Book Review

Skid Row: A History of an Idea and a Place

15071a review by Gabriel Loiacono

Homeless: Poverty and Place in Urban Amercia
by Ella Howard
288 pages. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

What goes through your mind when you see a beggar, or someone living in the streets?  I have only ever seen three beggars in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  In this small city of 65,000, panhandling is rare.  Of the three, I have spoken with one on many occasions.  I’ll call him “Vinnie.”  When I see Vinnie, I become rather anxious.  I’m someone who tends to give money to those who ask me, and Vinnie knows this well.  He almost never fails to make a beeline for me and press me hard.  Thus, I am anxious about what I will say this time.  When I see Vinnie, I also feel, against my will, critical of him.  In summer or winter, he is wearing a big, bulky coat, sometimes more than one coat.  “Aren’t you hot?” I wonder to myself.  I don’t know why this bothers me.  When I talk to Vinnie, I always wonder to myself: how much of what you are saying is true?  Vinnie has told me several times that he has been homeless for more than twenty years.  On one occasion, however, I drove him to his home.  At other times, Vinnie has shown signs of being homeless: out in the streets all day, even in horrible weather.  I also know that our two small homeless shelters in town are oversubscribed.  Although I have only ever seen three beggars, there are scores of homeless in town.  Routinely, there are more people in need of a place to stay each night than the homeless shelters can provide.  Where do these people come from?  Are they local or transient?  Why are they homeless?  Why is anyone homeless? 

Ella Howard’s Homeless: Poverty and Place in Urban America cannot answer these questions for Oshkosh.  The book does, however, show how Americans have answered these questions throughout the twentieth century.  With a focus on skid rows in general, and New York City’s Bowery district in particular, Homeless traces homelessness in the American imagination from the 1920s to the 1980s.  It also tracks local and federal policies towards the homeless over this time, as well as providing aggregate and individual profiles of homeless New Yorkers at different moments in the twentieth century.

There is much to learn from this book.  For example, the mechanics of how the Bowery became the neighborhood of the homeless for the century from the 1880s to the 1980s is intriguing.  The Bowery was home to a concentration of bars, restaurants, and single resident occupancy (SRO) hotels which all catered to homeless men, and sometimes to homeless women.  Encouraging this trend, city officials throughout the century would give needy New Yorkers vouchers for room or board which were only redeemable at Bowery establishments.  The fact that the homeless of the Bowery, together, supported a neighborhood’s economy came as a revelation to me.  I had always assumed that homeless women and men could not be much of a stimulant to the economy, but they were so vital to the business of the Bowery that these businesses staved off efforts at urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s.  This book also shows how big the homeless population can be, counting not only those individuals sleeping outside or in homeless shelters, but also those paying for – or holding a voucher for – SRO hotel rooms.

Homeless is perhaps most gripping when the author makes use of the variety of sources that profiled homeless individuals throughout the century.  The characters, some curmudgeonly, some depressed, usually independent-minded, many very witty, who have let their words be recorded by social scientists, government officials, missionaries, or journalists over the years, are fascinating.  Howard’s impressionistic aggregate pictures of the homeless show a change from a segregated group of middle-aged white men and younger African-American men in the early and mid twentieth century to a more heterogeneous group, in terms of age, sex, and race by the 1980s.  Her picture of homeless women as more isolated, more vulnerable, and more overlooked than their male counterparts is quite arresting.  Howard’s brief foray into the sexuality of homeless men is perhaps too brief, but also eye-opening.

This being a blog about intellectual history, readers might be wondering where the ideas are.  They are woven throughout the book.  In particular, Howard finds that an emphasis on individual responsibility, without regard to larger circumstances, has been the dominant approach to answering questions about the homeless.  Similarly, the old idea conceptualizing the poor as “worthy” or “unworthy” has been a constant in American assumptions about the homeless.  Popular opinion in New York City has largely assumed the homeless to be unworthy of much attention.  New Yorkers have found the homeless to be repellant, frightening, maddening, and strangely fascinating for decades.  Rare exceptions came in the 1930s, for obvious reasons, and around 1980, when homeless advocates were briefly successful encouraging sympathy for those living on the streets, in shelters, or in SRO hotels.  Howard’s intellectual history is largely a story of continuity, in which one generation after another focused only on the homeless individual’s failure to thrive, through his or her own fault.  Whether that fault was some vague character flaw, a lack of faith, substance abuse, or psychological injury, varied from one period to the next.  But always, Howard argues, analysts focused on the homeless individual, not the structures around him or her.  Government policy also showed a great deal of continuity for Howard.  Apart from a brief federal program from 1933 to 1935, local governments were tasked with being the primary caregivers to their homeless residents, as had been the case since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England.

Howard does not make these continuities the framework of her book, though.  Indeed, if Homeless has an over-arching argument, it goes something like this.  There once was a skid row called the Bowery.  It wasn’t a great place to live, but it was something.  There were bars, restaurants, hotels, and some private and public institutions for the poor.  It didn’t have a great sense of community, but it had some, if you were a man.  There was little community for women.  And it was not very welcoming to African Americans.  Now it’s gone, as the Bowery has gentrified, and homeless men and women have scattered all over the city.  The city still does not have adequate responses to its people’s homelessness.

As reasonable as this narrative is, there is a missed opportunity here.  Missing is a clear, over-arching analysis with which the reader can understand this complicated past.  Frequently, one marvels at the rich trove of evidence presented, but is left wondering what the larger point is.  The author could provide more firm guidance in interpreting the evidence.  There are a couple other missed opportunities as well.  For one, the book would have benefitted from maps, showing the relative location of this to that aid office, or what the Bowery building distribution looked like at different periods.  For another, Homeless gives a very hazy picture of what municipal poor relief was, exactly, throughout this period.  The “muni,” or Municipal Lodging House, appears throughout the book as an undeveloped supporting character.  It’s always there, but Howard’s attention never turns to it in its own right.  This leads readers to the impression that the city government institutions must not be worth much attention.  We never hear how much money the city puts into poor relief, and what proportion of the city budget this is, and how it stacks up against private philanthropic efforts.  These kinds of numbers are possible for twentieth-century New York City.  Their absence, I suspect, undersells the effort and money that the city put into poor relief.

Still, readers will learn a great deal from this book.  We learn about homelessness in the twentieth century at the individual and aggregate levels.  We also learn about the rest of us, and the constricting sets of ideas we have used to understand the poor.  While I still wonder about individual stories, like that of “Vinnie” and the other homeless men and women in my small city, I do think something has changed in how I understand Vinnie and myself.  I see Vinnie as part of a long American tradition of homelessness, for better or worse.  As for myself, and my ideas about Vinnie, these are quite firmly situated in an old American intellectual framework.  This framework limits the questions and answers I have about Vinnie.  It suggests that Vinnie either is or is not “worthy” of my concern.  It also suggests that there must be some flaw that sets him apart from Americans with homes, that his homelessness is inexplicable without some character defect.  Perhaps this intellectual framework is inadequate.  Certainly, as Ella Howard demonstrates, New Yorkers have employed it for decades without finding satisfactory answers.

Gabriel Loiacono is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh.  He is writing a book entitled Five Lives Shaped by the Poor Law: Stories of Welfare from the Early Republic. 

4 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I’ve always been intrigued by research that demonstrates our individual understanding of “who” homeless folks are or “why” people are in fact homeless is typically driven (at least in regions with significant numbers of homeless on the streets as it were) by our individual and memorable encounters with homeless individuals: “We tend to remember the person who sings on the bus, who intrudes on passersby, who is drunk or obviously high on some drug.” This tends to shape our understanding of “the homeless” as those with mental illness or persons prone to criminal conduct owing to substance abuse of one kind or another (e.g., use of illegal drugs, alcohol abuse and behavior related to same). Some years ago at least, the average of the former was about one third of the total homeless population, the important point being that the “vast majority of homeless are poor, just plain poor.” If our view of the homeless is skewed by our memorable encounter with individuals “whose emotional and physical debilitation is so severe that it suggests that poverty alone cannot be the cause of their problems,” one sees how difficult it may be for the electorate to express rational preferences when it comes to public policy questions on this topic. This is of course a vivid and troubling instance of reliance on the “availability heuristic.” The unobtrusive homeless person or persons (perhaps as a family) is either forgotten or “out of sight, (and thus) out of mind.” [The quotes are from Reid Hastie and Robyn M. Dawes’ book, Rational Choice in an Uncertain World: The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making (Sage Publications, 2011).]

  2. Compelling review. I’m interested in the causes of demographic exemptions from “poor laws” during the colonial period and throughout United States history. Woodland Algonquian peoples on eighteenth-century “refuge” reserves, for example, often secured exemption from township taxes and “poor laws,” even amid spring migrations for employment. Tribal councils likewise deposed treasurers and demanded territorial sovereignty over reserve “poor” during the nineteenth century.

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