Unfortunately, Riis says, such charities and institutions are not enough. Another New York institution is that of the “Street Arab,” who is crowded out of the tenements and has to fend for himself on the streets. He is independent, loves freedom, and refuses to acknowledge any authority other than his own. In winter, he hangs around the newspaper offices, fighting with other vagabonds for warm spots around the grates that let out steam from the underground press-rooms. He sleeps with one eye open, on the lookout for the police, and knows every secret passage and short cut for escape in the city.
This chapter is another example of Riis’s ethnographic interest in documenting different populations. A “Street Arab” was a common name for any child living on the streets, regardless of his or her ethnic background—though the derogatory use of the term “Arab” reflects Riis’s generally ambivalent attitude, between sympathy and suspicion, toward different populations.
Street Arabs are, Riis says, to be found throughout the city, not just on Newspaper Row: they have been found asleep in the end of an iron pipe by the Harlem Bridge or in an old boiler by the East River. The question of where they come from is answered by the regular procession of mothers who stop by the Police Headquarters, though sometimes not for weeks or months after the boys disappear. While the clerks say they’ll return when they’re hungry, it’s more often the case that their hunger caused them to flee.
Riis suggests that part of the reason for these children’s abandonment of home is the lack of care, attention, and even daily necessities provided to them by their parents. Progressive reformers tended to stress the importance of a safe, productive family life, and here Riis exposes how poverty can work to damage such family bonds.
One child Riis encountered at the Newsboys’ Lodging House told him that he was one of six children, and had no father: some of them had to abandon home, so he started to make a living by blacking boots. While such boys might easily end up in prison, there are several institutions that have sprung up to protect him, including the lodging-houses and schools of the Children’s Aid Society. Such places are convinced that cleanliness is the first step toward morality, so they insist only on regular washing: otherwise the boys remain free to come and go as they please. If they cannot afford to pay they are given a loan, though expected to pay it back as soon as they’re able; they rarely betray this trust.
Throughout this chapter, Riis switches between the modes of narrative explanation and visual description, between serving as detached expert and as tour guide. Here he first describes an encounter with one boy at a specific place, then fills in further information and context for his reader that takes place outside the timeline of his visit to the Newsboys’ Lodging. This dual-pronged strategy is a key part of Riis’s effort toward both maintaining interest among his readers and educating them.
Riis describes the night schools and Sunday night meetings that foster a sense of community in the lodging-houses and help develop the boys’ character. Still, they can remain boisterous and rowdy. One night Riis tried without much success to photograph the boys as they were washing up for dinner. One of them took on the role of rueful manager, apologizing to him that the boys wouldn’t stay still.
Riis is clearly in favor of such schools, which embrace education—a key tenet of Progressive-era reforms—and also allow a safe space for what he sees as boys’ natural tendency toward boisterous activity. Here such rowdiness is benign rather than ominous, as it is on the streets.
In total, 12,153 boys and girls found lodging and education in these homes last year. In addition, the daily average attendance at all the industrial schools also run by the Society was 4,105: these included 1,132 children of alcoholic parents and 416 that had been found begging in the streets. The Society also regularly sends children to the Far West to escape the temptations of the city. It keeps tabs on all of them, and nearly all become successful members of their communities. Riis describes the work of the wealthy Mrs. Astor, who sent a total of 1,300 homeless boys to good homes over the course of her life. Indeed, most of the lodging houses he’s described were built by some rich person or family.
Riis transitions from a sympathetic narrative account of one lodging-house to a data-driven analysis of how such homes operate in New York. He wants to stress how impressive these numbers are, citing the Society as a model for further reform. While Riis is eager to promote changes on the level of government, he also thinks that private philanthropy and individual initiatives are ways for wealthy people to actually intervene in support of the “other half,” rather than ignoring or actively harming them.
Riis also describes an uptown lodging house that was built by the young men who now benefit from it—an ideal means, he thinks, of both combating homelessness and encouraging hard work among New York’s young poor. Riis cites the example of the philanthropist Colonel Auchmuty, who has established trade schools that may eventually stamp out the phenomenon of the Street Arab.
While Riis embraces philanthropy, he (like other contemporary reformers) can also be suspicious of pure charity, since he thinks New York’s poor should be motivated to work. Initiatives like these that put people to work thus seem especially promising to him.