More generally, Gutman contextualizes changes in Oakland with broader, national and international shifts in attitudes about the place of women in public realms and ideas about children and childhood. Starting in the middle of the nineteenth century, childhood came to be considered a discrete and almost sacred time in a person’s life that needed to be protected from the evils of the outside world. Creating institutions for children to flourish highlights the role of buildings and interiors to design idyllic settings for poor children and orphans to receive training in respectable middle-class values of diligence and hard work.
Establishing these charities, such as the Ladies’ Relief Society founded by a group of affluent women in 1871, allowed women to have public lives within the boundaries of respectability expected of their gender. Without the support of the government, women working within private charities stood in to provide housing and services. In another example of repurposing a building for a new use, the women of the Ladies’ Relief Society purchased a farmhouse on the outskirts of Oakland to use it as a home for children. The neo-Georgian exterior communicated the building’s status as a safe haven, and Gutman pays close attention to interior renovations, including the construction of a full basement for dining and the division of dormitories by sex.
While reading this book, one may wonder about the role of the built environment. At times architecture fades into the background as characters such as settlement house pioneer, Jane Addams, and the psychologist, G. Stanley Hall, trade ideas and debates about the role of charitable work. But Gutman puts forward an expansive view of the built environment that pays close attention to the ways that reforms in the urban environment and changes in attitudes toward childhood crossed with architecture, interiors, and material culture.
Through her historical reading Gutman offers a view of the ways that social relationships in urban settings shaped the built environment, rather than the other way around. Readers should be aware of the significance of this perspective. In the epilogue, Gutman touches on the Real Property Survey performed by the city’s new City Planning Commission in 1936. As staff took records of the physical conditions and details of buildings, they passed over, or perhaps never knew, the importance of the sites they documented in forming the charitable landscape for children in Oakland. Instead, officials used the survey to help plan urban renewal and slum clearance projects, demolishing the residences that served as a network of public places for children in favor of large-scale housing and industrial buildings. However one may judge those actions, what A City for Children offers is a point of view that asks us to penetrate facades and closely look at what happened in the streets to understand the social forces that shaped the landscape of the city.