A City for Children: Women, Architecture, and the Charitable Landscapes of Oakland, 1850-1950

A City for Children: Women, Architecture, and the Charitable Landscapes of Oakland, 1850-1950

by Marta Gutman


View All Available Formats & Editions
Usually ships within 6 days

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226311289
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/19/2014
Series: Historical Studies of Urban America Series
Pages: 448
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Marta Gutman is professor of architectural and urban history at the Spitzer School of Architecture, City College of New York and a member of the doctoral faculty of art history at The Graduate Center, City College of New York. She is also a licensed architect.

Read an Excerpt

A City for Children

Women, Architecture, and the Charitable Landscapes of Oakland, 1850â"1950

By Marta Gutman

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-31128-9


New Ideas from Old Things in Oakland

Let's start early on an August morning in 1888, as Elizabeth Betts readied herself for work. The kindergarten teacher, a graduate of the California Kindergarten Training School in San Francisco, lived and worked in the urbanizing flatlands in the western part of Oakland, California. In the early 1940s a former resident, evidently without sympathy for African Americans arriving during the Great Migration, recalled that only earlier in the city's history had West Oakland "contained many of the city's best citizens." To those men and women who, like Betts, were white, Protestant, and economically privileged in the late nineteenth century, the regular urban fabric spoke of successful city building; a success needed to cement their imperial ambition in the American West and to secure a good childhood for their children. In Betts's residential neighborhood, narrow wooden sidewalks separated gravel-covered streets from neatly fenced front yards, and the occasional empty lot, filled with tall grasses, yellowed from the long dry spell of a California summer.

I like to think that as the morning fog started to clear, Betts stepped out the front door, saw the foothills of the San Leandro Mountains shimmering in the distance, and perhaps imagined the fecund terrain beyond in the great Central Valley. She waved goodbye to her parents—William, a wealthy English immigrant who owned a carriage spring company in San Francisco, and Sarah, active in the Congregational Church—as she walked across the sidewalk and stepped into the waiting carriage. Even in this seemingly bucolic setting, railroad schedules and factory whistles outlined the rhythm of the day. At nine o'clock sharp, "Miss Lizzie" expected thirty boys and girls at the West Oakland Free Kindergarten (figure 1.1). Two years earlier she had set up the charity school for working-class children in Oakland Point, a neighborhood that was also in West Oakland but closer to the heart of the industrial machine than the capacious home of the Betts family on Myrtle Street. From the many properties for rent, Betts selected a sunny room inside an inexpensive building on Peralta Street, close to the Southern Pacific's sprawling railroad yards. Her decision to repurpose this place, remembered to have been "the former premises of a liquor-saloon," rendered explicit her intent to educate and to socialize children in need. "She didn't look for an elaborate house and in a location where she would be surrounded by her friends," an admirer wrote subsequently in the Sunday Call Magazine. "No, not she. Instead she went into the quarters of the poorest of Oakland's poor."

The author of the Call article, Madge Moore, may have exaggerated the poverty of Oakland Point in the late 1880s, but she nonetheless underscored with her backward glance this important point. Differences between the single-use neighborhood, where Betts lived, and the mixed-use neighborhood, where she worked, prompted women of her social class to venture to unfamiliar urban places to change the circumstances of workingclass childhood. The West Oakland Free Kindergarten was one result. It belonged to the charitable landscape for children—the physical network of buildings and spaces that women put together in the nineteenth and early twentieth century to improve cities for kids. In the gendered, mixed economy of social welfare that prevailed historically across the United States, state, county, and municipal governments counted on women to care for children in need, and women were more than eager to oblige. Although the precise configuration of responsibility varied from state to state, women relied on the same instrument to structure public-private partnerships. They organized voluntary associations, the element of civil society that Americans from all walks of life used in the nineteenth century to extend state power—in this case, to protect children.

The investments in childhood helped to make the American city a place for hope about the future, rather than only for despair about poverty, pollution, disease, crime, corruption, and injustice in the present. Charitable institutions for children, often housed in repurposed buildings and run by female volunteers, played a key role in addressing the social ills brought about by industrialization and urbanization, bringing order to the urban landscape, and creating reserves of public places freed from speculative development. However, not all problems were resolved. As America urbanized, the charitable landscape rendered public the architectural decisions of women and the social needs of children; it also inscribed physical reminders of the failures that had demanded its creation. Since children did not benefit equally from adult largesse, the physical spaces made for them in the charitable landscape served to ingrain inequalities and prejudices as well as to endow them with a special, idealized world. The process of giving and getting, the presence of many kinds of buildings, and the unpredictable relationships between people and places made the charitable landscape one of many intersecting cultural landscapes that gave an incomplete, tenuous, fragile, and imperfect order to nineteenth-century American cities.

California was no exception. Americans held dear to the romantic sense of the West as a special region, even after Frederick Jackson Turner declared the frontier closed, the feature that he alleged defined the region. In California more than elsewhere, the natural beauty, astonishing landforms, and abundant plant and animal species stunned newcomers. Especially for children, they praised the advantages of a temperate climate and ready access to nature—the sense that this was a new Eden. Nevertheless Americans, hungry for land and greedy for gold, introduced a market economy and class structure to this place: they seized the province of Alta California in 1846 during the Mexican-American War, executed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, which delivered the territory to the United States, and wrote a constitution during the Gold Rush, in anticipation that the territory would be admitted to the Union.

The victors had promised to respect Mexican civil law, which had banned slavery since 1823, but the status of slavery in this new territory of the United States erupted during the 1848 presidential election. Opponents to slavery's advance formed the Free Soil Party, while Whigs and Democrats, the nation's main political parties, waffled on whether to restrict slavery in California—the explosive issue that had at least in part inspired the Mexican-American War. Even though the proslavery Whig candidate Zachary Taylor, a war hero and slave owner from Louisiana, won the election, Free Soil sentiment took hold on the Pacific Coast. The conveners of the constitutional convention in Monterey voted to ban slavery in 1849, and California was admitted—as a free state, in 1850. In the face of ensuing bitter contests over land and water rights, huge capitalist enterprises based on the extraction of natural resources spread across the hinterland, railroads linked them to markets, and city builders began to make California urban. By the 1870s, California ranked among the ten most urbanized states in the nation. By then, women had put in place components of the charitable landscape for children. Their concern was the crises that damaged childhood during industrialization, urbanization, and migration even in a small city like Oakland.

During the heady years of the Gold Rush, Horace Carpentier and two other Yankee land speculators set out to plat this new city, eight miles across the bay from the booming town of San Francisco. They staked adjacent claims on the flatlands of the contra costa (other shore), north of an estuary that assured a sheltered harbor (figure 1.2). Most of the stately oak trees that gave the town its name were cleared, milled, and used to build on the 480-acre site. The town sat within the El Rancho de San Antonio, 44,800 acres of land that had once been home to the Miwok people. In 1820 the Spanish crown had given this huge parcel to Luís María Peralta in thanks for military service to the colony. Peralta and his sons retained ownership after Mexico won independence from Spain in the following year, but their claim to this property came to naught. Like other wealthy Californios, the family could not control its vast holdings in the face of the Anglo invasion. The commission in 1850 of a plat on the land stolen from this family, state approval in 1852 of the charter based on the illegal plat, and another action endorse the claim that the city was "conceived in iniquity and nurtured on corruption." In 1868, Carpentier bribed Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, and Collis P. Huntington, the directors of the transcontinental railroad, to terminate that railroad in Oakland. The deal they struck delivered to these men, the Big Four, all riparian rights, including those to the harbor.

The Big Four won control of a city with a prosaic plan (figure 1.3). Julius Kellersberger, the surveyor, delivered the expected and nothing more to Carpentier and his partners—an even grid of streets, rectangular city blocks divided into narrow building lots, four public squares, and one main street, Broadway, that linked the harbor to Telegraph Avenue and San Pablo Avenue. To the west, the skew of Market Street, off the Kellersberger plat, set the orientation for streets that would over time fill the area known as "West of Market."

Three years after the delineation of the plat, the city opened its first public school (a oneroom schoolhouse) and an educator set up a private academy (three kids enrolled in an institution that would become the nucleus of the University of California). The modest buildings indicated a remarkable change about to burst forth—one that would transform cities and alter childhood. Kids have always lived, played, learned, and worked in urban spaces. However, the provision of places purposefully made for children is an invention of the modern world. As a new understanding of childhood began to emerge in early modern Europe, privileged classes embraced a sentimental ideal that emphasized a child's innocence. The sentimental construction of childhood intersected with other revolutionary social changes—the separation of home and work, the modern concept of public and private life, the rise of consumer society—and a new belief that was a product of the Enlightenment. Positing an active relationship between buildings and people, it asserted that because material culture affects human beings, it should shape their behavior.

Places and objects started to change as adults used them to ensure that children had a good childhood—one that was protected, happy, and playful. They also counted on all sorts of "stuff" to protect children from adult sexual desire, to display kids as valuable objects, and to insulate themselves from childish behavior and activities. In houses, middle- and upper-class parents expected children to play in nurseries and to sleep first in separate bedrooms and then in separate beds. Orphanages, schools, kindergartens, day care centers, hospitals, reform schools, and special prisons were built, followed by playgrounds, summer camps, museums, and libraries. Even if the metaphor of "islands" is sometimes used to describe this differentiation, children's places were not isolated from adult hopes and fears for childhood. Adults used physical spaces and material culture to set out and put in place their goals for childhood.

Taken together, changing ideals and changing places worked to define and prolong childhood as a time of dependency. The condition of dependence, tied to "powerlessness, submission, bodily inferiority or weakness," one historian has argued, set parameters for childhood in Western culture before it was described in terms of a specific biological age. As middle-class children became treasured for their emotional role in family life rather than for the market value of their wage labor, a broad consensus developed that kids should learn and play in settings made with those purposes in mind. This process, called the "sacralization of childhood" by Viviana A. Zelizer, galvanized reformers. They asserted the right of all kids to childhood as Americans struggled to reconcile demands for protection, charity, and dependence with the dearly held belief that liberty, rights, and independence go hand in hand in a democracy. These reformers refused to countenance resistance to the top-down call for protection even when it trounced on treasured prerogatives. One of those prerogatives was parental autonomy. In a patriarchal household, fathers, not a charity or the state, determined the course of childhood.

A photograph of the West Oakland Free Kindergarten gives some sense of the situation in the mid-1890s (see figure 1.1). Now the building is gone, cleared in the 1920s to make way for a public playground. Since this structure, like so many others, has been lost, it's necessary to use historic photographs to grasp the architectural character of the charitable landscape and to assess its effects on children. In this example the actual institution building process, the alteration of a saloon into a kindergarten, underscored the breadth of Betts's message. Her goal was not only to improve childhood, but also to reform the working class family.

Forty clean, neatly dressed children inhabited a place that had been made on purpose for them: the backyard of a school. Extraordinarily (remember that the US Supreme Court was about to declare that separate was equal), the charity was racially integrated. If the photograph portrayed these children as individuals by virtue of their demeanor and dress, they also belonged to an age-graded group, the kindergarten class. Supervised by three teachers and gathered to learn through play, these kids were protected from danger, disease, crime, immorality, and other contagions that kindergartners (as teachers and promoters of kindergartens were called) and other child savers believed were legion among the immigrants who lived in a neighborhood like Oakland Point. Reformers may have appreciated that working-class parents loved their children, but they could not grasp the manner in which these parents invested in childhood. Skilled railroad workers allowed their kids to attend the free kindergarten and gave them toys and pets to play with—and dolls and a dog are shown in the photo, an indicator that the right to play had emerged as a powerful site of identity formation by the 1890s. A parent with fewer resources to call upon—for example, a mother who worked in a cannery—may have struggled to do the same as she tried to strike a balance between competing areas of work, play, and education (and contested definitions of their value, too).

The relationships depicted in (figure 1.1) invite consideration of how the power produced through them shaped modern childhood. A useful concept is governmentality—offered by Michel Foucault to explain how we act in concert with others, and directed by Nikolas Rose toward children and families. The boundary between private and public life dissolved in the nineteenth century as the problems of children were construed to be social issues, subject to conditioning by the family, state, market, and civil society. Citizenship no longer inhabited one sphere, the political sector, in Rose's terms. That means the photo in figure 1.1 depicts a society on the cusp of change, as the social was invented, to borrow a concept from Jacques Donzelot. The human being, in this case the child, was not conditioned solely as a moral subject, an individual shaped by religious creed; nor was the child's body conditioned only by a normalizing gaze, directed by state authority. The child was becoming a social subject of solidarity, with citizenship rights that depended on adult protection and a childhood that needed spaces purposefully made for a young person.


Excerpted from A City for Children by Marta Gutman. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

ONE / New Ideas from Old Things in Oakland
TWO / The Landscape of Charity in California: First Imprints in San Francisco
THREE / The Ladies Intervene: Repurposed and Purpose-Built in Temescal
FOUR / The West Oakland Home: The “Noble Work for a Life Saving” of Rebecca McWade
FIVE / The Saloon That Became a School: Free Kindergartens in Northern California
SIX / The Art and Craft of Settlement Work in Oakland Point
SEVEN / “The Ground Must Belong to the City”: Playgrounds and Recreation Centers in Oakland’s Neighborhoods
EIGHT / Orphaned in Oakland: Institutional Life during the Progressive Era
NINE / Childhood on the Color Line in West Oakland: Day Nurseries during the Interwar Years

Oral Histories and Interviews
Abbreviations Used in the Notes

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews