"People of the City": Children in the City

By Robert A. Slayton

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The Ashcan artists viewed the people of the city from a unique perspective. Unlike the elites, they did not consider these individuals their biological inferiors. Yet they also differed from the reformers, in that they rejected the notion that the people who lived in dense city neighborhoods were inherently subjects of pity. Instead, Henri, Sloan, Myers, and the others painted children and women and men, each from these individuals' own, unique perspective, rather than imposing a worldview on them. By so doing, in their paintings and drawings, they gave working-class individuals agency, showing how these people adapted to the world around them in a myriad of ways, ways that often enabled them to attain a measure of control over some parts of their lives.

Above all, the Ashcan artists captured the vitality of working-class life in the great city. Like urban generations long before, and again today, these painters were inveterate people watchers. Everyone who loves-or even those who just enjoy-the city knows this is one of its greatest attractions, a ceaseless source of anecdote and merriment, the world's greatest show. William Whyte, one of the great sociologists, wrote in City, "The street is a stage ... what is most fascinating about the life of the street is the interchanges between people that take place in it." Or as a New York Timesreporter trumpeted, "The city as spectacle, as an endless producer of exceptional, theatrical images, a shifting who's who of people and things."[1]

Of particular note was the attention the Ashcan artists paid to the most powerless residents, the children. Instead, they recognized the intense and varied role youngsters played in the city.

The core of their concept of urban childhood was a still radical notion-that the city is not so much a dangerous environment but rather an exciting place to be a child, and one that helps them develop important lifetime skills. This flies in the face of the approach by most charities and reform organizations--even today-that the best thing to do for a city child is to get them as far away and for as long as possible.

Part of these scribblers' perspective derived from their time spent illustrating newspapers. That medium was experimenting with a new innovation, the comic strip. Starting in 1895, The Yellow Kid depicted the children in an Irish slum as happy and part of a community, engaging in a series of light adventures, with commentary in thick dialect delivered by the title character. This was the bold new form for graphic artists, and the Ashcan artists paid close attention. What the newspaper cartoonists drew was clearly the city, yet they told their stories with great affection for kids in these urban neighborhoods. In one of his few interviews, Richard Outcault, creator of this format, explained, "The Yellow Kid was not an individual but a type. When I used to go about the slums on newspaper assignments I would encounter him often, wandering out of doorways or sitting down on dirty doorsteps. I always loved the Kid. He had a sweet character and a sunny disposition, and was generous to a fault." George Luks, who took over the strip as its second artist-writer, found that a "child of the slums [made] a better painting than a drawing-room lady gone over by a beauty shop." Later, he elaborated how: "Children seem to have in their eyes a definite glimpse of something, a wonder, a half-awakened expectancy."[2]

Another reason the Ashcan artists picked up on this subject was the inordinate presence children had on the streets of the tum-of-the-century metropolis, especially compared to today. Children were ever present in such large numbers they seemed to be swarming at times. Cary Goodman, in his book on children's games, started his first chapter by telling how "the streets of the Lower East Side Jewish community were like a barrel overflowing with activities and people." John Sloan wrote in his diary on June 7, 1910, about a trip where he "took a walk through the section between Brooklyn and Williamsburg Bridges. Life is thick! Colorful. I saw more than my brain could comprehend, a maze of living incidents-children by thousands in the streets and parks." For these children-unsupervised by wage-toiling parents and without the organizational infrastructure of middle-class life-the streets were everything: playground, community center, ballfield, living room, and hideaway for assignations. Even a 1911 reform study by the Russell Sage Foundation acknowledged, "A hundred activities which in the Fifth Avenue home find their loci in parlor, study, den and garden, must among the mass of the people be somewhere outside the limits of the home." A 1915 article on the art of Jerome Myers told how the artist reveled in "the small Italians in Mulberry Bend, shrieking with delight as they hurry from unbeautiful houses to unwelcome schools, or the exultation of the Scandinavian children scampering over Battery Park on their way to new experiences and new lands." Sophie Ruskay, the offspring of immigrants, made clear that, when she grew up, "children owned the streets in a way unthinkable to city children of today." Part of this came from the fact that they lived in small apartments, often with little space for play. Seeking alternative venues, they created a world of fun and amusement in the neighborhood streets. Once outside, away from the adult domination in the factory or the home, these children built their own world, with their own rules, where they were in charge.[3]

Jerome Myers captured a hint of this presence in his East Side Children (fig. 8.1). In this drawing, children--while not in abundance--still take over the scene. They are everywhere­--standing, sitting, walking with mother, on the stoop, on the trash can, adorning a stone bannister, relaxing in the window. One could not pass this street without being very, very aware of the children all around.

One thing the artists noticed about all these kids was that they were happy, the antithesis of Jacob Riis' terrified urchins. Ruth Gay, a historian who grew up in the Bronx, remembered as a child being constantly reprimanded with, "Narele, vus lakhste?--Little fool, why are you laughing?" On a stroll down Ninth Avenue with Jerome Myers, John Sloan found "children swarming in the pools of din, sledding down three or five foot slushy heaps-having heaps of fun." A 1911 article in The Bookman reported, "The slum kid as you see him running through the streets is the happiest youngster alive."[4]

8.1 Jerome Myers (1867-1940),  East Side Children,  also referred to as  In Front of Tenement.  Jerome Myers,  The Artist in Manhattan  (New York: American Artists Group, 1940), 229.

8.1 Jerome Myers (1867-1940), East Side Children, also referred to as In Front of Tenement. Jerome Myers, The Artist in Manhattan (New York: American Artists Group, 1940), 229.

Several of the Ashcan paintings-including some of the most famous works-capture the joy that many city kids clearly experienced. George Wesley Bellows' classic, Forty-Two Kids, portrays this in rich colors (fig. 8.2, pg. 130). This painting was based in fact; street kids all over the city swam off the docks, jumping in, splashing around, cooling off, heedless of the garbage or the dangers. According to a New York Times story, kids preferred jumping into one of the city's rivers over going to a municipal pool with its elaborate set of regulations, determined and enforced by adults. The paper of record reported that ''all the police in New York could not keep these amphibious dock rats on land when the desire for a swim takes passion of them."[5]

The boys in this painting reflect that luxury and are having a grand time, all of their own choosing. Some are active-diving in, swimming, washing, playing-while some just sleep in the sun. Clothing is optional-nobody seems to care-and a few of the boys wear suits but most do not. There is a strong sense of camaraderie here; the boys are part of a community of their own making. Bellows understood what was happening here. Marianne Doezema insightfully pointed out the difference between the title of this painting and another of Bellows' works, River Rats: "While 'kids' behaved mischievously, they were thought capable of possessing redeeming qualities. By contrast, river or dock rats were thought to be irretrievably subsumed by temptation and vice."[6]

8.2 George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925),  Forty-Two Kids,  1907, oil on canvas. Corcoran Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA/Museum Purchase, William A. Clark Fund/Bridgeman Images.

8.2 George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), Forty-Two Kids, 1907, oil on canvas. Corcoran Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA/Museum Purchase, William A. Clark Fund/Bridgeman Images.

This subject matter-a frank and joyous painting of one part of a child's life in the city­ was unprecedented, and caused reaction. Some caught the point of the painting; a 1912 review of Bellows' work requested that readers see for themselves "if the very joy of pure existence is not its central idea." Joseph E. Chamberlain of the New York Evening Mail, on the other hand, captured the elite response to the Ashcan approach when he described Bellows' work as "a tour de force of absurdity ... in which most of the boys look more like maggots than humans." Depicting children-even worse, working-class children-as having fun was a controversial notion to many New Yorkers.[7]

Above all, the painting that captured the Ashcan spirit of children enjoying the city is George Luks' The Spielers (fig. 8.3). This painting can be summed up easily: these city kids are having a lot of fun. They are grinning from ear to ear, their bodies keeping the beat and swinging in harmony. Whether it be the jitter buggers of the forties or the rock and rollers of the fifties, youngsters throughout time have been swept away while dancing. The only thing unique, therefore, is that this painting captures that giddiness, but the subject is street kids in New York City at the turn of the century. One 1915 journal offered the following review: "It is a joyous canvas, a picture to live with. For all their ragged attire, the two little maidens, locking their hands together, are as happy as princesses. Beneath their rags, their young bodies are responding ... to a single emotion, to the unswerving, unalterable law of rhythm which acknowledges neither poverty nor wealth."[8]

The key to understanding what the Ashcan artists uniquely saw in the city comes out beautifully in The Spielers. The kids depicted here are typical of city youth: they don't know they're poor. They just know the world around them and make the most fun of it they can; there is no sense of envy or self-pity. They just love their life on the streets. That insight is something the reformers never quite understood.

8.3 George Luks (1867-1933),  The Spielers,  1905, oil on canvas, 36 1/16 x 26 1/4 inches; 91.6 x 66.68 cm. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts. Gift of anonymous donor. 1931.9. Photo credit: Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts/Art Resource, New York.

8.3 George Luks (1867-1933), The Spielers, 1905, oil on canvas, 36 1/16 x 26 1/4 inches; 91.6 x 66.68 cm. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts. Gift of anonymous donor. 1931.9. Photo credit: Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts/Art Resource, New York.

Besides joy, the other great attribute of urban youth that the Ashcan artists captured was agency, the desire-and ability-of youngsters in the city to control their own destiny. In these art works, children were actors in the urban drama, with their own section of the script.

A number of scholars have discussed how children rejected the structured world of adult authority and instead created their own environment, where they decided the terms, mostly within the world of play. Howard Chudacoff, in his study of children at play, argued, "Dodging the control of parents has long been a part of growing up, but in the first half of the twentieth century resistance and the quest for autonomy flourished in ways that previously had not existed," primarily because of the new urban environment. Unlike the farm. where work and chores were constantly supervised, many urban youth, with parents toiling horrendous hours and school for just a short spell each day, had increasing amounts of free time to spend with their peers. This group "created a social arena in which youngsters subscribed to ideals and assumptions influenced by, but distinct from, those of parents, teachers, police, and clergy."[9]

This meant they rejected the adult world in favor of one of their own devising. As one youngster explained, "I can't go to the playgrounds now. They get on my nerves with so many men and women around telling you what to do." Instead, the child entered a world of adolescent structure where all the rules-whether of games, turf, or conduct-were locally devised, taught to the next generation of newbies to arrive, either by birth or off the boats from Europe. This also meant that their values-which were taught on the playground and enforced-set out what was ethical and acceptable behavior in their world.[10] Young people in the city, marginalized by adults of all classes, managed to create an alternative world just as ably as any novelist writing a best-selling series. These kids defined the players and what role to assign to each one, laid our spatial boundaries and defined zones just as surely as any geographer or anthropologist. Above all they defined the rules of their community, the most important element of any society.

A child's life in the city, in other words, was excellent training for life in a modem, industrialized democracy. As I wrote in an earlier work, "play taught even the very young how to create their own social system and how to devise rules so that the system worked to the benefit of everyone involved .... [they} received their first training in stability and community while playing on the urban side streets." In addition, because the small group was in charge, "children's games taught them the basics of small group democracy."[11]

Two works by George Wesley Bellows capture this culture. The appropriately named 1906 painting Kids clearly takes place in an urban setting, albeit a private one (fig. 8.4). This is no public, supervised park but rather a getaway where youth can congregate on their own terms out of sight of their adult antagonists. The lad on the far right, for example, smokes a cigarette. Others stand individually, while some are in a group, chatting. On the left a pair of older ones are taking one of their juniors in hand, quite literally, applying the discipline of the peer group. This is a close, intimate portrait of a city kid's world, drawn with empathy and respect.

8.4 George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925),  Kids,  1906, oil on canvas, 32.37 x 42.37 inches; 82.23 x 107.63 cm. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. The James W. and Frances Gibson McGlothlin Collection.

8.4 George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), Kids, 1906, oil on canvas, 32.37 x 42.37 inches; 82.23 x 107.63 cm. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. The James W. and Frances Gibson McGlothlin Collection.

The other work relevant to this discussion is Paddy Flannigan (fig. 8.5, pg. 134). Judging from his attire (or lack thereof), this urban youth comes from modest circumstances and is already working as a newsboy. Yet, this is a study in defiance. The thrust-out hips, the direct gaze, all denote the sense that young Paddy will not accept guff from anyone, at least not without a fight; he is master of his own destiny. One study called this "a canvas that brims with humor, impertinence, and audacity."[12]

8.5 George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925),  Paddy Flannigan,  1905, oil on canvas. Private collection/photo © Christies Images/Bridgeman Images.

8.5 George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925), Paddy Flannigan, 1905, oil on canvas. Private collection/photo © Christies Images/Bridgeman Images.

Robert A. Slayton is the Henry Salvatori Professor of American Values and Traditions at Chapman University. He is author of several books, including Empire Statesman: The Rise and Redemption of Al Smith.

Copyright © 2017 SUNY Press. Excerpted from Beauty in the City: The Ashcan School with the author's permission. All rights reserved.