Urban Children: Life in the Streets

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"Newsboys and bootblacks shooting craps," 1912. Courtesy of The New York Public Library.

Most urban children in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century played on the streets and sidewalks, especially those who lived in densely populated tenement neighborhoods such as New York City’s Lower East Side.

Some cities attempted to legislate children’s street play. They saw it as, at best, a nuisance to adults, who could be struck on their way to work by an errant ball from a children’s game, and, at worst, potentially fatal to children because streetcar and trolley accidents were common. Eleventh Avenue in New York City came to be known as “Death Avenue” when the New York Central Railway installed tracks for a commercial train. The train endangered children who live along the avenue, some of whom lost their limbs or lives playing on the tracks. In 1908, 500 children marched up Eleventh Avenue in protest.

Children organized elsewhere to protect their ability to play in the streets. In 1906, a group of children called the Courtland Street Liberty League protested to Cleveland Mayor Tom Johnson when children were prohibited from playing in the streets. They waved banners and carried signs on their way to meet with the mayor, who was won over. “If the children have no playgrounds," he said, "they should be allowed to play in the streets.”