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Could kids hold the power to desegregate an Ohio town?

In 2013, Harvard professor Robert Putnam published an op-ed in the New York Times titled “Crumbling American Dreams.” That essay was the precursor to the book, “Our Kids,” released this week to high expectations, 15 years after Putnam’s first sociological oeuvre, “Bowling Alone.”

But not everyone was pleased with Putnam’s New York Times piece. Especially not everyone in Port Clinton, Ohio, Putnam’s childhood hometown. In the op-ed and the new book, Putnam uses Port Clinton as a case study of how America has segregated socioeconomically in the past 40 years. He paints the rust belt town as a place where the American dream has gone to die — but some say unfairly. At a community forum in 2013, locals criticized the New York Times for running a photo of a razed middle school — certainly a sign of a “crumbling” opportunity-for-all economy. But, in fact, Port Clinton education leaders clarified, the school had been demolished to build a new one.

Joining the community meeting via teleconference, Putnam agreed that the Times shouldn’t have used that photo. But that’s not the only thing that angered Port Clinton residents. “People felt like Dr. Putnam was bashing the city,” said Tricia O’Connor, a recent Indianapolis transplant to Port Clinton.

Carol Clemons, a Port Clinton teacher and guidance counselor, felt that. “I was pissed. Being a teacher, I’m like: Seriously? You took the ugliest shots of Port Clinton that you could probably take. To say nothing’s going on and nobody’s helping these kids – it made me really mad.”

Putnam tried to ease those concerns, explaining that he was researching an American phenomenon and not blaming one town. “I hope you can tell that I love Port Clinton,” he told the crowd.

O’Connor hadn’t been offended by the Times piece. In fact, she was thankful that it opened up her eyes to her new community. “Having walked around, being new to the area, I thought, well, there’s a lot of dilapidated houses and, you know, someone here needs my help, but I had no idea that poverty levels were as high as they were.”

Another frustration among the community: What to do. After that initial town meeting, the local United Way director Chris Galvin put out a call for solutions to the problems Putnam presented. Volunteer at the library, mentor a child or help out a single mom, she suggested in a letter to the editor in the local paper.

Galvin soon received a proposal that was as strikingly basic as it was revolutionary: why not use play-time to bring together children from Port Clinton’s segregated neighborhoods? “Play is something that we all do and something that we all love,” said Clemons, who was born in Port Clinton the same year that Putnam graduated high school. She remembers the town being much less polarized that it is now, and part of that was the way kids interacted; she simply didn’t notice socioeconomic differences. “I remember going to a birthday party in the Gardens when I was in the first grade, which is the really bad place in town now, and breaking my first piñata and thinking nothing of it,” she said. “I mean, it was fun – she was just my friend.”

The way kids played was different, too. “We played in the peach orchards, and we rode horses and we roamed around in the woods,” said Clemons. “When we were growing up and outside we did a lot of things our parents would have said, ‘No, don’t do that.’ But we learned how to assess risk, [and] what’s safe, what’s not,” said O’Connor. “Kids today don’t have that opportunity because they’re never really allowed to mess around with things.”

Bringing back unstructured play — in other words, letting kids be kids — was the idea behind Lake Erie Adventure Play, a startup organization co-founded by O’Connor and another Port Clintonite, Melissa Bayer, and supported by the United Way. The program is modeled after similar pop-up adventure playgrounds around the world.

Not only does play bring together kids, Clemons explained, but it gives parents from different neighborhoods something to talk about with each other. It also teaches them to loosen up with their children, she said.

But it’s not always easy. Even within certain socioeconomic groups, said Clemons, there’s stratification. She’s seen that “the kids from a slightly better project” won’t attend play activities at a housing project they think is for the more disadvantaged.

Some of the poorer kids haven’t been exposed to play. Clemons met one young girl from a housing project who didn’t know where to start when it came to building a dollhouse. “She didn’t know that idea of free play, of being creative, of taking junk and making something out of it,” Clemons said.

What’s more, some kids have never even been exposed to the most basic art supplies. For example, many of them don’t know what to do with tape, O’Connor said. But that’s part of their development, too. “They’re figuring out it’s sticky, [and] those are really early science literacy skills.”

Without a middle class to bridge the haves and have-nots in Port Clinton, Clemons said, play has become an important connector. Even if it doesn’t directly address poverty, O’Connor echoed, “it really helps create that social network among kids who might not normally associate with each other.”

That’s one small step toward bowling together.

Watch Paul Solman’s Making Sen$e segment with Putnam in Port Clinton, Ohio, below:

Lee Koromvokis contributed reporting to this story.

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