many kinds of people out on the streets----well-dressed couples going to concerts, visitors with cameras in hands and-----homeless people. That is a consistent picture of the city road, mixture of good parts and bad parts. However I only saw entertainment in parts of the view---for families going to theater, visitors seeing places they’ve never seen before, but not for the homeless. They stood or lied in the middle of the way, and begged for money. “Have a good weekend sir” “God bless you ma’am” And sometimes I even hear swearing words coming out of their mouths. That normal Saturday afternoon means nothing like a day for relaxation or play for them, it’s just a regular day they might be earning more money than usual for the sake of those entertained by the fun of weekend.

Before I started to realize, or even earlier, the early form of city civilization, there’s certain hierarchies set up in different occupations, they have the leaders, and therefore the followers. The hierarchy system seemed to be the efficient way of city development, and it still has the shadow remained to this moment. Different salaries led to different lifestyle, and only those with ability to afford play can entertain themselves and choose the environment of playing accord to their own will-----they live in big houses in suburb, when they feel athletic, they drive to the gym and when the weekends come, they take family to downtown and have fun in this playful city built up for people like them.

And yes, when we talk of the playful functions of the city, it’s not hard to found how it is designed for the convenience of people in need----skyscraper to obtain different companies, fountains with certain shapes for visitors, parks for the old to walk. The whole city is a play field for people gathered there, and the homeless live in the gaps of those buildings, they are the hosts of the streets, welcoming people to the slates they sleep on and spent years with. Sometimes I try to imagine the life of those, how they spent their life on a place where everyone goes for fun, how they stayed in the same place where people come and go but have little knowledge of what those passed-by was trying to find----entertainment. Difficult life disabled their ability to play like everyone else.

When I think of the words said repeatedly by my relatives before I left, I realized that those homeless are who they’ve been reminding me to stay away from. The wandering people yelling on streets asking for money, what threats could they give to me? They can simply smile for a dollar and never need to rush back home as they never had any. There’s no theatre for them, no traveling funds, no school field trips, and they created their only entertainment out of the streets.

Like how Flanagan said about play: “When artists and designers set about to create an environment for play, the rhetoric surrounding the role of play, and the rhetoric of power, are consistently intertwined.” It is the power and position that gives you the ability to play, and she used the word disempowerment in describing those homeless, prostitutes, and domestic workers. They did not walk on the streets for entertainment of any kind; they wander for food, a place to sleep, a job, and have little time to afford any exploration of fun. It’s just another realistic evidence of “position empowers people freedom”.

When I walk through the square of city hall, there’s a man playing flute in the center, the music echoed in the whole square gently, with a enchanting beauty, people passing by would sometimes stop and put change in his front. In this scene, I can feel a serenity of the form of “play” in this man, he might not have a place to stay for a good night sleep, but when he closed his eyes and let the music out, there’s a smile popping out on him. There might be empowerment for the homeless, but everyone has somewhere comfortable to stay for a moment.


Anne Dalke's picture

Homeless play

let's talk first about structure: how is this organized? (zig-zaggy:
a warning...gainsaid...reinstated...gainsaid--it's very complex!)

You zig-zag yourself to the point of focusing on the key question
(which we haven't really gotten to, yet, in class, of "who gets to play?"--
and what is your answer?

You describe "the homeless who live in the gaps of those buildings" as "the hosts of the streets, "wecoming people"...did you really feel welcomed in that way?

How might you take this project further next week? How to expand it? How to learn more about the topic you've initiated? What research might you do (for example) about homeless play? (How essential is "home" to the capacity to play?...a deep question, I think!)

Yancy's picture

Cathy started the article by

Cathy started the article by mentioning the warning of her family before she came out and then described her experience in Philly. In the beginning of the trip, she feared because the warning in her mind but the fear disappeared then because of the views she saw. I think in the article, the city is the whole play environment and people here, especially the homeless people are the artists who create their own entertainment in the street-a limited area. She also pointed the relationship between power and play by quoting Flanagan's words: The poor, the homeless people have less freedom to choose to play because they even do not have enough power to support basic life.

In the last paragraph, Cathy wrote a man, maybe a homeless man, was playing. I think it is the meaning of playing: all the people can create their own play although the condition is limited.

Phoenix's picture


Cathy explored Flanagan's 'rhetoric of play' and how it relates to the opportunities different classes have for play, as exemplified by the homeless around Logan Circle. She points out that a Saturday is not a day to go and see a performance for a homeless person, it is a day in which one might be able to make a little extra money from tourists. She begins with a warning from her family back home about the city and its inhabitants, and contrasts that with a feeling of safety in Philadelphia. Immediately, she contrasts Philadelphia's affluence with its homeless. She explores the idea of how the homeless relate to the city for a paragraph, and then returns, surprisingly, to her family's warning about the city. She concludes that play is only accessible to those who can afford it.

Although it never occurred to me to link these two ideas, it seems to be a very sensible conclusion. The more I understand about homelessness, the more I realize how difficult it is to move up from this social stratum. Play, although necessary, is, after all, a luxury too.