The Just Metropolis: Street Kids

by Peter Sigrist

Melissa's "Cities for Children?" post brought to mind the importance of kids in matters of social justice. Anyone would agree that children shouldn't have to live in poverty. Still, it's far from simple to assure that everyone starts on equal footing.

Roger Mayne has documented children living in urban poverty with striking intimacy. One of his series focuses on London's Southam Street between 1956 and 1961, not long before it was demolished to make way for Trellick Tower. He photographed kids around the neighborhood each day, revealing their potential as well as their increasingly fragile hopes.

How can we help children escape poverty? What if we were to secure their rights to quality environments, sustenance, health care, and education? Would this limit personal freedoms, create dependencies, require a powerful (and potentially overbearing, inefficient, corrupt, or unattainable) bureaucracy? I'd like to answer no, but I'm not sure.

This post is aggravatingly full of questions when we really need ideas and action. As humans, we're able to recognize injustices and find creative ways of eliminating them. Perhaps we can expand upon these abilities by investing in disadvantaged kids.

Credits: All images scanned from The Street Photographs of Roger Mayne, published by the Victoria and Albert Museum.


  1. I love the photographs in this post! But didn't Britain help its kids in a huge way after World War 2 - with free school meals, a national health service, free milk to eradicate rickets and so on...that did so much to improve the health and welfare of the following generations...I don't see why that couldn't be done again...

  2. Mayne's intention is to highlight the vitality and beauty of street life even in the midst of decaying surroundings. I don't think these children are necessarily "street kids," in the sense of not having a home. His goal seems to be less pity than it is admiration.

    Here's Mayne on his work:

    "My reason for photographing the poor streets is that I love them, and the life on them (I am here concerned with what I see: for the moment it is irrelevant that most of these houses have no baths, and that their structure is endangered by disrepair). Empty, the streets have their own kind of beauty, a kind of decaying splendour, and always great atmosphere — whether romantic, on a hazy winter day, or listless when the summer is hot; sometimes it is forbidding; or it may be warm and friendly on a sunny spring weekend when the street is swarming with children playing, and adults walking through or standing gossiping. I remember my excitement when I turned a corner into Southam Street, a street I have returned to again and again... I think an artist must work intuitively, and let his attitudes be reflected by the kinds of things he likes or finds pictorial. Attitudes will be reflected because an artist is a kind of person who is deeply interested in people, and the forces that work in our society. This implies a humanist art, but not necessarily an interest in 'politics'."

  3. Great point, Laura, and thanks for posting that, Daniel. True, these aren't homeless kids. I'm not sure why I used such an ambiguous title to refer to children who spend most of their free time playing around city streets. It's good to consider how Mayne defines his interests. I like the way he doesn't try too hard to make a political statement, and it's clear that he admires these kids and their environment. I think this combination (kids + environment) is created through politics, and art can play unintended political roles.

  4. To accuse these children of not being homeless would completely fail to empathise with their daily lives. It's true, they didn't spend most of their free time (when not sleeping or at school) playing on the streets with their peer group friends because they lived permanently on the street. It was more that their life on these play streets (remember there were no car owners in these areas) made up the childrens entire formative experience from an early age.


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