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Children in Urban America

A Brief History of Children in Urban America

"Childhood," argues Joseph Hawes, a leading historian of childhood, "is where you can catch a culture in high relief." (Washington Post, November 13, 1998) And in the urban spaces of the United States during the last century and a half, where, in any given year, more than a quarter of the population were under the age of eighteen, the experiences of children, adult attitudes toward children, government policies toward children, and the intersection of childhood and culture can be studied in great detail.

American cities have been the stages for dynamic economic growth and the scene of crushing economic hardships, the crucible of racial and class stratification, as well as of daring social and political reforms. And children have, of course, been at the center of it all, from a qualitative, as well as a quantitative, point of view. Although rural families have always tended to be larger than urban families -- in 1910, for instance, there were 782 children per 1000 women of childbearing age in the rural United States, but only 469 in urban areas -- the percentage of the urban population counted as children remained high.

In 1860, nearly 42 percent of Milwaukee residents were under the age of fifteen; more than half were under the age of twenty. That percentage dropped over the next several decades, but almost a third of urban residents were under eighteen or younger in 1930, a number that held fairly steady into the 1950s. (The percentage of youngsters in Milwaukee County's population reflected national trends.)

But children were integral elements of urban America in many other ways, too. Everything that happened to and for children in the second half of the nineteenth century and in the twentieth century happened first in the cities. When the stages of childhood and youth were extended through compulsory education, the commercialization of entertainment and leisure, and the reform of abusive child-labor practices, urban children were the first beneficiaries.

As the national culture became increasingly child- and youth-oriented, nowhere was it more apparent than in the city. As millions of immigrants, including many children, flowed into the United States between the Civil War and the 1930s, they tended to crowd into urban neighborhoods, where the youngsters would fill public schools and take up diverse street trades. As institutions and organizations developed to meet the needs and desires of children and youth -- ranging from social clubs to sports teams, from orphanages to juvenile courts, from kindergartens to day cares -- they appeared first in urban areas. As reformers fought to reduce the back-breaking hours of hard labor performed by children in the 1910s and 1920s, they won their first successes in urban industries. Farms were left out of the early, halting attempts to end child labor. In many respects, then, the history of children's experiences and of the efforts by adults to shape and to aid children are deeply rooted in the history of American cities.

City children represented every ethnic group, every socioeconomic strata, and every religion found in the United States. Yet we tend to think of the "street arabs" captured in Jacob Riis' haunting photographs of the 1890s or of the hard-working newsboys, factory hands, or scavengers in the pictures taken by Lewis Hines a couple of decades later.

City children, it seems, should be working class children. Yet we know, of course, that there were also middle- and upper-class children living in American cities. Their backgrounds not only ensured a routine dominated by school and play -- without work -- but also better access to health care and to toys, games, and entertainment of all kinds. Even as, later in the century, they came to live more in suburbs than in cities, even if they did not have to hawk newspapers or live in cold-water tenements, the polished offspring of the "better sort" of urbanites were still city children, caught up in its rhythms and institutions, its hardships and fun.

David Nasaw has captured these challenges and opportunities in his path-breaking book, Children of the City: At Work and at Play. In his preface he offers an eloquent but not romanticized description of the relationship between urban children and their surroundings.

"This book," he begins, "does not take as its starting point the assumption that the city is, has been, and must be the worst possible environment for the young. City kids grew up without adequate air, light, and space to play and grow, but, compared to their rural counterparts locked inside mines, mills, and canneries or put out to work on sugar beet, cotton, and berry fields, they were privileged. The children of the city did not wither and die in the urban air but were able to carve out social space of their own.

"They converted streets, stoops, sidewalks, alleyways, and the city's wastelands into their playgrounds. As they reached the age of ten or eleven, they went to work in their downtown business, shopping, and entertainment districts where, every afternoon after school, they scavenged for junk, blacked boots, peddled gum, candy, and handkerchiefs, and hawked the latest editions of the afternoon dailies."

Nasaw is writing about the early twentieth century, but the dynamism of children's urban lives prevailed long before and long after the period examined in Children of the City. The brief excerpt captures perfectly the intersection of play and work, hardship and happiness, that have always molded children growing up in the urban areas of the United States.

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