Homeless: Poverty and Place in Urban America

Homeless: Poverty and Place in Urban America

Homeless: Poverty and Place in Urban America

Homeless: Poverty and Place in Urban America


The homeless have the legal right to exist in modern American cities, yet antihomeless ordinances deny them access to many public spaces. How did previous generations of urban dwellers deal with the tensions between the rights of the homeless and those of other city residents? Ella Howard answers this question by tracing the history of skid rows from their rise in the late nineteenth century to their eradication in the mid-twentieth century.

Focusing on New York's infamous Bowery, Homeless analyzes the efforts of politicians, charity administrators, social workers, urban planners, and social scientists as they grappled with the problem of homelessness. The development of the Bowery from a respectable entertainment district to the nation's most infamous skid row offers a lens through which to understand national trends of homelessness and the complex relationship between poverty and place. Maintained by cities across the country as a type of informal urban welfare, skid rows anchored the homeless to a specific neighborhood, offering inhabitants places to eat, drink, sleep, and find work while keeping them comfortably removed from the urban middle classes. This separation of the homeless from the core of city life fostered simplistic and often inaccurate understandings of their plight. Most efforts to assist them centered on reforming their behavior rather than addressing structural economic concerns.

By midcentury, as city centers became more valuable, urban renewal projects and waves of gentrification destroyed skid rows and with them the public housing and social services they offered. With nowhere to go, the poor scattered across the urban landscape into public spaces, only to confront laws that effectively criminalized behavior associated with abject poverty. Richly detailed, Homeless lends insight into the meaning of homelessness and poverty in twentieth-century America and offers us a new perspective on the modern welfare system.


In 1961, New York City Mayor Robert Wagner announced a major renewal initiative for the city’s infamous skid row. Based on research conducted by social scientists, Operation Bowery would develop and implement policies designed to end urban homelessness. Explaining the plan, Wagner asserted, “We will be rebuilding men and making possible the rebuilding of a blight area at the same time.” Wagner’s comment revealed the rhetorical fusion of the city’s “broken” men and the street where they lived. In a period of optimism and faith in governmental research and programs, officials were confident in their abilities to survey, analyze, and repair the poor as well as their decrepit neighborhood. The ambitious project followed on the heels of the federal urban renewal program, which had similarly attempted to revitalize the nation’s skid rows, but focused on their buildings rather than their occupants. Homeless individuals dutifully cooperated with researchers and officials in both initiatives, but expressed little hope for change, or even much desire to leave skid row. As one homeless man remarked, “I won’t leave the Bowery ‘till I die.”

By the 1960s, homelessness seemed a permanent feature of the Bowery, having defined the street since the turn of the twentieth century. As the city’s skid row, it housed religious missions, public shelters, cheap hotels, greasy restaurants, dive bars, pawn shops, used clothing stores, and, of course, the homeless men and women who frequented them. These businesses and their patrons lined the Bowery’s sixteen blocks, from Chatham Square in Lower Manhattan north to Cooper Square, giving shape to a distinctive, if poorly understood, culture of homelessness.

Reformers and politicians had long criticized the Bowery. As far back as the nineteenth century, when it had housed theaters and amusements for the . . .

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