haunted

At the Haunted Hutchings mini-block party on October 31, I hung out with 300 of my Dorchester/Roxbury neighbors. Parents met over apple cider and cookies. Kids played with spooky steam from the laundry vent next door. Families posed in a DIY photo booth, clothed as witches, zombies, lizards or kittens.

On Halloween, as we played at being things we are not, we emerged as something we are:

a hardworking, playful community, with deep resources of talent and a critical mass of people who do GOOD.

In my neighborhood, many families carry a disproportionate share of private and public grieving. Over 70% of violence happens in 5% of Boston’s city blocks (Kennedy et al., 1997), and some of those blocks are not far from where we live.Stories emerged while I chatted to neighbors in the weeks preceding Haunted Hutchings. Robert, my neighbor, waved to a woman taking out her trash on Elm Hill and told me that the woman’s son had died where we stood, five years before. Robert saw it happen. While standing outside my friend and colleague’s house a few blocks over, a father walking by asked about a sculpture that had been part of a gallery show at the Children’s Museum.  The sculpture– wrought by artist Ben Tau in metal found on this street– depicted his son, who had been killed nearby around the same time. Yvonne Abraham’s lovely article in the Globe last week thankfully focused on the uplifting parts of the Haunted Hutchings project, but we cannot deny the memories that truly haunt these streets.

Pairing these very human stories with those very cold statistics, many people would not see our neighborhood as a “relaxed field,” a factor that must be in place if play is to occur (Burghardt, 2005). For a creature to be able to play, it needs a low level of stress/competition for resources, adequate food, a basic level of health and parental care. Burghardt’s criteria reference non-human animals, but humans are no different. It’s hard to play when you’re worried about food; when the stresses of your life make parenting especially challenging; when your son gets involved in something he shouldn’t– or worse, when he was exactly where he was supposed to be– and it ends in tragedy.

Haunted Hutchings came out of several simple observations:

1. Halloween is one of the only times people go door to door and step on strangers’ thresholds. It is playful.

2. Many families in my neighborhood leave the neighborhood to trick-or-treat elsewhere because of safety concerns.

3. The majority of people who live on Hutchings St have lived there for over ten years, some for over 40 years.

4. Hutchings St, though within the territory of the H-Block gang, is not a specific base of gang activity.

With a small group of neighbors, we used the stories we heard to develop a simple approach:

1. We would proclaim Hutchings St a “safe street” for trick-or-treating, and promote it as such in the neighborhood.

2. We would decorate our houses to be as welcoming and playful as possible.

3. We would create a gathering space on the street so families could meet each other.

Despite all the stresses families face, somehow, the resulting Haunted Hutchings– with its kittens, lizards, and a whole family of zombies– was a “relaxed field.” It fell somewhere between that and the “magic circle”– the space that is “a temporary world within the ordinary world” (Huizinga, 1955). It’s the space where a few factors– cultivation of space, the words we use– combine to magically indicate that the game has started. It’s a play bow, a predication, a move towards something different.

Through people like Steve and Allison and Dane and Amy and Liz and Linda and Carla and Marilyn and Lester and Rick and Robert and all the other neighbors on my block, with the stimulus of the Grove Hall Trust, we faced our fears playfully on Halloween. We started something magical.

“Play, while it cannot change the external realities of children’s lives, can be a vehicle for children to explore and enjoy their differences and similarities and to create, even for a brief time, a more just world where everyone is an equal and valued participant.”

Patricia G. Ramsey“Diversity and Play,” 1998

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