What the reformers were agitating for, in essence, was a childhood that looked much like that of New York’s small but prosperous middle class. If you had money in New York in the late-nineteenth or early-twentieth century, you were more likely to keep your kids indoors. Middle-class children had playrooms and manufactured toys. They took music lessons, spent more time reading, and cultivated hobbies, like collecting coins and stamps. Unlike their working-class peers, they went on the occasional supervised outing. During the summer, they traveled and went to camp. These were the habits that would become the standard aspiration of American family life.
The federal government helped move these changes along, of course. It established the Children’s Bureau in 1912, which declared that every child was entitled to a healthy life and a reasonable standard of living. During the Depression, President Roosevelt created school-lunch programs and Aid to Families With Dependent Children. On the local level, state legislatures were passing individual laws curbing child labor. And after the Second World War, economic circumstances aligned with the Progressive Era’s aims: The nation enjoyed unprecedented prosperity, and fathers found themselves able to support their families on their own. Their children’s labor was no longer required. Children’s new “jobs,” so to speak, were to complete high school and, if possible, continue on to college.
Mintz would never advocate for a return to the days of the most Dickensian child-labor practices. But he, like Nasaw, implies that something valuable from those years got lost. “Kids’ lives were hard, but not quite as hard as we think,” he says. “Believe it or not, there were redeeming values.” Namely, the independence, agency, and worldliness that came from hard work and unstructured play. “It’s this kind of precocity that reformers tried to end,” he says, “and they succeeded. They viewed kids smoking at 10 and 12 and having independent money and walking into bars as the worst thing in the world. It reminds you that ‘child’ is a label, not a reality. It was a middle-class value. It was a status, and it was not imposed happily.”
New York City reformers may have played a role in setting a higher standard for American childhood, but they couldn’t change the city itself. As laws protecting children grew more abundant, the city remained dirty and dangerous, and then it went broke. In 1969, the Children’s Television Workshop debuted a cheerful version of city living in Sesame Street, but it ran against a backdrop of escalating burglaries and violent crime. From the seventies to the early nineties, the sidewalks crunched with hypodermic needles and glass vials, as drugs replaced disease as the most lethal epidemics among this city’s children. New York discharged its middle-class families to the suburbs, and the kids who stayed behind developed a certain bravado to survive. In Honky, his memoir of growing up in a Lower East Side project, the NYU sociologist Dalton Conley recalls boys in his neighborhood jumping on the bumpers of the M14 bus and “riding it like an urban bucking bronco.” And the richer, white kids with whom he went to school in the West Village were brazen, too. “They didn’t sell crack,” he tells me, “but they smoked pot in stairwells and trespassed and climbed all over the High Line.” These antics were not all that different from those of their turn-of-the-century predecessors, who caught rides on the backs of wagons and played tag on roofs.
It’s the New York City of today that’s the strange outlier: a land where Gymborees are nearly as plentiful as Starbucks and grown-up restaurants (Landmarc, City Hall) offer kiddie menus. New York’s child-fatality rate today is much lower than the national average, and neighborhoods that were once outposts of bohemianism have earned themselves the tabloid moniker of “diaper districts.” To the professional’s eye, it looks like this city has finally achieved the dream the Progressive Era reformers had long sought, that New York is spilling over with happy, well-tended children.