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Jacob Riis Describes "The Street Arab"

In this excerpt from How the Other Half Lives, his famous 1890 book about urban poverty, Jacob Riis describes the army of young newsboys and bootblacks who worked and lived in Manhattan's streets. Later in the book, Riis praises the work of the Children'a Aid Society in providing decent shelter and other assistance to these working children.

. . . Crowded out of the tenements to shift for himself, and quite ready to do it, he meets there the host of adventurous runaways from every State in the Union and from across the sea . . . A census of the population in the Newsboys’ Lodging-house on any night will show such an odd mixture of small humanity as could hardly be got together in any other spot. It is a mistake to think that they are helpless little creatures, to be pitied and cried over because they are alone in the world. . . .

The Street Arab has all the faults and all the virtues of the lawless life he leads. . . . he is as bright and sharp as the weasel, which, among all the predatory beasts, he most resembles. His sturdy independence, love of freedom and absolute self-reliance, together with his rude sense of justice that enables him to govern his little community . . . There is scarcely a learned profession, or branch of honorable business, that has not in the last twenty years borrowed some of its brightest light from the poverty and gloom of New York City’s streets.

Whence this army of homeless boys? . . . The answer is supplied by the procession of mothers that go out and in at Police Headquarters the year round, inquiring for missing boys, often not until they have been gone for weeks and months, and then sometimes rather as a matter of decent form than from any real interest in the lad’s fate. The stereotyped promise of the clerks . . . that he ‘will come back when he gets hungry,’ does not always come true. More likely he went away because he was hungry. . . .

Grinding poverty and hard work beyond the years of the lad; blows and curses for breakfast, dinner, and supper; all these are recruiting agents for the homeless army. Sickness in the house, too many mouths to feed. . .

Source | Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (Dover Publications edition, 1971), 153-156.
Creator | Jacob Riis
Item Type | Book (excerpt)
Cite This document | Jacob Riis, “Jacob Riis Describes "The Street Arab",” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 26, 2021,

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