A City For Children, by Marta Gutman

Marta Gutman is co-winner of the 2015 Kenneth Jackson award for best book in North American history, shared with N.D.B. Connolly’s A World More Concrete.

The committee is happy to announce its selection of Marta Gutman’s A City for Children: Women, Architecture, and the Charitable Landscapes of Oakland, 1850-1950 (University of Chicago Press) as co-winner of the 2014 Kenneth T. Jackson Prize for Best Book in American history.

In a masterful, revelatory study, Gutman shows how the struggle to create a better environment for children transformed urban space and remapped landscapes of race, class, and gender. Gutman’s remarkable combination of historical and architectural research and analysis delivers fresh new insights into the shifting grounds of work, home, and leisure space. She provides an intimate window onto the lived experience of working-class women and children, in a turn-of-the-twentieth-century American city.

Set against the backdrop of a modernizing, industrial West Coast city, A City for Children explores the work of a diverse range of women who shared a belief in the transformative power of architecture and who dedicated themselves to repurposing buildings and reinventing urban spaces in the interests of fostering a more wholesome environment for urban youth. As they constructed a charitable landscape of orphanages, kindergartens, playgrounds, and settlement houses, Gutman argues, women reformers also redrew the boundaries separating the public and private spheres. Gutman shows, in convincing fashion, how charitable institutions played a central role in the making of the modern city, one which they often built on top of the old. Operating with limited resources, women turned saloons into kindergartens, farmhouses into orphanages, residential homes into day nurseries. Gutman seamlessly weaves together illustrative histories of people and institutions with careful reconstructions of the physical spaces women and children occupied and repurposed. Gutman also shows how, even as social reformers remade urban environments, they often did so in a manner that reflected their racial prejudices. As a result, Gutman shows, Oakland’s charitable landscape also worked to institutionalize racist practices and reinforce racial inequalities.

More than a case study of a single city, A City of Children ties the story of Oakland’s charitable landscape to local to regional, national, and international trends and developments. She offers penetrating insights into the dynamic relationship between social movements and the built environment, in general. Drawing on a wide range of sources and employing the theoretical and methodological tools of geography, architecture, and urban planning, it offers a model for interdisciplinary research. In addition to making a lasting contribution to scholarship on Progressive-era American cities, social reform, and charitable institutions, Gutman’s study enriches our understanding of children as historical subjects, and brings the fields of urban and children’s history together in ways few previous studies have done. A remarkable achievement, A City for Children is, we agree, richly deserving of this award.

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About LaDale Winling

LaDale Winling is assistant professor of history at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. His book project, Building the Ivory Tower, examines the role of universities as urban developers in the 20th century. Learn more about him at Urban Oasis.

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