Little Grown-ups and Their Progeny

On the evening of July 24, 1899, newsboys were pouring into the Lower East Side from every direction—uptown, the Battery, the Brooklyn Bridge. Decades later, these kids would be enshrined in black-and-white film and on Broadway as lovable little urchins, falsetto town criers as essential to city life as gas mains or the horse. But on this particular day, they were far more agitated than adorable. They’d just formed a union and were striking against William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, owners of the New York Journal and World, respectively.

At first, the two newspaper magnates didn’t know how seriously to take the threat. According to Children of the City, written by CUNY historian ­David Nasaw, the first memo Pulitzer received about it assured him this situation “was well in hand.” The next day, however, his managing editor had to concede that the strike had “grown into a menacing affair.” And by the end of the week, his managing editor’s conclusion was unambiguous. “The loss in circulation,” he wrote to Pulitzer, “has been colossal.” By ripping up newspapers, tipping over the wagons that carried them, and snatching copies from customers’ bare hands, the ­newsboys—whose ages, generally, ranged from 7 to 12—had managed to squelch circulation by almost two thirds, to just 125,000 copies a day.

The boys had luck on their side. The police were preoccupied with the Brooklyn streetcar operators’ strike, and the competing papers enjoyed making toothsome hash of their rivals (“5,000 Strikers Swarm in and Around New Irving Hall,” read the subhead from the Sun on July 25. “No More Violence Their Orators Tell Them, and a Voice Responds, ‘Oh Soytenly Not!’ ”). Perhaps the most important factor in their success, though, was this: Newsboys were indispensable. They were the primary means of newspaper distribution throughout the city. There was limited home delivery, and not nearly enough newsstands to serve everyone. And so these boys, these little boys—who played marbles in their spare time and spent their earnings on sweets, whose strike tactics included throwing rotten fruit and whose organizers went by the names of Racetrack Higgins and Kid Blink—brought two of the city’s most prominent moguls to their knees. It’s hard to imagine gangs of young boys accomplishing anything today, even if they were similarly disgorged by the thousands into the streets—­other, that is, than getting lost.

Today, we think of New York City children as fragile, vulnerable creatures, sensitive to sunlight and best stored in Styrofoam peanuts and bubble wrap. But perhaps the greatest irony about childhood in New York is that parents are protecting their kids from a metropolis that’s never been safer or more prosperous. For most of this city’s history, kids were an independent, adventurous, and far tougher species, and regarded by their parents with much less sentimentality, even when the city was more treacherous.

Of course, children were once much harder to protect. Before vaccinations and modern hygiene, children across America died more frequently—from tuberculosis, cholera, and typhus, not to mention measles, mumps, and smallpox—but New York children, living cheek by jowl, were especially susceptible to disease. They were exposed to other dangers, too, like the occasional industrial accident (most famously the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire) or the constant chaos of street traffic (it was not uncommon for small children in New York to be trampled by horses or, later, run over by automobiles). City kids learned early on that life was harsh and vulgar. In the late-nineteenth century, they often played on the same blocks that prostitutes walked—which meant, on occasion, teasing them or running their errands. As late as the early-twentieth century, dead horses would lie unattended for days in the streets. Nasaw says children would cut off their tails and weave them into rings.

And city children worked. This was true of children across the country: Until the end of the Second World War, they were considered economic assets and expected to contribute to the family economy, rather than drain its resources. In New York during the Industrial Revolution, many kids worked as runners in stores, until the introduction of the pneumatic tube. Others worked in sweatshops or did “outwork,” taking industrial tasks like sorting feathers and hemming skirts into their homes. (New York, being tight for space, was always a factory town low on factories.) But it was during the turn of the century, when the newsboys mounted their rebellion, that children became the city’s most visible laborers, because they worked in the city’s most visible place: the streets. The boys sold newspapers, blacked boots, scavenged for junk, and shuttled messages and goods. Girls scavenged, too, and watched their younger siblings from the stoop. “Little mothers,” they were called.

Immigrants were streaming in by the millions back then—between 1890 and 1900, the population of New York grew from 1.5 million to 3.4 million—and the city strained to accommodate the growing number of children. Most attended school in overcrowded classrooms (as many as 70 kids per class) and slept in tenement rooms without windows, fresh air, or sometimes beds. Some were even less fortunate: Over a span of 70 years, nearly a quarter-million children were loaded onto “orphan trains” and shipped as far away as Alaska (where one orphan subsequently became the state’s governor). At the Museum of the City of New York, you can find dozens of pictures of “Street Arabs,” those gangs of dispossessed and shoeless kids who, to keep warm, slept on grated vent holes with one eye open (“like rabbits in their burrows,” in the words of Jacob Riis). At the DiMenna children’s museum at the New-York Historical Society, there’s a haunting, yellowed list, circa 1874, that carefully documents the reasons 100 boys applied for beds at a newsboy lodging home: Half were orphaned, twelve had mothers in prison, and two had mothers in the hospital. Four had parents who were homeless themselves. Nine were deserted by their parents; seven described their parents as drunkards. Three had fathers who’d run off with someone else, three had stepfathers who’d turned them out, and four had fathers at sea.

Yet in spite of the overcrowding, the hardships, and the danger, New York City, at least in Nasaw’s opinion, was one of the better places to be a kid in the late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century United States. “I’m not saying that there weren’t city kids who were victimized and ragamuffins,” he says when I call him to ask about this somewhat contrarian point of view. “But the vast majority of the kids who worked in the cities by then had homes, hats on their heads, and enough to eat.”

Country kids, explains Nasaw, were locked inside mines and textile mills. They worked long hours in sugar-beet and cotton fields. They started working at much younger ages than city kids and had to walk miles to get to their schools—if indeed they went at all. Whereas city kids always lived relatively close to their schools and stayed enrolled until they were older. Most important, New York children had social capital. Because they were forced from their tenements and into the streets, they wound up claiming ownership of them; the streets became their city-within-the-city, their world-within-a-world. In 1913, according to Nasaw, 95 percent of New York City children played in the streets, climbing lampposts and stealing blocks of ice for sport. They were known by all the local merchants and often drove them mad; in Children at Play, Brown historian Howard Chudacoff describes a simple diversion called “hares and hounds,” in which a child tore through a shop and into the back alley, trailed by a gaggle of friends. Kids thought nothing of swimming in public fountains or the East River (this at a time when most did not know how to swim).

The autonomy children had was made all the more glorious by the emergence, at the same time, of a new consumer culture. Immigrant families might have been poor, but they were surrounded by staggering abundance. There were sweets and fruit and ribbons to buy; nickelodeons and penny arcades to haunt. Turn-of-the-century children were earning money at the moment that American capitalism was starting to develop amusements especially for them. Most children were expected to direct all their earnings into the family till, but most parents weren’t watching closely enough to enforce the rule.

To some extent, this freedom to roam remained true of city kids through the early fifties, at least if they lived in the safer neighborhoods of the outer-boroughs. The Columbia historian Kenneth T. Jackson mentions the 1953 classic film Little Fugitive, in which a 7-year-old takes the el train to Coney Island and spends the afternoon wandering around, all by himself. “That the entire city was not searching for him is amazing,” says Jackson. “Essentially, nobody on the trains or alleyways pays any attention.”

At the very moment that New York City children were playing and working in the streets, however, reformers were agitating for more stringent labor laws to protect them. In fact, the historian Steven Mintz, author of a classic, comprehensive history of American childhood, Huck’s Raft, argues that the protected childhood we know today had its origin in cities, because here was where child poverty, child abuse, and exploitative labor practices were most visible.

New York was particularly fertile ground for reformers. The earliest settlement houses for the poor were big boosters of kindergarten, English classes, and summer camps. The overcrowded tenements—as well as the high number of automobile fatalities—convinced progressives of the need for public playgrounds, supervised by adults. Many self-proclaimed child savers recoiled at the amusements working-class children discovered for themselves (penny arcades, music halls), finding their vulgarity corrupting.

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.

And it has, perhaps, but at a dear price. The fact is, the number of children in New York decreased by almost 9 percent between 2000 and 2010. According to the Department of City Planning, the black population under 18 decreased especially dramatically during those ten years, by 22.4 percent, while the population of white children decreased by only 3.8 percent. In the city’s richest borough, Manhattan, the number of white kids actually grew—by nearly 23 percent—and in rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn, the number of white kids increased by 7 percent. (The displacement of blacks and Latinos in some neighborhoods is painfully pronounced: In Brooklyn’s District 6, which encompasses Park Slope, the South Slope, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, and Red Hook, the number of white kids grew by 28.5 percent while the number of black and Hispanic kids each dropped by 36 percent.) Asians are the one ethnic group whose number of children increased overall during the decade.

So New York may indeed have become a bastion of middle-class values. The more affluent children have hours of structured activities, loads of supervision, ample schooling; they stick close to home. But this cloister we’ve developed for children is indeed just that: tall and high. Living here as a child is an increasingly rarefied experience, enjoyed mainly by those whose parents can afford it.

And who really knows, ultimately, if it’s even healthy for the city’s children to lead such sheltered lives? Certainly, the bubble they inhabit has its educational and economic advantages, training and priming them for the information economy that awaits. But all the insulation in the world can’t protect New York children from life’s most difficult realities—failure, rejection, illness. This city no longer tests children as it once did, and it demands far less resilience. “First, ideally, we are made to feel special,” writes the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in his most recent book, Missing Out. “Then we are expected to enjoy a world in which we are not.”

The New York of old may have been harsh in many ways. But it probably prepared children far better for the world’s ultimate indifference.

Scouring for change through a street grate during the Depression. Photo: Popperfoto/Getty Images

The Madison Square Boys Club reading 3-D comics. Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

Little Grown-ups and Their Progeny