Pamela Robertson Wojcik

 

On her book Fantasies of Neglect: Imagining the Urban Child in American Film and Fiction

Cover Interview of October 12, 2016

The wide angle

Until this book, I never wrote about or taught anything related to childhood.  I came to this project initially through my interest in film and urbanism. As I wrote and taught about the apartment plot, I noticed that the filmic imagination in that genre tended to represent the city as almost exclusively an adult space – showing mainly singles or older married couples, but not families.  This was especially striking because my work was looking at domestic urbanism – life in apartments, not nightclubs or other adult-oriented public spaces.  At the same time, much of the discourse on the city that I was reading – aside from Jane Jacobs’ tremendous The Death and Life of Great American Cities – tended to either not discuss children at all, or talk about why the city was unfit for children and families.

I probably would not have noticed this except that I was a mom raising kids in the city, writing about the city, and writing in part from my memory of watching urban films and TV shows that made me, a suburban child, want to be a city person. But as I shared these texts with my kids – things like Harriet the Spy along with more contemporary texts, like Hugo – I realized that they ran counter both to the negative discourse on children and cities that had dominated 20th century urban discourse, and to the reality of my kids’ lives in the city today.  While reformers, urban planners, and social workers portray the urban child as poor, unhappy, and deprived, books and films about children show city kids expressing joy, resourcefulness, and the ability to colonize urban space for their own purposes, have encounters with strangers, take risks, and have fun without adults. However, contemporary kids exist in the world of what has come to be called helicopter parenting and what geographers refer to as the “islanding” of children, do not walk streets alone, and have lost their mobility and freedom.

So, I became interested in the relationship between children and the urban as an historical set of questions both about the ways in which kids have been represented and about how ideologies of childhood and ideologies of the urban have changed. This set of questions led me to read the work of children’s geographers, such as Colin Ward, John Gillis, Owain Jones, Kevin Lynch, Hugh Matthews and Gill Valentine; sociologists such as Paul Cressey and others involved with the Payne Fund Studies; theorists of childhood such as Robin Bernstein, Leo Bersani, and Kathryn Bond Stockton; literary critics who write about representations of children, including Marah Gubar and Claudia Nelson; government documents related to neglect and the decennial White House Conferences on Childhood.  Within film theory, Miriam Hansen’s work was especially important.  Her notion of vernacular modernism became a framework for thinking about how the 1930s child-focused films reflected upon modernity and especially anxieties over increased urbanization, and the growing squalor of industrialized cities, including overpopulation, tenements and slums.