CHILDREN OF THE CITY: How Our Grandparents Grew Up by David Nasaw
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CHILDREN OF THE CITY: How Our Grandparents Grew Up

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Not nostalgia-bait, exactly--though you might get to thinking that turn-of-the-century city kids, Nasaw's working-class ""children of the streets,"" had far richer lives than their post-WW II suburbanite grandchildren. And, in an unromantic way, that's what you're supposed to think: CUNY social historian Nasaw (Schooled to Order, 1979) uses as source-material the childhood recollections of numerous entertainers (George Burns, the Marx Brothers, Milton Berle), as well as newsboy studies of the era, to suggest that this particular generation of ""little merchants"" (as these 11-to-15-year-old hustlers were indeed known to contemporaries) bought the American dream, lived it, and sold it to the country at large. . . ""from stage and screen, and later on radio and television."" The idea's not brand-new (at least in its Russian-Jewish performer/producer guise) but Nasaw doesn't pummel it; and his evocation of working-child life is not only fresh but flavorful, zesty, insightful. He first pictures the life of the block--the overcrowded apartments, where girls were extra hands (tending the latest baby, preparing meals for family and boarders, doing piecework with mother), but boys were a nuisance; and the turf outside, where the ""little mothers"" occupied stoops and sidewalks, the street belonged to the younger boys, and the older ones congregated at the corners. He describes the combination of opportunity, need, and desire that drew these worldly-wise kids into after-school jobs and (with some fascinating detail) into scavenging. His centerpiece, though, is the life of the newsboys: no longer the homeless urchins of earlier days, but ""a product of the boom in afternoon circulation"" and essential to the distribution process in the evening rush. Celebrating the creativity of all sorts of kid peddlers (with manic Burns et al. anecdotes), Nasaw also ruefully recounts the newsboys' deceptions--the invented disasters (for lack of news), the pretenses to poverty, the ""last paper"" ploy--concluding, not unjustifiably: ""The children offered their customers an image of themselves that was but partially false. Their customers grabbed at it. They saw before them not simply a small army of children working hard for their pennies, but. . . a real-life Horatio Alger story on every streetcorner."" There's note of a successful 1899 newsboy strike, against Pulitzer's World and Hearst's Journal; there's intriguing word also of the reformers--and the stellar, self-governing Boston Newsboys' Republic. A certain glory attaches to what Nasaw has to tell: this was not just a Russian-Jewish phenomenon; Irish, Italian, and black boys were prominent too. And however excessive the generation's optimism, or circumstantially based, readers will want to join in his final salute.

Pub Date: March 15th, 1985
Publisher: Anchor/Doubleday