Earlier this month, body-worn camera footage revealed police had fatally shot thirteen-year-old Adam Toledo in an alleyway while the Little Village boy had his hands raised. His death was not an aberration: since 1944 at least forty children younger than sixteen have died in encounters with the CPD. For almost a century, the city of Chicago has responded to concerns over unsupervised children on the streets with aggressive policing. However, Chicago was once at the forefront of creating alternative responses to the apparent problem of the urban child that prioritized parks and playgrounds over police and punishment.
Children used to be everywhere on the streets of Chicago. In the late nineteenth century, when Chicago was a booming city of over a million inhabitants, almost half of the population were under twenty-one and nearly a quarter were under ten. (Today around a quarter of Chicagoans are under the age of twenty-one.) The vast majority of those young people were white, working-class children of European immigrants.
Nineteenth-century adult Chicagoans mainly spent their time indoors, but Chicago’s children worked, played, and got into trouble outside. Families let children out almost entirely without adult supervision typically from the age of seven. School was ostensibly compulsory, but according to the Chicago Board of Education itself the law was “entirely ineffective.”
The idea of children in the past playing or hawking newspapers on the street may seem romantic or quaint to a modern audience, but youth street cultures could sometimes be dangerous, criminal, and violent. Unsupervised children playing and working on the street in the 1890s sometimes caused traffic accidents or intentionally derailed trains. Others formed gangs, stole, gambled, fought, and sometimes killed their fellow Chicagoans, deliberately and accidentally. In one notable example, reported in the Tribune in 1897, a group of boys threw firecrackers into a firework store, igniting the gasoline tank as well as many of the fireworks and causing a huge explosion.
Middle-class white Americans in the 1890s worried that the street lives of these children would lead them to delinquency and, in the words of progressive reformer Jane Addams, the “murky fire of crime.” Middle-class whites feared the justice system was inadequately structured to halt such delinquency. They may have been right: juveniles convicted of crimes were either sent to adult jails, where they were thought to be exposed to worse influences than on the streets, or, more often, released back to the streets—sometimes after being beaten by police—without any record or further supervision. Nor did these middle-class Americans believe that immigrant parents could protect their children; in fact, they felt that the immigrant family was disintegrating under the pressures of modern urban life. To them, American society itself seemed to be hanging in the balance.
However, progressive reformers believed urban immigrant children could be saved if only they could be protected from unsupervised street life. They were backed up by new social science being developed by researchers at the University of Chicago that blamed delinquency on the urban environment rather than on individual children’s pathology.
In fact, new theories of child development suggested that children, particularly white boys, needed to pass through a period of “savagery” and misbehavior in order to become “civilized” men able to take on the burdens of citizenship. Even quite violent behavior was normalized as the result of childish impulses in an unsupervised city environment. As one reformer wrote in 1909, “Boy gangs stoning and knifing each other is unsupervised rivalry play, organized games [e.g. baseball, basketball] the supervised.”
Buoyed with optimism that they could save the city child from delinquency, Chicago’s progressive reformers organized. The city became the nation’s home of child-saving. In just twenty years, Chicago’s reformers created a vast new array of institutions and regulations aimed at limiting children’s use of urban street space and solving the problem of juvenile delinquency.
One of their earliest efforts was a new juvenile justice system, which removed children from the adult justice system and provided for the separate detention of children who were found “dependent” or “neglected,” (i.e. those with parents who were deemed unable or unwilling to care for them) or “delinquent,” or even just in danger of becoming so. Children could also be released and placed under the watchful eye of a probation officer.
Much of this new system was based on the belief that working-class immigrant families were inferior to middle-class Anglo-Americans. The new Juvenile Court tore many children from their homes and placed them in institutions where they sometimes faced horrible abuse. In addition, the new law criminalized many of the ways working-class children in Chicago used street spaces. For example, the new Juvenile Court Law included in its expansive new definition of delinquency, “wandering about the streets in the night time [sic] without being on any lawful business.” Being out on the street unsupervised could now, in itself, legally categorize a child as a delinquent.
But juvenile justice was just one part of Chicago’s new anti-delinquency movement. Reformers recognized that the Juvenile Court could never solve the problem of delinquency alone. Child-savers believed they needed to break children’s relationship to the streets before they came into contact with the Court. By 1910, providing supervised play spaces for children had become the centerpiece of the anti-delinquency movement. As Jacob Riis, one of the nation’s most prominent urban reformers, put it, “a community that does not give the children a chance to play will have overfilled jails and no reason to complain.”
Soon Chicago had developed a vast parks and playground system. Other reformers came from all around the country and the world to learn from Chicago’s example and Teddy Roosevelt even called the Chicago park system “the most notable civic achievement in any American city.” In addition to the new play spaces, the child-savers also organized a host of recreation clubs including the Boy Scouts, the Camp Fire Girls, and the Woodcraft Indians to give urban children supervised play opportunities and even the occasional exposure to rural life, through summer camps and similar programs.
Meanwhile, the city’s demographics were changing. By the 1910s, the Great Migration was underway, as many African American people began to move North to cities like Chicago in search of better opportunities and to escape the lynchings and racist violence of the South.
As more and more Black families arrived in Chicago, it became increasingly clear that the new Progressive-Era child-saving institutions would largely exclude their children. For example, the Juvenile Court had, since its conception, dedicated far fewer resources to Black children and, even in 1927, had no institutions to which to send dependent Black children (i.e. children in need who were not accused of delinquency). African-American children who the court deemed dependent and delinquent were more often sent to institutional homes meant for serious offenders or to the county jail.
Parks and playgrounds were a similar story. Within the Black Belt (where the majority of the city’s African American population lived), the city opened just one playground before 1931, Beutner at 33rd and LaSalle St., and it had far poorer facilities than those in white immigrant areas. White scouting troops also barred African American children, and in 1910 the Cook County Baseball League expelled Black teams.
At the same time, police and white communities worked together to keep Black children out of white play spaces. In the five years before the Chicago Race Riots of 1919, for example, white people attacked Black recreation-seekers at eleven parks, playgrounds, and beaches just outside the Black Belt. The 1919 riots started when Eugene Williams, a Black boy, accidentally drifted into white-only water near 29th Street Beach. White beachgoers threw stones at Williams until he drowned.
Although some park police actively engaged in anti-Black violence, most simply did nothing to stop it. In one report, park police officers at Washington Park looked on as a white gang assaulted two Black girls in 1918. When violence did occur, the police were more likely to arrest Black Chicagoans involved than white ones. Following an altercation between white and Black boys on the South Side in June 1919, the Black newspaper The Chicago Defender reported, “characteristic in such scenes, only our boys were loaded into the wagon.” In 1931, the Wickersham Commission reported that throughout the 1920s, police had arrested African American children in Chicago at far higher rates than any other group of minors in the city.
The Black community routinely protested this unequal policing. In the aftermath of the 1919 riot, Black Chicagoans demanded that city and park police guarantee protection for all citizens wanting to use parks, recreation centers, and playgrounds. And in 1931, a thousand Black Chicagoans attended a meeting with the mayor to raise concerns over police brutality.
Black Chicagoans also sought to extend the benefits of progressive child-saving to their own children. African American leaders like Ida B. Wells fiercely campaigned to end the inequality in recreation opportunities for Black children. Meanwhile, middle-class Black organizations sought to create privately-funded institutional homes for dependent Black children.
At the same time, ideas around juvenile delinquency were changing. By the 1930s, optimism that reformers could save (white) delinquent youth by protecting them from the city was faltering. One of the most famous criminologists and proponents of the idea, Frederic Thrasher, conducted a study into delinquency rates at a boys’ club in New York. His research produced the worrying conclusion that, far from preventing crime, participation in organized recreation seemed to be linked to higher, not lower, rates of delinquency.
During the 1930s, delinquency experts increasingly turned to psychiatry to explain and treat criminal behavior. In doing so, they conceived of young urban delinquents as individual deviant personalities, not as inherently innocent products of the city environment.
Progressive responses to delinquency began to be seen as naïve, which in many ways they were. Community organizer Saul Alinsky once characterized the work of Chicago’s reformers as “making surveys of all those kids in cold water tenements—with rats nibbling their toes and nothing to eat—and then discovering the solution: camping trips and some shit they called character building.” While child savers had acknowledged that poverty and inequality in Chicago lay behind the city’s juvenile delinquency, their proposed solutions did little to address these larger structural problems.
As Progressive-Era ideas lost ground, on the streets, changing priorities of policing increasingly and aggressively targeted children of color even as crime rates were falling. Chicago’s child population was becoming less white as the Great Migration continued, as Mexican immigrants began arriving in large numbers, and as white families began leaving for the suburbs.
As urban youth grew increasingly Black and brown, they began to be considered outside the realm of “saving.” Far from being redeemable, children of color were cast as inherently unsalvageable delinquents from whom white society needed to be protected. Middle-class white Americans increasingly responded to Black youth’s corner culture with intense policing and urban flight, not the playgrounds and child-saving initiatives they had created for white children.
The legacy of this history continued to be felt through the rest of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. Meanwhile, a nostalgia for a lost world of outdoor childhood emerged, especially among middle-class parents. These days it has taken the form of a movement known as “free-range parenting,” a term popularized by Lenore Skenazy, a writer and mother who in 2008 wrote about allowing her nine-year-old son to ride the New York subway alone. Billed as a “commonsense approach to parenting in these overprotective times,” free-range parenting urges parents—explicitly including urban parents—to allow their children independent mobility outside of the home.
In contrast, working-class children of color across the United States continue to be treated as delinquent or neglected when they use street spaces. Poor parents, especially those from minority groups, risk arrest when they allow their children to roam independently. In one such example, Debra Harrell, a Black working mother, was arrested in 2014 in South Carolina for allowing her nine-year-old daughter to play alone in a park near Debra’s workplace. In addition to her night in jail, the state placed Debra’s daughter in foster care.
Marginalized children face violence from the state and from other citizens if they use urban spaces, even places designed for children. This was the case for twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, who police officers killed for playing with a toy gun at Cudell Recreation Center in Cleveland in 2014. When Skenazy’s nine-year-old son rode the subway in New York in 2008 he was able to (and did) ask strangers for directions, but a decade later, Brennan Walker, a fourteen-year-old African-American schoolboy, was shot at by a stranger who thought Brennan was a burglar when he knocked on a door to ask for directions after he missed his bus and needed help finding his way to school.
On March 29 in Chicago, Adam Toledo became the thirteenth child killed in an encounter with CPD since 2013—more than any other local law enforcement agency over the same period, according to research by the Mapping Police Violence project. In the wake of his death, some questioned why Adam was out on the streets late at night. This question sought to move the blame for Adam’s death from the state to Adam’s parents or to Adam himself. But, as professor of political psychology Andrés Di Masso wrote in 2015, “being a citizen, in the full sense of the term, implies not being disturbed, challenged or persecuted for one’s mere presence in public space.”
When it comes to Black and brown children’s safety, Chicago still has a long way to go.
Oenone Kubie is a Senior Case Writer at the Blavatnik School of Government’s Case Centre on Public Leadership and has a DPhil in history from the University of Oxford. This is her first piece for the Weekly.