Torn-Down Tuesday: The Employed Children’s School

By Steve Cichon

From just about the moment that construction on Buffalo’s City Hall was completed on Niagara Square, the mostly Italian immigrant, mostly poor neighborhood became the target of those wishing to “give the city a cleaner look.”

The Working Childrens Home

One front page Courier-Express headline read, “6,000 dwell in slums in the shadow of City Hall. 85 acres of misery near civic center.”

The story goes on to call the blocks behind City Hall “the most wretched in the city,” noting the area ranked second in murders committed, second in tuberculosis and social diseases. Words like ramshackle, dilapidated and reeking were used.

The 1936 article never specifically mentioned that it was a district of mostly Italian families, but the story of life inside of one building with a hole in the roof left the reader with little doubt.

This drawing accompanied the front page story about the neighborhood behind City Hall, 1936.

Before City Hall was built on Niagara Square, city fathers tried to address the poverty in the area through education. More than anywhere else in the city, children worked to help feed their families.

State law was changed in 1922 to say that all children up to age 17 must receive at least half a day’s worth of schooling. With that new law in mind, Buffalo’s board of education bought an old furniture warehouse at the corner of Georgia Street and Caldwell Place (which was later Newark Alley) right in the middle of this poor, overcrowded neighborhood.

The old brick factory was to become Buffalo’s first “part-time school” for children who worked. They needed special and intricate accommodation according to educators.

“Adolescent working children, it is declared, possess individual differences to a much greater extent than those children without the worldly experience which comes through contacts made as employees,” read the newspaper account announcing the opening of the school.

The school’s primary objectives were to prepare students for citizenship and to “stimulate the moral of these working children, to help them obtain and hold an optimistic viewpoint on life and then keep them on the road to successful, useful, and happy citizenship.”

The building came down during one of many urban renewal projects in the neighborhood over the decades. Neither the buildings nor the streetscape survives. The spot where the school once stood is the in the midst of the government subsidized senior housing which is fronted along Niagara Street behind City Hall.