Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Children of the Streets

The immigrant slums of Five Points (what's currently the Lower East Side in New York City) were hell for the children who lived there in the nineteenth century. Children were street-wise by a ridiculously early age. And what did they encounter on the streets?  Danger from horses, carts, and lack of food, gangs, criminals, boredom, freezing temperatures, and an absence of supervision. 

To make ends meet both parents had to work, often leaving the children to fend on their own, to take care of each other, or even to find ways to make money themselves.  They sold what they could find: scrap wood, bits of coal, newspapers, or stale bread.  Or they'd steal.  Or gamble.  Now, living in an age when we're wary of letting our children walk a few blocks to school or go to the mall by themselves, this freedom--and its consequences--is beyond comprehension.

And then there were the orphans. Tens of thousands of them (who actually had parents, or not) all alone, without anyone to love or hold them. It tears my heart out to see the pictures of children huddled together in the cold.

The photo below is of a mere baby playing in the hallway of a tenement near the communal water tap. Did this child live?  Flourish? Was she hungry?

There were organizations who tried to help. The New York Foundling Hospital, the Children's Aid Society, and other organizations did their best to take in the poor children, often sending them out West to willing families (ever hear of the Orphan Trains?) One orphanage used to put a crib outside its door so mothers would leave their baby there rather than on the curb.  But it kept filling up so quickly, they had to bring it indoors.//Nancy Moser


  1. Hi Nancy:

    When I first glanced at the second photo, a child holding a child, I thought it was a present day picture from Lima, Peru. When I was in Peru, I saw many scenes like that.

    Also I’ve read that Brazil has an almost identical ‘orphan’ problem today. (Even worse considering the kids have guns and the police will not even go into the neighborhoods.)

    If you look back at all of history, life has almost always been brutal for almost all of the people for almost all of the time. Yet, I don’t think many people in America today ever think of this. If anything, a study of history should show us how incredibly lucky we are.


  2. We are incredibly lucky now--blessed. There used to be a small slice of upper class, a slightly larger middle class, and a large lower class. "The poor will be with us always" but nowadays most of us deal with "wants" rather than "needs". How would America have been different if these immigrants in 19th century New York City had NOT gone through such poverty, if they'd achieved their dreams right off?

  3. Hi Nancy:

    What those 19th century immigrants had were motivation and opportunity. These two driving forces help build American. While social ‘safety nets’ are humane; they tend to kill motivation, create a sense of entitlement and foster resentment.

    Immigrants are still a revitalizing force today when they come for the opportunity and not just for the social services. I think the period form 1880 to 1900 is one of the most explosive and energized times in human history. We can learn a lot today by studying this period.

    Keep up the great work you do on this website.


  4. One thing this post has brought to light for me is the reminder that the problems in the news--homelessness, for example--are not necessarily new woes. When I tend to think that the world is falling apart, I am reminded by history that "the good old days" I'm sometimes tempted to think of with nostalgia also held very difficult realities. It makes me look forward to the Kingdom even more!

  5. Those pictures are heartbreaking. And to think--someone took them-the photos, I mean. Did they walk away from those poor kids afterwards? Did they help them? It sure would be interesting to know how many children survived the streets and what they were like as adults.

    1. Hi Vickie! I realize your comments were posted a LONG time ago but I felt compelled to address your question anyway: I just finished reading a book on the notorious "Five Points" neighborhood and learned that most of these pictures were taken by a reporter named "Jacob Riis" using the then recently invented "flash" photography. As an immigrant himself who lived and endured homelessness in this very same neighborhood, he had a strong drive to help these unfortunate residents, where often as many as 18 or more people were crammed into small, dark, stifling and decrepit one or two room tenement apartments (many families even took in borders to help pay the rent). His photographs, eventually published in a book entitled "How the Other Half Lives", were instrumental in bringing the plight of these impoverished immigrants to the attention of the general public for the first time (formerly "out of sight, out of mind) and basically spearheaded the social reform movement to demolish most of the worst tenements, get new health and housing laws passed, and to finally begin rehabilitating these slums. So, in a way, yes, the photographer DID "help them" and countless other future immigrants, in an indirect way, by literally "shining a light" on their plight and pushing for much needed reforms.

  6. My grandmother was a child left to keep the house and tend the children and do everything her own mother would have done had her father not died. Her mother first left Grandmother in the Catholic Girls' Home and her five sons in the Catholic Boys' Home while she went to another state to find work and a place to live. At the age of 9, Grandmother was pulled out of school to be a housekeeper and raise the boys.
    They weren't immigrants in New York; this was all in Florida and Alabama in the 1910's.
    Sidebar: the boys were always in trouble, and the police came to know them well.
    Grandmother married the policeman who walked his beat in her neighborhood.
    Guess something good came out of all of it!

  7. Children were often forced to grow up early and take on big responsibility. My grandmother, born in 1900, was forced to leave school after grade school. The youngest of 8 children, her mother needed her at home because she was so worn out! As compensation for giving up school, Grandma was given piano lessons. I have her old upright piano.