Paidia meets Ludus: New York City Municipal Pools and the Infrastructure of Play

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Social Science History

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From 1870 to the present, the city of New York has built and maintained municipal bathing places including river baths, indoor bathhouses, indoor pools, and outdoor pools, designed around competing motivations of hygiene, recreation, and play. In this paper, I consider what it means for different groups to play in public space using Caillois's division of ludus--competitive, rule-bound play, and paidia--exuberant, unstructured play. First, using historical examples, I show how these notions of play were expressed in two shifts in the construction of municipal swimming and bathing infrastructure in New York City. In 1870, the enclosure of formerly unstructured bathing spaces at the riverbanks, and the establishment of floating baths in the rivers was meant to structure both time and behavior in the water; in 1936, the construction of 11 enormous swimming pools under Parks Commissioner Robert Moses provided bathing spaces, with recreation at the center of their design program and social function. Second, I offer contemporary ethnographic data from two outdoor pools in Brooklyn to demonstrate how rules around acceptable play are differentially enforced inside of the same institution. Through these historical shifts and contemporary variations, I demonstrate how both the construction and everyday use of municipal bathing infrastructure has been the site of an ongoing tension between ludus and paidia, inflected with urban problematics of class and race.


© Social Science History Association, 2015



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