No Parks or Playgrounds? No Problem! Cincinnati Sent Kids Out To Play In The Streets

When Cincinnati Community Services had to find an alternative place where kids could be kids.
Community Services staff supervised all of Cincinnati’s “play streets” and seemed to favor lots of “circle” activities in which children held hands instead of running around randomly.

Cincinnati Post, 1 July 1924, Images extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Back when children actually played outside, there used to be a phrase adults employed to get rid of bothersome tykes: “Why don’t you go play in the street?” One hundred years ago, that became the rallying cry for a Cincinnati man who sent so many kids into the streets to play that the city named a golf course in his honor.

Cincinnati (and especially the city’s children) suffered from the predatory government of George Barnsdale “Boss” Cox. The Boss’s minions famously bragged that they invested no money in public parks because squirrels didn’t vote. Consequently, even though the Cox machine was sputtering to its end by 1920, Cincinnati had very few parks for a growing population.

The solution? Set aside “play streets” in neighborhoods that lacked playgrounds or parks, prohibit automobile traffic from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., and provide adult supervision and entertainment. Until the Great Depression drained city budgets, Cincinnati set up and managed these so-called “play streets” throughout the 1920s.

The impetus for “play streets” was provided by Will R. Reeves, a New York native who ended up stationed near Cincinnati during World War I. Reeves was a musician and was recruited as organist for the Seventh Presbyterian Church in Walnut Hills. As Reeves learned about the dearth of recreational facilities for children in Cincinnati, he found work with a group named Community Services, a branch of the Community Chest.

Reeves first promoted the idea of “play streets” in 1920 and the concept was first tried out the next summer. It is obvious that the city government had nothing to do with children’s recreation. The initial funding to designate “play streets” and to provide adult supervisors was cobbled together from the Community Chest in partnership with the Jewish Settlement, Good Will (later Goodwill) Industries, and the Negro YMCA.

It’s Cincinnati, so of course complaints erupted immediately. Some streets who had volunteered for the program pulled out because of the noise and because the program didn’t restrict participation to children who lived on that street. Businessmen complained that children having fun outside their factories drew workers’ attention away from the machinery. Still, the program grew each year and reached more and more neighborhoods. It also attracted national attention. The November 1921 issue of The Playground, a magazine for parks and recreation directors, devoted an entire page to Cincinnati’s “play streets.”

“When the streets were first opened for play, it was discovered that there were several families in each block that objected strenuously, fearing that the noise would be a nuisance. But frequent visits to each street made by members of the Community Service staff were helpful, not only in ironing out the trouble but in acquainting people with the philosophy back of the play street movement and the individual responsibility of every citizen for the maintenance and expansion of the present playground system in Cincinnati.”

And there certainly was a philosophy underlining the “play street” project. In a report at the close of the 1923 season, Reeves presented his philosophy.

“The child in the crowded industrial city needs as healthy a substitute as can be found for the open fields, the running streams and open spaces which most of the older generation enjoyed. Even playgrounds and play streets are danger spots without intelligent supervision, and this is what Community Services has been providing. The public gradually is realizing that play streets are educating fathers and mothers to the need for proper playground acres and to the further need of supervision.”

Cincinnati’s “play street” program offered a wide range of activities for young people including boxing and tossing pocketknives in mumblety-peg marathons. That’s young Fred Kramer sparring with Joe Weis on Green Street.

Cincinnati Post, 1 July 1924, Images extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Cincinnati’s “play streets” were not simply pop-up urban parks, but stringently supervised play areas with adults selecting and overseeing almost all activities. The Community Services staff organized children on the “play streets” into team games, circle games, relay races and individual competitions involving jacks, marbles and pocketknives – indeed, elaborate mumblety-peg matches were a highlight of “play streets” throughout their existence. Reeves expressed his musical interests by organizing children on each “play street” into choirs, choral groups and dance ensembles. Reeves trained college students in the art of storytelling, dressed them in “gypsy costumes,” and sent them out to entertain the young people with folk tales and stories. A troupe of affiliated thespians put on short plays aimed at a juvenile audience.

Perhaps the most popular activity of Cincinnati’s “play streets” were fireplug showers for the children. Every day, from 2:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. and again for a while after 6:30 p.m., the nearest fire hydrants were opened to allow children to shower right there in the street. According to the article in The Playground:

“The use of hydrants as shower baths met with an enthusiastic response on the part of the children and it is hoped that this will become a permanent custom.”

The location of Cincinnati’s “play streets” tells a lot about Cincinnati in the 1920s, including a glaring lesson in institutional racism. The streets cordoned off as “play streets” in 1924 included Clay Street and Green Street in Over-the-Rhine, and Clinton, Sherman and Richmond in the West End. Those streets were for white children only. Streets set aside for African American children included Barr, Cutter and George, all in the West End. Three other streets – a section of O’Bryon in O’Bryonville, Spaeth in Cumminsville and the far eastern portion of Sixth Street beneath Mount Adams – were set aside for Black children one evening each week. According to the Enquirer [30 June 1924]:

“Additional colored work will be carried out one weekend each week in Hartwell, Steel Subdivision and Madisonville.”

Reeves reported that 36,150 children participated in “play streets” activities during the summer of 1924. More than 10,000 attended the program’s one-act plays and more than 4,000 joined singing groups.

The success of the “play streets” program led directly to the creation of the Cincinnati Recreation Commission and the hiring of Will R. Reeves as Cincinnati’s first recreation commissioner. Sadly, Reeves’ career was cut short when he succumbed to a stroke in 1931, when he was only 47 years old. The Reeves golf course at Lunken Playfield is named for the man who sent Cincinnati kids to play in the streets because there were no parks.

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