Children at Risk:
Protecting New York City’s Youths, 1653-2003
The New-York Historical Society
2 West 77th Street
New York City
Through April 4, 2004

’Tis the season for giving – not only to loved ones, but also to those in need. New York City has quite a few children in need.

The New-York Historical Society is presenting “Children at Risk: Protecting New York City’s Youths, 1653-2003,” a timely exhibit, with the sponsorship of The New York Times, which is currently conducting its annual Neediest Cases drive.

The exhibit opens with a startling fact: “In 2003, three out of every 10 city children under age 18 are living below the federal poverty line (defined as an annual income of $18,000 or less for a family of four). … Taken together, the 1.6 million New Yorkers of all ages living in poverty would, if given their own municipality, constitute the fifth largest city in the United States.” Things are rough.

Things have always been rough and the exhibit consists of material that witnesses that fact. Unfortunately, as Dr. Steven H. Jaffe commented to the World, while there were likely many grass-roots efforts to help impoverished and abused children, little physical evidence of these efforts survived. What records and memorabilia survived were mainly from philanthropic, religious, reform movement and government efforts to help children. The exhibit very objectively states the results of these efforts were mixed.

Merchant Cornelis Steenwyck was one of New Amsterdam’s “orphan masters.” Wealthy himself (he traded in sugar, tobacco and slaves), he later became mayor. New Amsterdam distinguished between deserving and undeserving impoverished by making people wear red or blue badges on their clothes. The deserving received alms, the undeserving, punishment.

In 1735, an almshouse was built on what is currently the site of City Hall. There was an infirmary, a workroom, and a cellar reserved for “the unruly and obstinate.” When it opened in 1736, it housed 12 adults and at least seven children. By 1795, it sheltered 622 people – four out of 10 were immigrants. Children were supposedly taught a trade, and some were indentured.

The early half of the 19th century saw a great increase in the city’s population from impoverished immigrants. Only affluent parents could afford tutors or private schools to educate their children. Other children served apprenticeships. Two wealthy Quakers founded the Free School Society, which later became the New York public school system.

James McCune Smith, born of a slave mother and a white father, was able to attend the African Free School, a charity sponsored by the New York Manumission Society. He was emancipated in 1827 by a state law abolishing slavery. He was refused admittance to American medical schools because of his race, so he studied in Glasgow, Scotland. He opened an interracial medical practice on West Broadway in 1837, becoming the first professionally trained Black physician in the U.S. Frederick Douglass would say that Smith was the most important Black influence in his life.

A group of wealthy New York women established the first orphanage in New York City in 1806. This was followed by religion-sponsored orphanages, a Catholic one serving immigrant Irish, German and Italian children, the Hebrew Orphan Asylum serving Jewish children.

Racism kept African American children out of the existing orphanages, so in 1836, a Quaker, Anna M. Shotwell, and other women, founded the Colored Orphan Asylum. Many of the children there were not orphans, but had mothers in domestic service, or fathers out to sea, and so needed a temporary home. Today, the Harlem Dowling-West Side Center is the successor to the Colored Orphan Asylum.

Of course, no exhibit of impoverished children would be complete without some of the incredible photographs taken by Jacob Riis of the horrors of tenement life. Several examples of his work are shown, including a picture of homeless “street arabs.”

The exhibit covers the initiation of several major current institutions – the New York Foundling Hospital, still providing services for special needs children, the Fresh Air Fund and The Children’s Aid Society.

The Children’s Aid Society was founded in 1853 by Charles Loring Brace. He believed that children should be taken out of bad environments – the streets and asylums of New York – and be allowed to grow up in rural settings. In one of his efforts that definitely had mixed results, over 100,000 children were sent by the Children’s Aid Society on “orphan trains” to western states where they were fostered with farm families. Many of these children were not orphans, but removed from their families and became free farm labor. Some children found loving environments, others, abusive ones. The program ended in 1929 as western states passed laws against taking in non-resident children.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NYSPCC) was founded to investigate and intervene in cases of child abuse. Children were not only abused by parents in stressed situations, they were also abused by people who “sheltered” them and “slave-masters” who had children working on the streets. The NYSPCC raided the “Shepherds Fold,” an orphanage on East 16th Street run by a Rev. Cowley and removed 24 children “sick, emaciated and nearly starved to death.”

Thousands of working-class children contributed to their family income, or survived on their own. They hawked newspapers, scavenged, or worked in home-industries sewing and rolling cigars. Some begged, stole or were sold as prostitutes.

The 1903 Street Trades Bill required newsboys to be at least 10 years old, have parental permission, and be in good standing at school, whereupon the boy would be issued a badge. Lewis Hines photographed some of these “Newsies,” many without badges – some very much younger than 10.

Progressives collected social data and started pushing for reforms. Settlement houses, such as the Henry Street Settlement and Greenwich House were founded. Social work became a new profession. Metropolitan Life, which had sold millions of low-cost “industrial” life insurance policies, was convinced to start a visiting nurse service to try to reduce the mortality of tuberculosis, diphtheria and other illnesses found in disease-ridden tenements.

Alongside settlement houses and the beginnings of social work, immigrants tried to be self-sufficient, relying on their own churches, ethnic societies and labor unions to help families in crisis.

Then the Great Depression struck. As part of the New Deal, Aid to Dependent Children was enacted in 1935. It became the foundation for welfare.

The exhibit closes with current problems and successes. Reagan started the reduction of government spending on social programs, culminating in Guiliani’s Work Experience Program, which tried to replace welfare with “workfare.” Drugs, AIDS and homelessness are major threats to children. Racism still exists, education budgets are constantly being cut, and abuse cases leap out in the news to horrify us.

Head Start programs have helped, Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City has come on the scene, and Sept. 11 initiated Operation Giveback.

After Sept. 11, Public School 234 was evacuated along with much of lower Manhattan close to the World Trade Center. In response, the world sent gifts of money, books, supplies, teddy bears and letters of support for the children. The principal, teachers and parents felt this was the very opportunity to teach their children about giving and receiving. In Operation Giveback, the students collected $9,000 for the homeless and other charities. A fifth-grader, Ashlee Gibbs, is quoted, “Giving can make all sorts of things happen.”

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