Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 8, 2016
Marta Gutman A City for Children: Women, Architecture, and the Charitable Landscapes of Oakland, 1850–1950 Historical Studies of Urban America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. 448 pp.; 12 color ills.; 120 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780226311289)

The current obsessive fixation on children, childhood, and parenting has relegated the notion of “other people’s children” to a position of indifference and even mild disdain on the part of many middle- and upper-middle-class citizens. Yet the history of philanthropy and the preoccupation with the care of poor children was a central purpose of wealthy and middle-class women for a century and a half. In her book A City for Children: Women, Architecture, and the Charitable Landscapes of Oakland, 1850–1950, Marta Gutman explores the long tradition of benevolent concern for the poorest children in the rapidly urbanizing context of Oakland, California.

Gutman argues that the structures, both architectural and administrative, which women erected in Oakland over a hundred-year period reveal a complex history of adaptive reuse against the drama of class and racial politics. Oakland, established across the bay from San Francisco, was the hub of industrial activity in the emerging economy of the West. From 1850, when California became a state, Oakland grew quickly, first as a result of the gold rush and more intensely after it became the western terminus of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. From then until the postwar period, the city underwent profound expansion and population shifts that made it the dense and geographically and socially segregated place it is today.

Gutman’s book explores an everyday architecture of care. And while these are ordinary buildings—such as carpenter-built, single-family houses; public buildings; and eventually purpose-built structures—the spaces she discusses reveal an extraordinary story at once local and national. Orphanages, preschools, kindergartens, settlement houses, playgrounds, and day-care facilities constitute the varied institutions that Gutman describes in nine chapters. These spaces, carved out of the growing city, were the work of women who were philanthropists, temperance reformers, Protestant churchwomen and Catholic nuns, and middle-class women who witnessed the effects of industrialization upon the poor and stepped in to ameliorate where they could. The figures Gutman highlights, including Elizabeth Betts, Elizabeth Watt, Rebecca McWade, Kate Douglas Wiggin, and Fannie Wall, were not artists or architects. They were women whose mission to save and care for children relied on buildings to achieve their aims.

The central motif of A City for Children is that a charitable landscape developed as a spatial entity with various “nodes” in a shifting urban network. Gutman reconstructs the presence, appearance, and experience of institutions, most of which are now long gone. Using archives, oral histories, photographs, fire insurance maps, city directories, and census and tax records, Gutman gives spatial coherence to a story that is by nature fragmentary. Her own architectural renderings and schematic drawings of neighborhoods are especially helpful in reconstituting a story that is simultaneously architectural, urban, and social. By pressing the term “landscape” into service, she elaborates on how individuals and the structures they chose for caretaking were tied to a larger matrix of sites and priorities such as work, transportation, schooling, and recreation. Moreover, she argues that space is not merely a “backdrop for childhood; rather, space and childhood are mutually constitutive” (29). If the city was never built for children, Gutman shows how it was remade in this ad hoc fashion to accommodate the burgeoning presence of working-class children in Oakland.

The building of choice for many of these institutions, especially in their earliest days, was the repurposed single-family house. Given the strong middle-class inflection of domesticity as the most respectable and suitable environment for women and children, it is not surprising to learn that the architecture of preference in the second half of the nineteenth century was the picturesque cottage in a garden. Yet Gutman shows how urban row housing and even a saloon also met the needs of those who established spaces for caring that were integrated into densely populated neighborhoods. These reused spaces met with both established types of institutions, such as the orphanage, and newer ones such as the kindergarten which emerged in the Bay Area with particular force at the turn of the century. Gutman stresses that architectural space was used to shape children. This dimension of the charitable landscape, the shaping of children through education, recreation, discipline, and keen pressure to learn skills such as cooking, cleaning, and sewing, relies heavily on Gutman’s social-historical research and her reading of photographs and maps, rather than on information gleaned from the buildings themselves. While she employs plans, photos, and detailed drawings, Gutman seeks to know how these places were used rather than how they were designed. And this is precisely her contribution. Instead of pursuing stylish forms by named architects, she is keen to explore what these vernacular structures meant to the people who ran them and used them, how they functioned in relation to their neighborhoods, and the ways that they formed a social bulwark against the negative forces of industrialization.

While class and gender are at the heart of this philanthropic story, race emerges as one of the book’s major themes. Oakland, like other California cities, was always ethnically diverse, and its working class only became more so in the period Gutman discusses. She shows how institutions in the late nineteenth century like the free public kindergarten that Wiggin developed in 1878 was open to all children in the industrial Tar Flat neighborhood. This included white children of European immigrants, as well as African American, Mexican American, and Asian American children, even in the face of political momentum for racial exclusion. Gutman follows this trajectory as the charitable landscape became ever more segregated. In her final chapter, she describes two institutions in West Oakland. One was the St. Vincent’s Day Home run by an order of the Catholic charities, which occupied a fourteen-room mansion, and was for white children only. The other was the Fannie Wall Children’s Home and Day Nursery, which was for African American children and first established in a modest two-bay, two-story dwelling and later a slightly grander three-bay structure with a bay window. Both served a needy population of mothers who could leave children at these institutions while they worked, and both were financed by their own communities. Astonishingly, the two institutions not only sat on the same city block, but their properties abutted so that the white and black children shared a backyard that was divided by a fence.

To understand the philanthropic aims of those who sought to improve the lives of children through the institutions they created is also to confront the way that class, race, and gender structured those experiences, and as Gutman shows, the politics of site and space put those differences into high relief. Gutman’s history of the charitable landscapes of the city of Oakland tells not only how the city grappled with the perennial question of “other people’s children,” but also how infant care and early childhood education have become as acutely unequal as they are today.

Amy F. Ogata
Professor of Art History, University of Southern California