Kids Play – Martha Cooper’s Lower East Side
MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour
Produced and Directed by Gail Pellett
Writer: Gail Pellett
Production Company: MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour
Presented by: Thirteen/WNET, New York & WETA
Aired on: PBS     Date: 1984

Photo by Martha Cooper

This 6 minute documentary – originally produced for MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour in 1984 —  features a photographic project by Martha Cooper who began driving around the Lower East Side as a photographer for the New York Post back in 1977.   Her photographs reveal a neighborhood  of stressed 6 story walk-ups, housing projects, boarded up buildings and vacant lots strewn with garbage.   But that’s not the subject.

“I began concentrating on what kids were doing when adults weren’t around.” She  discovered a complex and fanciful world of children’s play there.

“I began to see all these creative things that kids were doing in the streets and empty lots with minimal materials.  They proved you didn’t need complicated playgrounds and  a lot of expensive toys to have fun.  The first toy that got me thinking was an airplane made from two pieces of found wood and a nail.”

Photo by Martha Cooper

Cooper documents handmade toys, “houses,” and all sorts of fun stuff.  “I became interested in the fantasizing that kids do with minimal props and how they constructa life apart from adults.  I was interested in this fantasy play rather than games with rules.”

Cooper also documented kids as urban naturalists…catching flies with found bottles in a vacant lot. “They were enjoying this as much as somebody  catching butterflies in a country field,” says Cooper.

Cooper’s lens also captures dangerous play — jumping off fire escapes into a pile of mattresses, or scaling high metal fences, and riding the backs of buses called “hitchhiking buses.”    “I was always attracted to the things kids would do that there mother’s wouldn’t approve of.”

Photo by Martha Cooper

While many of these activities on the Lower East Side could be considered universal for kids there’s one activity that is peculiar to New York and that’s the opened fire hydrant in the summer.  “While the fire department offers to put a device on it that can control the pressure, the kid don’t want that.  They prefer to take a tin can and punch the bottom out, then use it as a way to control the water.”

Cooper claims that when adults see these photos they feel nostalgic.  “What happens is that adults forget this stuff — Peter Pan and Wendy.  Instead, kids folklore is passed on from child to child…mostly these kids really know how to have fun.”

Black and white photos by Martha Cooper

Breaking News

Martha (Marty) Cooper has published her photography in several legendary books: her kids play photographs were collected in a volume called "Street Play" in 2005; her book on New York graffiti called "Subway Art" with Henry Chalfant, Thames & Hudson (London) and Henry Holt (New York) was published in 1984. "R.I.P.: New York Spraycan Memorials" also by Thames & Hudson, appeared in 1994. She's published other work on B girlz and Hip Hop as well. She is currently at work on a photographic project in Sowebo, Southwest Baltimore, Maryland.


9 Responses to “Kids Play – Martha Cooper’s Lower East Side”

  1. Evelyne says:

    Excellent piece. Thank you Gail. So many more conversations to have

  2. Gail Pellett says:

    Thanks for taking the time to check out my archival site and responding. Yes, more conversations!

  3. Deirdre English says:

    Loved watching this video!

  4. Susana Wald says:

    Dear Gail, I loved the way you presented this documentary. It brings home what we already know, namely that humans are creative and that this creativity is present in us from the beginning of our childhoods. Our culture tends to train us out of this ability. If all of humanity were allowed to remain childishly creative, ours would be a different world.

  5. Brian says:

    I really enjoyed watching this. So glad you posted this documentary.

  6. Ingrid says:

    This is just amazing. I first arrived in Manhattan in 1975 and lived on the Upper Esst Side. Opening fire hydrants was one of the few ways to stay cool in August, as many people did not have ac. Thanks for sharing these photos and videos with us, Gail.

  7. Gail Pellett says:

    Thank you, Susana, for watching and responding. See you soon, I hope!

  8. Gail Pellett says:

    Hi Brian, thanks for watching and responding!

  9. Gail Pellett says:

    Ingrid, thank you for watching and responding. Yes, I know that you know this period in New York City. And look at the kids bodies before corn syrup and the passive watching of devices created an epidemic of obesity! Hope to see you this year!

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