Monday, June 22, 2015

Gangs and Juvenile Delinquency in Elmira Parks in the Early 20th Century

by Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

"Kids these days are so violent/rude/illiterate/destructive/terrible!" “Things were so much better in the past than they are today.” As historians (and just in regular daily life), we hear these statements all the time and, frankly, they drive me crazy.  They’re ahistorical, false, and colored by the romantic and nostalgic idea that there was some bygone “simpler” time.  The story of juvenile delinquency in Elmira’s parks around the turn of the 20th century helps illustrate the falsehood (or at least the persistence) of the “kids these days” myth.
From about 1906 through the 1910s, the local newspapers were in a tizzy reporting about the youth gangs that used Elmira’s parks as the home base for their illegal behaviors.  Two gangs gained the most notoriety:  the Grove Park Angels and the Eldridge Park Gang.  The Grove Park Angels were primarily ethnically Irish, young school drop-outs who drank and harassed anyone in the park after dark.  In 1909, the city resolved to deal with the Angels because they were receiving increased complaints about their use of profanity, loudness, and attacks on people in the neighborhood.  In one incident, the Angels “insulted two women and whipped their husbands when the latter resented the insult to their wives.” The problem grew so dire that the police department stationed an officer at the park specifically to deal with the gang activity.
It wouldn't have been safe for these "respectable" park-goers to be in Grove Park at night.
Boys in Grove Park around the time the gang was active (although their behavior doesn't look too delinquent).
Police intervention in Grove Park seemed to have some impact on decreasing gang activity.  By 1911, there was a baseball team named the Grove Park Angels, but I’m unsure if there was any affiliation between the gang and the team.  Still, the gang didn’t disappear, and in 1913, the newspapers complained that the gang persisted because their delinquency was being passed down from generation to generation.
The Eldridge Park Gang appears to have been even fiercer than the Grove Park Angels. In 1907, their crimes were reported to “rival those of Dime Novel Desperados” (see, we’ve always blamed pop culture for youth violence!).   In that year, they threw eggs at women, stole from trains, and put gravel on the tracks of Lackawanna Railroad.  In their most daring act, they confiscated a Lackawanna caboose, ransacked it, shot out of windows, and then set it on fire.  In 1912, a 16 year old was arrested for stealing a handcar from the railroad and taking it for a joyride.  The next year, gang members were arrested for throwing stones at the police officer stationed in the park.  The gang was notorious for threatening to throw police “into de lake.”  The gang also attacked an automobile driver, breaking his car’s left lamp. 
In the early 1920s, Elmira came up with a novel idea to help curb juvenile delinquency in the parks: they would use the parks themselves as a force for urban renewal.  The Elmira City Recreation Commission formed on February 26, 1921 and was soon recognized by the National Recreation Association as one of best recreation organizations in the country.  The Commission reclaimed unused or derelict city land for parks: Washington Park was built on an old rolling mill property and dumping ground; Sly Park was formerly a swamp; Eastside playgrounds replaced dilapidated old buildings.  According to the Commission, Elmira had only one public tennis court in 1921, but that number jumped to 21 by 1931.

Mayor George Peck helps build Patch Park in August 1921.

Patch Park was one of the many new parks built in the 1920s.
City recreation programs were created to teach children to be good citizens.  A variety of clubs and sports teams met regularly in the city parks.  The Commission believed that its work was directly responsible for a decrease in rates of juvenile delinquency through the 1920s.  According to the city Recorder, there were 247 cases of juvenile delinquency in 1918, but only 29 in 1928.  He believed that playgrounds were successfully attracting children who would “otherwise go to the streets.”
A play performed by children in a City Recreation program in Grove Park, 1928.
Clearly, the Elmira City Recreation Commission didn’t solve the problem of juvenile delinquency, but its work does illustrate some of the ways that adults can work proactively with kids.  Things change from generation to generation, but in reality, nothing is really ever that different. 



  1. Interesting article as i did not know we had gangs here in our area .. however it goes back to young people needing things to keep them occupied that they will enjoy , keep them out of trouble and our area safe
    Very happy that we have all sorts of parks in and around the Southern Tier to help give young people things to do instead of breaking the law

  2. Very enlightening article. Thank you.

  3. I've always known every generation has their share of hooligans, hoods, bums, punks, etc. the difference today I think is the use of weapons as a replacement for a balled up fist. Also, the increase in violence among girls might be unprecedented - at least in the last 3-4 generations and I'd bet it would go back much further than that.