Posts Tagged ‘Street Arabs’

A 12th Street home and school for destitute girls

August 27, 2018

There’s an unusual red brick building at 307 East 12th Street that has Victorian Gothic bells and whistles mixed with a Flemish-style gabled roof.

A home? A school? Turns out this four-story beauty originally served as both when it opened in 1892 as the Elizabeth Home for Girls.

Run by the Children’s Aid Society, one of many organizations dedicated to benevolence in the Gilded Age city, the Elizabeth Home took in girls whose families were either too poor to take care of them—or who didn’t have families at all.

“The handsome structure was designed as a home and training school for destitute girls, and is well adapted to the needs of the inmates,” a New York Times article stated on dedication day. (“Inmate” meant anyone living in an institutional setting.)

“Elizabeth” was the name of a deceased sister of Emily Wheeler, a New Yorker who first used her wealth to fund the earliest day nurseries for the kids of working mothers before purchasing the land on East 12th Street and turning her attention to the plight of homeless girls.

The goal was to help girls avoid the “evil influences of the streets,” according to an 1893 Times article.

Dormitories and bedrooms were on the upper floors, along with a dressmaking workroom. The first floor and basement consisted of a laundry, typing room, dining room and kitchen, and sewing machine area.

By “school,” the Children’s Aid Society didn’t mean reading and writing so much as preparing the girls who lived here to earn a living.

“The statistics of the home showed that in the last year 22 girls had been trained in the dressmaking department, 99 in the machine room, 24 in the laundry, and 35 in housework, while 108 had been sent to situations, 28 to employment, 44 returned to friends, and 44 to various institutions.”

The building’s architecture might look familiar.

It’s the work of Calvert Vaux, co-creator of Central Park, who decades later helped design several homes for boys and girls put up by the Children’s Aid Society, such as the Lodging House for Boys on Avenue B and the Mott Street 14th Ward Industrial School, both still extant.

Destitute girls continued to exist in New York, but the Elizabeth Home was sold in 1930, only to be reopened as a girls’ home in the 1940s by the Florence Crittenton League, which had its roots saving “fallen women” in the Gilded Age city.

By 1982, the unusual building became a co-op. Last year, a two-bedroom on the ground floor—where the “inmates” learned typewriting and sewing—sold for $1.3 million.

[Second photo: via GVSHP)

New York’s painter of “cheery street urchins”

October 10, 2016

When John George Brown immigrated from England to New York in 1853, he was a struggling portrait painter making a living as a glass cutter.

[“The Gang,” 1894]

brownthegang1894

Brown made his way to Brooklyn, where he was hired by the Flint Glass Company on Broadway.

With money from his day job, he signed on for night classes at the Graham Art School (a precursor of the Brooklyn Museum on Washington Street) and Manhattan’s National Academy of Design.

[“Delivery Boy,” 1863]

browndeliveryboy1863

He impressed one of Flint’s owners with his talent, and after marrying the owner’s daughter and securing his father-in-law’s financial backing (as well as support from a few art dealers), he set up a studio at the Tenth Street Studio Building in Greenwich Village and began painting street kids.

[“Bootblack,” 1866]

brownthebootblack1866

This was the second half of the 19th century, and in the rapidly growing cities of Brooklyn and New York, these “street Arabs,” as they were sometimes known, weren’t hard to find.

The Children’s Aid Society, formed in 1853, estimated that about 3,000 kids lived on city streets, scratching a living as newsboys, bootblacks, vendors, and criminals.

[“The Flower Girl,” 1887]

browntheflowergirl1887

As the urban population exploded in the Gilded Age, so did the population of orphans, half-orphans, and runaways, their numbers estimated in the tens of thousands.

This was a societal problem that certainly didn’t go unnoticed, with benevolence organizations building homes for working kids and successfully urging legislators to pass mandatory school and child labor laws.

[“Extra!” 1889]

brownextra1889

What distinguishes Brown’s depictions of street kids is the rosy, romanticized glow he gave his subjects, which was so at odds with the harsh lives homeless children led.

[“The Sidewalk Dance,” 1894]

brownthesidewalkdance1894

And despite the work 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,” as one biographer put it, were a big hit with the public.

brownselfportrait1908His name may not be well-known to art patrons and sellers today.

Yet his paintings and lithographs—including scenes of the city’s adults at work and play, from grimy longshoreman taking a midday break to more refined people enjoying the sport of “curling” on a lake in Central Park—hang in impressive museums like the Corcoran Gallery and are still in demand.

An engraving of “The Sidewalk Dance” just sold at auction for $468.

[Left: “Self-Portrait,” 1908]

The “Street Arabs” roaming Lower Manhattan

July 1, 2010

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]