The “Street Arabs” roaming Lower Manhattan

Urchins, gamins, Street Arabs—these were the tens of thousands of kids, mostly boys, who fended for themselves in the vast slums of post–Civil War New York City.

They slept in alleys and parks and made a living hawking newspapers and shining boots, congregating along Park Row, according to social reformer Jacob Riis in How the Other Half Lives:

“Whence this army of homeless boys? is a question often asked. The answer is supplied by the procession of mothers that go out and in at Police Headquarters the year round, inquiring for missing boys, often not until they have been gone for weeks and months, and then sometimes rather as a matter of decent form than from any real interest in the lad’s fate.”

Says one Street Arab Riis quotes:

“‘We wuz six,’ said an urchin of twelve or thirteen I came across in the Newsboys’ Lodging House, “and we ain’t got no father. Some on us had to go.’ And so he went, to make a living by blacking boots.”

[Photos by Jacob Riis, taken in the 1890s]

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15 Responses to “The “Street Arabs” roaming Lower Manhattan”

  1. The “Street Arabs” roaming Lower Manhattan | New York Blogs Says:

    […] […]

  2. DGK Says:

    Many of Riis’s photos were posed, which was of necessity given the photo technology of the time but is occasionally sited by modern gotcha-types to diminish his work. The bottom photo is an example of this, which is why it’s one of my favorites from his work. Notice the boy to the left cracking a smile while the two on the left put on exaggerated pouts. I love that ’cause the kids lives really WERE miserable, and yet they still had that spark of mischief. On another Riis note, arguably his most famous shot is called “Bandit’s Roost,” a shot of gang members (notably the Bowery Boys colorized here in red) off Mulberry Street. In Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, he recreated a scene when DeCaprio walks out from his hiding place after the whipping by Bill the Butcher. Here’s a screen shot.

  3. wildnewyork Says:

    Thanks! I’ve never seen Gangs of New York but love that Bandit’s Roost photo. I’ve always wanted to track down where exactly it was on Mulberry Street…there’s probably a shoe boutique there now.

  4. Chico Says:

    A bunch of spots cite the address as 59 1/2 Mulberry Street. Probably slipped down that little alley. By the way, Scorsese created all the sets for Gangs at Cinecitta studios in Rome. According to IMDB, “When George Lucas visited the massive set, he reportedly turned to Martin Scorsese and said ‘Sets like that can be done with computers now.'” They don’t say what I’ve heard, namely that Scorsese wants to be able to plan the shots and walk the streets and not have a bunch of green screens.

  5. wildnewyork Says:

    Perhaps a director gets better performances from his actors if he shoots on a painstakingly recreated set vs. green screens.

    I think I’m going to head out to 59 1/2 Mulberry this weekend along with some other Riis photo locations. Thanks for the address!

  6. Chico Says:

    I think it’s better for sure. I just know I’d like to have gone there. I wasn’t completely satisfied with the movie ’cause I tend to “live” back in the turn of the century for my own writing, and also DiCaprio’s injuries heal far too quickly, but it would have been great to walk those streets.

    Enjoy your visit. Again, looking forward to a future post on the Straw-Hat Riots. (Hint, hint.)

  7. wildnewyork Says:

    Straw-Hat Riots, gotcha.

  8. Chico Says:

    hahaha Thanks. I’d be glad to send what I have, too. It’s a very New York episode.

  9. Nabe News: July 1 - Bowery Boogie | A Lower East Side Chronicle Says:

    […] look at the army of homeless boys – “Street Arabs” – documented by social reformer Jacob Riis in post-Civil […]

  10. Caring for the East Village’s babies and derelicts | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] to devote her life mainly to children,” stated the Times.  The child was one of thousands of “street Arabs” who roamed the city in the late 19th century, because their parents worked or they had no homes to go […]

  11. Thousands of kids mob the city’s first playground | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] the driving rain, politicians pontificated. Jacob Riis, one of the reformers of the playground movement, took a turn at the […]

  12. The Newsboys Lodging House | Ehouslame Says:

    […] The “Street Arabs” roaming Lower Manhattan | … – Jul 01, 2010  · 11 Responses to “The “Street Arabs” roaming Lower Manhattan” The “Street Arabs” roaming Lower Manhattan | New York Blogs Says: July 1, 2010 at … […]

  13. New York’s painter of “cheery street urchins” | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] of social reformers such as Henry Loring Brace (founder of the Children’s Aid Society) and Jacob Riis, who documented street kids in How the Other Half Lives in 1890, Brown’s “cheery street urchins,” […]

  14. Nicky-Noodles Says:

    That is so sad, of what happened to street Arabs and how they lived. We are so lucky, in today’s times and how we live, (us kids).

  15. The noble mission of a Victorian Gothic building on ‘depraved’ Sullivan Street | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] Society in 1853, this 26-year-old minister came up with some radical ideas to help the thousands of poor and neglected kids who lived or worked on city streets—like sending children out West on so-called “orphan […]

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