Inheritors of the Street: Helen Levitt Photographs Children's Chalk Drawings
- Buildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum
- University of Minnesota Press
- Volume 28, Number 1, Spring 2021
- pp. 58-83
- Additional Information
This article explores the early work of Helen Levitt, specifically Levitt's photographs of children's chalk drawings taken during her tenure at New York City's Federal Art Project in 1937. It shows how Levitt, dissenting from normative representations of the urban child, suggested a reading of children that attended to their place-making ability. It argues that through her continued attention to collective and marginal spaces within the urban landscape—sidewalks, stoops, façades, and doors—Levitt recognized children's ability to create, define, and transform space into their own. In Levitt's photographs, her subjects typically took ownership of streetscapes through acts of play, disclosing the disruptive potential of this spirited ritual. Levitt framed these chalk pictures as fine artworks, instances that uncover the folklore of the urban spaces of East Harlem and the inner workings of a child's mind. Through a close look at the objects, subjects, and ideas that populate the chalk drawings, we see children's efforts to create and inhabit their own imagined landscapes, ones that are woven into the collective space of the urban street. Through this creation, activation, and socialization of space—real and imagined—they fashioned a place for themselves within the contested city streets.