Suppose you want to go from Africa, in Harlem, to the Balkan countries. One might very profitably do the trip on foot and thus hurriedly pass by many remarkable buildings, chief of which, if one would take the westward road, is the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, one of the most imposing buildings in the country. From the Amsterdam Avenue side, at night especially, it awes one with its massiveness and power. The circle of its squat dome against the sky makes it look much more like a giant center of a mosque than a Christian church. With the moon over it, the grayness of its facade of stone, back of the imposing wide steps, is a never-to-be-forgotten sight. The ad-joining buildings, belonging to the cathedral, detached though they are, seem like fledglings of some giant bird ready to crawl under its wings, so airy is the whole structure in spite of its enormous size. Looked at from the back, from Columbus Avenue, the edifice loses none of its magnificence as it slopes down the hill.
A little further down are the college buildings with their portals ornate and Florentine, suggesting entrances to inner villas and palaces ; they are built very much in the sugar-candy style so dear to Florentine architects of a few centuries ago. Passing street by street on foot, one catches glimpses of the Hudson River, silvery and shimmering. From a distance through the narrow streets one gets the feeling he is looking through one of these old-fashioned stereoscopes, so fixed is the sight because of the tall, styleless buildings that slope down from Amsterdam Avenue to Riverside Drive. There is a sweet smell of burning wood that comes from across the river early in the spring, when the bushes are being burned in Edgewater or Hackensack. And in the summer the houses, partly hidden by the green growth on top of the Palisades, are like toys in a fairy-land. At night the glimmer of the lights on the boats passing on the blue waters, the spread of an occasional white sail fluttering in the wind or lying flabby in the calm, the myriads of lights across the river advertising this and that, enhance the fairy illusion.
From this side of the town you would want to take the bus that goes along the river to Seventy-second Street, and then swings eastward to Broadway, going through part of the western town to Fifty-seventh Street. You will have more than a glimpse of the Fifty-ninth Street circle, with an entrance to Central Park on the eastern side, and on the western side a row of theatrical buildings, gorgeously illuminated with lamps of all colors in an attempt to compete with the lower part of Broadway and to hold that part of the population there for its commerce as well as for its pleasure.
The bus swings then into Fifty-seventh Street, passing by Carnegie Hall. And if it is not late and it is the right season you will see thousands of people waiting outside for the opening of the gates and doors, within which this or that celebrated musician is to play within the next half-hour or so. Young men and young women in their street-clothes, just from work, though tired, stand in line for hours, waiting for the moment when they can buy the cheaper tickets which will permit them to enjoy music from the upper galleries. For to the population of New York, the French, German, Russian, Jewish, and Balkan populations, music is much more of a necessity than a luxury. A good many of these working-men and working-girls, earning their meager salaries in factory or sweat-shop or by clerking in stores, spend more for concerts and serious dramatic presentations than they do for clothes, and many of them would forego half a dozen breakfasts in the morning so as to have the price of a ticket for a concert. By listening to music of composers of their own countries they compensate themselves for the loss of other joys and of more intimate pleasures they had in their own homes.
But the bus goes on. You are on Fifth Avenue before you have had time to look around and observe a little more. You are being rushed through Fifth Avenue without many stops except one at Forty-second Street to let the traffic pass from the west to the east or from the east to the west. Another stop at Fourteenth Street for the same purpose, and then, instead of going to the end of the bus-line at Washington Square and passing through the arch on the site of which was once the public gallows, stop at Eighth Street and walk eastward. You may see again a large crowd, at the doors of the Cooper Union Institute; in fact, very frequently a larger crowd than around Carnegie Hall. The crowd is composed not only of those who are eager to listen to some celebrated speaker or to some one who has just returned from Europe and brings tidings from home for the people of his nationality; it is also composed of a good many people who have nothing else to do and are eager, during a cold rainy night, to spend a few hours in-doors. And as you pass around to get into St. Mark’s Place you will also see a number of dejected-looking creatures, men and women, sitting on the benches in the little square which surrounds the statue of Peter Cooper.
There are several cafes on this part of St. Mark’s Place. There is one to the right side, which is the professional waiters’ cafe, to which the waiters come to be served in turn after they have finished serving other people. It is interesting to know that the waiters come here not for the coffee and cake or the tea or any of the other things they consume, but for the privilege of finding a scapegoat for all they have had to endure during the day or night. If you have made during the day a reproach to your waiter, and a good many have done likewise, you may be sure that he will take it out at the end of the day on the waiters serving him in this coffee-house of his. Go in for a few minutes, if you have nothing else to do, and you will see a man in street-clothes (so happy are they to get rid of their professional habits that they get into street-clothes as soon as they are through working) calling down a waiter, reproaching him for the manner in which he served him, returning the knives or the forks, or looking carefully at the napkin, the plate, or sniffing at the food that was brought to him, doing exactly what others had done to him during the day.
It is a little inversion of the scriptural dictum. “Do unto others what is done to you,” seems to be the waiters’ credo.
At your left hand is a dancing-hall, the Arlington. Most of the Polish weddings in the neighborhood are celebrated there. You might be just in time to see one, and see most of the guests come in their national costumes. And if you care to have a glimpse inside you will see them dance the mazurka as you have never seen it danced before. The women are in high boots and white skirts embroidered with yellow and green, and sleeveless cassocks of red and blue, with white silken head-gear hanging from the forehead to the back of the shoulders. The men wear their beribboned small hats and are also in high riding-boots. They stamp the floor, laughing wildly, while the women take their dance very seriously. It is not always advisable to remain very long in such a place, for weddings do not always end happily. There might suddenly appear a slighted young man or a slighted young woman, and the festivities may end at the police stationif not worse.
Go down a little further, to 31 St. Mark’s Place; look close down. There is a curiously painted sign on which is written “The Tub,” right over the basement. And right and left of the entrance artistically done signs announce that this is the conclave of democratic students of the arts and drama and sociology. The place opens early in the evening for a few hours, and all the tramps in the vicinity are served a hot dish, a cup of coffee, and a piece of bread, for a maximum sum of five cents for those who have the price, and food is given free as long as it lasts to those who don’t. The man who runs the Tub is Ledoux, who under the name of Zero won national fame a few years ago, during the unemployment succeeding the war, by auctioning off able-bodied white and black men and women in Boston and New York, so as to avoid their starving. It is very probable that you will meet Ledoux if you stay a little while in the place and talk with those sitting on the benches at the long white-pine table. You will find, much to your surprise, extremely intelligent men discussing calmly or passionately questions of weight and importance. They plunge into abstract discussions of art to forget the misery facing them, for the Tub attracts only what is known as the “intellectual tramp.”
The place closes at about ten o’clock at night, and re-opens after midnight for a very short time to let in those who have not succeeded in finding shelter for the night elsewhere. They sleep on the bare floor, propping their heads on their elbows and covering themselves with their coats. They will get another cup of coffee in the morning, and, if there happens to be one among them skilful with the razor, they will be shaved and made presentable to find work during the day. Should one find work he will, as soon as he gets his pay, return such an amount of money as he thinks he has cost the Tub ; so that the place may go on without seeking support from charitable organizations. Most of the tramps are strongly opposed to any dealings with institutionalized charity.
Around the corner of St. Mark’s Place is an open area, with St. Mark’s Church on it. The old church has recently been painted over and made to look very much like some medieval French church. It is surrounded by different groups of statuary, the work and the gift of George Gray Barnard. Within one of these thick walls is the grave of Peter Stuyvesant, former governor of New Amsterdam. All the territory down to the East River was once his Bouwerie. Old Stuyvesant, irascible and ill-tempered, was very strongly opposed to the Jews when they appeared in the city during his governorship. What irony of fate that his Bouwerie should now be the stronghold of the Jews and of people of so many tongues ! Peter Stuyvesant disliked all other non-Dutchmen quite as much as he disliked the Jews. What irony of fate that the square around his church should be one in which political compaigns are carried on all through the year in a half-dozen languages, from soap-boxes and the rears of trucks !
Looking down Second Avenue from Stuyvesant Square, one is struck by the innumerable electric lights flashing from both sides. It is the East Side’s Fifth Avenue, or, better still, the East Side’s Broadway. There are several theaters, foreign-language theaters, numerous vaudeville houses and moving-picture homes. A little upward is the old Royal Coffee-house, with its piazza on the sidewalk, which makes one forget that he is elsewhere than in Buda-pest, Vienna, or Bucharest. Within the inclosure of the piazza are a number of small tables, around which sit the intellectuals of a half a dozen nationalities discussing, over their tea or coffee, or while they eat watermelon, the respective arts and literatures and musical news of the day. They have their set tables. Each one of them appears as regularly at his table as if he had to punch a time-clock.
First of all appear the actors, to have their evening meal and chat before performing on the stage. The German actors playing in the Irvington Theater, the Yiddish actors of the neighborhood, the Hungarian dramatists and musicians and painters, and the newspaper men of all these nationalities, as well as the Russians, have their tables and hours. And they all talk loudly in a Babel of tongues. And though each of them is wearing European or American clothes, the shape of the cut of their beards and the cast of their heads and features emphasize each one’s nationality.
For here indeed congregate the brains of foreign New York. On the walls are posters and announcements of balls, concerts, and performances in a dozen languages.
Across the street is the Russian Bear. Until not very long ago this place was one of the last of the residential places that had held out in spite of the foreign invasion moving from the east westward. But it, too, has succumbed. The middle walls between rooms have been pierced through to make a large, narrow hall, at the end of which a mezzanine platform has been built. The walls have been painted with that Byzantine touch so dear to the Russians. In the center of the hall stands the Balalaika orchestra, playing those curious instruments strongly resembling the ukulele and producing a sound midway between a guitar and a banjo. The musicians play Russian music for the visitors, and on occasion there is a singer or two, dressed in Gipsy costume, singing the Russian Gipsy songs of which no real Muscovite can ever hear the last.
What one feels most is the non-professionalism of the whole place. Neither the owner nor the musicians nor the waiters seem to be caterers to the public by profession. And upon inquiry one finds out that they are not. They are mostly noblemen and noblewomen of the old Russian regime, who after finding refuge in this country are now trying to make both ends meet. And since they knew so well how to be served by others, they have found it comparatively easy to adapt themselves to the menial work they are doing. It is interesting to see how servile and docile these former noblemen and noblewomen can be. They smile quite broadly and bow very low at a liberal tip. As they rarely speak English, one has to order his food in the Russian language, which is written on the bill of fare in Latin characters; and if you have not succeeded after the first trial, just put your finger on the name of the food you have chosen. The strangely sounding name, which makes you anticipate some strangely composed dish, may disappoint you. Quite ordinary boiled beef and cabbage may appear at the table when you thought of some-thing more exotic than that. But the tea is excellent. And the kvass, a beverage made of stale corn-bread, is still better. There are many, many very handsome women smoking cigarettes very gracefully and sipping tea with as great an abandon as if it were champagne. The atmosphere is a very pleasant and intimate one. Leon Trotzky and John Reed used to be frequent visitors at the Bear.
On Ninth Street between Second and Third Avenues is the Slovene Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, where the priest in long beard and velvet calpac, a silk hat with-out the rim, on his head, preaches his sermon in the old Slovene language. A little further along Second Street is the old Marble Cemetery, which stretches almost half a block. Some of the earliest notables of New York are buried there. It is still kept by caretakers, and through the iron fence one can see the floral tributes brought by descendants of the old New Yorkers on the graves of their ancestors.
In the blaze of light along Second Avenue are numerous restaurants and coffee-houses, with their inscriptions, “Rumanian Coffee-house” and “Rumanian Restaurant.” Here one is in the heart of the Rumanian district. It has this in particular : it is not like the main street of any other town in Rumania. It strongly resembles in its atmosphere and assortment the principal street of Bucharest, the avenue in which the king’s palace standsbeautiful gowns in the large windows of the shops and jewelry stores, beauty-parlors, pastry-shops, and coffee-houses, all so gaudy and loud. Most of these places are, as in Rumania, not kept by Rumanians, but are chiefly in the hands of Jews of all origins, Greek, Hungarian, and German. For in Bucharest also, the capital of Rumania, all business is practically in the hands of the same nationalities as have them in their hands here. They are merely catering to Rumanian tastes. One can realize more than ever why Bucharest is called Little Paris or the Paris of the Balkans. If you happen to be in doubt as to what language to use on going into any of these restaurants, every one of which seems to be presided over by a pupil of Lucullus, talk French and you will certainly be understood.
As if to remind one of the fact that we are in New York is the iron gate between two tall houses, leading through an alley into a back yard, where is an older branch of the Marble Cemetery. You can obtain permission to enter by applying to the caretaker in charge. It is between Second and Third Streets. Almost leaning on it are a moving-picture house and one of the Jewish theaters of the neighborhood. And while the throngs of extremely well dressed people are walking back and forth, making their daily promenades, just as if they were in the old country, music produced by all sorts of instruments is heard from a dozen different places, and singing, also. It mingles with the raucous tones of some radio loud-speaker or of the dozen and one stores selling phonographs and player-pianos. And if you can resist the blaze of light from the People’s Theater, announcing some new musical comedy or the presentation of a Rumanian play by Rumanian players next door to the Winter Garden, do so, and go into Houston Street. There is an old church adjoining these theaters. It used to be the pride of the neighborhood. The illuminated cross on the top looks at night as if it were floating in the air. Walk eastward toward the river, and between Second and First Avenues there is a restaurant to which all Rumanians flock. Within it the owner is playing the cymbalom, that curious old instrument so dear to the Rumanian Gipsies. He is as good on it as anybody has ever been; indeed, he is the Kreisler of the cymbalom. No mat-ter what hour of the night you might drop in there, you will have to struggle to find a chair to sit upon. For al-though the noise of the waiters and the guests is deafening, the neighborhood comes there more to listen to the man’s playing than to eat. And his playing has been heard of in other quarters than the Rumanian one. Most of the journalists on American papers come down when they can spare the time and can afford it. Eugene O’Neill, the playwright, drops in from time to time. John Dos Passos, Heifetz, the violinist, and Toscha Seidel and Mischa El-man, and others of the musical and literary professions.
But those who want to dine in a more quiet fashion, and still crave the pleasure of eating food prepared in their own style, go to Broome Street, to the Rumanian Casino, where the owner’s attention to every guest is one of the chief delights. You will be struck especially with the number of restaurants and the smell of exotic foods in that district, for all Rumanians are good eaters and drinkers. They are of lighter temperament than any of the other people in the Balkans, more given to laughter and song and dance, the men as well as the women. They do not carry the Weltschmerz on their shoulders like their neighbors two blocks away, the Russians and Bulgarians and Serbs. Although you will hardly find one illiterate among them, their chief concern is not about books and philosophies when they meet of an evening. They spend their money more easily than any other people and are indeed, because of that, here as well as at home, the butt of ridicule and the object of exploitation by all the other peoples.
The Carnegie Library on Rivington Street has one of the finest assortments of Rumanian books. Indeed, it is almost a complete library of Rumanian literature. Originally it was collected by Mr. Sebastian Liberty. Adjoining the library is the Rivington Street Settlement-house, the first settlement on the East Side. It is from this center that have gone out, after their experiences in the neighborhood, people like William English Walling and J. G. Phelps Stokes, and Anna Strunsky, and Rose Pastor Stokes, and Joseph Freeman, and a number of others. Jack London has lectured several times in that neighborhood. I remember meeting him on his return from the Russo-Japanese War. To make his visits from door to door easier, he became the agent of a photographer selling lapel picture-buttons, which were then so much in vogue. We lay down side by side one night on a bare floor in the house of a friend whose only bed was occupied by himself and wife, and talked to the wee hours of the morning. Many other notables have lectured in the settlement. And there are quite a few notables who have emerged from there. The settlement is still going on, only in a different direction, catering much more to those who have already Americanized themselves than to those who are to be Americanized. Further below, under the elevated railroad, dark in the day and bleak at night, are hundreds of stores selling imported cheeses and dried fish and smoked meats from Rumania. Food shops adjoin quilt factories, dressmaking shops, second-hand furniture stores, antique brass shops. They lean one against the other in a bewildering sort of fashion, thrown pell-mell with no care for the sort of wares that are within.
Orchard Street with its sordid push-cart business, with stores littered with everything on God’s earth, with the cry and yell of the itinerant merchant, with phonographs sold from push-carts and player-pianos sold in the middle of the street, heckling, bargaining, cursing, swearing, is always swarming with people. The moment the push-carts are brought forth early in the morning till the time the acetylene lights, smoking black over their white flames, are completely burned out, the street is black with people. How any one can wear luxurious silk intimate garments that have been bought of a push-cart, how any one can bedeck herself with jewelry bought there, is more than I can understand.
Above all this sordidness of the street are the homes of the people. One would be surprised, on entering any home of the middle class, to see the luxury and comfort to be found there, the outside is so ugly and repellant, and the inside has been made so agreeable. Proud and strong physically, the Rumanian men and women, the Jews as well as the Gentiles, furnish a smaller percentage of applicants for charity than any other nationality in the city. Outwardly, especially in their business, they are not as ready to adopt American methods as the other people are. Yet on the other hand, with that peculiar ability which is theirs, they learn the language of the country much more rapidly than the others, while still keeping an eye on the culture that they have brought from home.
There are several cultural institutions and clubs, to which well-known Rumanian writers are invited from Europe to come and lecture. And at these Sezatores very much in the old fashion, sittings in which some one tells a tale, there is a thread that ties to home. One would be surprised to know that the Jews who left Rumania be-cause of political persecutions should still have so much love for their country, should still be so anxious to keep in touch with its literature, its art, its politics. But then a good deal of the Rumanian literature was produced by Jews, and the same thing could be said of all the other arts in Rumania. The Rumanian Jews here point with pride to what they have produced and given to this country. Professor Solomon Schechter, deceased a few years ago, was the head of the theological seminary and one of the most celebrated biblical scholars of the world. They have at present several professors at Columbia University, the Rumanian poet Leon Ferraru, and Felix Vexler; and there are a good many other professors at Johns Hopkins University and other universities of the country. How isolated the Rumanian Jews are from the Jews of other nations can be seen by the fact that they have their own synagogue, their own burial-ground, their own charitable institutions, their own homes for old people, not to speak of their own newspapers. As if to emphasize the fact that this is a Rumanian quarter, one can on Forsyth Street see the numerous Greek coffee-houses where the Greeks living in the Rumanian quarter congregate. And over a former saloon on Forsyth Street is an old Turkish coffee-house, where the Turkish dancers are doing their stunt just as if that part of the town were the well-known Cetatzrina, the Turkish quarter in Braila on the Danube.
And the Bulgars, who at home sell that cooling drink brewed from bran and millet, are doing the same thing here, selling braga to those who still have a taste for it after many years away from home.
In former years the Rumanian quarter did not extend as far up town as it does now. The uptown region was inhabited by the Hungarians, with the Bulgars below them. Indeed, during the period of the war when the Hungarians invaded Rumania, the Rumanian quarter shrank in the same proportion as Rumania had after the invasion of the enemy. But the Peace of Versailles and the interpretation of it by Rumania after the war, whereby the Rumanians retook the old territory which had once belonged to them, affected the Rumanian quarter here as well. The Rumanian population, which had meanwhile grown, expanded further into Hungarian territory. Restaurants and coffee-houses, as well as other businesses which had been till then known as the Hungarian this and that, suddenly became, by virtue of the occupation of new territory by the Rumanians in their own country, Rumanian restaurants and coffee-houses and this and that. Many of these inhabitants became, by virtue of the change at home, Rumanian subjects, instead of Hungarian subjects as they had been. And like the withdrawal, so has the expansion not been without conflict. They invaded with a vengeance, they expanded with a fury, knowing full well their enemies were beaten into submission. All through the war this had been taking place in all the other quarters of the town. The Bulgars had invaded the Serbian territory and were expelled afterward. And the Germans had gone as near to the heart of the French district as they had gone to Paris, only to be pushed back later. Even the occupation of the Ruhr by the French has had its counterpart in this city. The French went as far into the German territory as they possibly could, and many a German bakery became a French boulangerie overnight.
In the side streets of the Rumanian quarter live the Rumanian Gipsies. The men fare forth early in the evening, repairing to the different Rumanian restaurants to play their music, while the women go out to ply their trade of fortune-telling and basket-selling. And they, too, expanded into what was formerly Hungarian territory after the Peace of Versailles. Those of the Rumanians who have lived here a long time have indeed spread all over the city. There is a distinctively Rumanian quarter over on Seventh Avenue and Twenty-third Street. Most of the people living in that district are Transylvanian Rumanians, who were formerly subjects of Hungary. It is because of their supposed martyrdom and because they have remained faithful to their own nationality through all the vicissitudes of a thousand years that they consider themselves superior to the other Rumanians. It is they who are the heart and soul of the intellectual movement among the Rumanians all over the country. They are not as easy-going or light-hearted as their brothers from across the Carpathians. Of peasant origin, they are a more calculating and slow-going clan than the Rumanians of the old kingdom.
There is another Rumanian district up in the Bronx, at Washington Avenue and 175th Street. It is composed of Rumanian Jews, and Pindo-Rumanians, Macedonian Rumanians. Such Rumanians have for centuries and centuries lived in the lower Balkans among the Bulgarians and Serbs, Albanians, Greeks and Turks. During the last war their nationality was claimed by ethnologists in each one of these nations. But their language, with all the mixture that has been superposed on top of it, is Rumanian, or, better said, it is the old Latin dialect which the soldiers of Trajan brought to the banks of the Danube after vanquishing Decebal, the king of the Dacs.
There are any number of small Rumanian settlements here and there. The younger element, acclimatized, take part in the politics of the country, and political careers in America are a very strong attraction to them. They have at present a number of assemblymen and aldermen. The liberal professions are thronged. They have a large quota of lawyers, physicians, dentists, teachers, and college professors. There are in New York two daily papers printed in Rumanian, as well as several literary magazines. There are some thirty thousand people of Rumanian origin living in New York. According to the census there are over a hundred thousand of them all over the country, with large centers in Chicago and Detroit, Cleveland and Minneapolis, and Pittsburg, working in steel-mills and mines. Among the well-known figures of Rumanian origin are David Belasco, the Schildkrauts, father and son, Jacob Adler, the painter, Paleologue and Papini, musicians like Max Rosen and Alma Gluck, and a number of writers and newspaper men.
Further down toward the East River, between Avenue B and Avenue C, on Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Streets, live three other peoples of Balkan extraction and propensities. On Third and Fourth Streets live the Bulgars. There were a good many more than there are to-day, but, as many of them came here without their families, they were compelled to return to their homes after the outbreak of the war. And even those who remained here for a little while afterward dispersed to other districts, or perhaps other cities, because of the enmity between them and the Serbs, who lived across the street a little further east and north. Those animosities have many times reached the knife-point, with the people, during the war, mostly siding with the Serbs, whose nationals fought on the side of the Allies. But the Bulgars did not lack in support; for the population of the region is still partly German, the Germans not having been completely ousted from their erstwhile stronghold on the lower East Side.
Another people living in the neighborhood are the Montenegrins, who are to be distinguished from the Bulgarians or the Serbs by their tremendous size and width of shoulders, as well as by that peculiar lopsided gait so peculiar to mountaineers. The Montenegrins had still more difficulties than either of the other two nations during the war. As will be remembered, the little kingdom of Montenegro was the first one that went over to the side of the Central Powers, after much less than a battle with the enemy. They were friendly with neither the Serbs nor the Bulgars, and were hated cordially by the peoples on both sides.
There used to be restaurants which fed the two nationalities together, one of them not being enough to support the business. And as their national foods are alike, it was quite feasible. Little racial differences were buried at the common table in similar tastesbroiled lamb, cooked whole wheat, and yoghurt. One used to see “Montenegrin-Bulgarian Restaurant” or “Montenegrin-Serbian Restaurant” in the window-panes. But to-day, on passing one of the streets, one can see how half of the hyphenated sign has been scratched off.
There is in that part of the city a heterodox mixture. There are also Poles and Hungarians and Slays and Croatians and Macedonians, laggers in the great migration further northward. It is curious that the migration of the people in New York should repeat, even though on a small scale, the order and method of migration into Europe of the Indo-European races. For all through the Balkan countries one can see the descendants of those who lagged behind during the great Indo-European and Indo Slavic migrations westward and eastward. And strange as it may seem, though they are living close together, with their children going to the same school, and most of them belonging to the same denomination, namely the Greek Orthodox Church, there is no social relation between them even among the youngsters. There is no intermarriage, each one in the eyes of the other being of an even lower social and racial degree than the negroes. The little bullet heads of the Macedonians or Montenegrins would never be convinced that there is any race equal to their own, either in intelligence or in bravery. Even to this day every house of a Macedonian is adorned with a picture of Alexander of Macedon, and with pictures of other heroes of ancient days.
I shall never forget how I incurred the enmity of my friend Redout on Fourth Street, in whose restaurant I had eaten almost twice a day for months, because he had seen me walk side by side with a Montenegrin. Not that he disliked that particular Montenegrin or because he was a special enemy of his. But it was enough for any of his friends to walk side by side with a Montenegrin to lose caste with a Macedonian. I had been invited to the wed-ding of Redout’s daughter, and had been promised a national costume for that occasion. Every one was supposed to come in national costume. But a few days before the wedding I was very brusquely told that the arrangement would not be carried out, that they would not dishonor a national Macedonian costume by permitting it to be worn by any one who had walked side by side with a Montenegrin.
Neither the Bulgars nor the Serbs nor the Macedonians nor the Montenegrins are permanently here. Some have been so minded when they first arrived, but have later changed their minds, waiting only until they have enough money, with perhaps a little over traveling-expenses, to return to their plains and their mountains. There are very few families of lower Balkan people here. Where there is one family, like the Stoumboffs on Third Street, the house is always too small to contain those who come to visit, to feast their eyes, as they say, on a woman’s form, and rejoice their hearts with the sound of a woman’s voice.
No better census could be taken of either of these nationalities than at one of the rare weddings. Practically every one belonging to the nation whose daughter or son is being wedded will be present, and they will each one vie with the other as to who will make costlier gifts to the bride and groom. And like the old traditional greeting of the Jews on the Day of Atonement, “That we meet next year in Jerusalem,” so is the wish expressed by every guest that they meet next year in Cettinje or Sophia, or wherever their home may be.
Mr. Pupin, the Serb inventor and professor at Columbia, whose book attracted so much attention when it appeared, will never know what pride and jealousy he has stirred up among the people of his own country and its enemies. In his isolated Americanism he does not realize what he means to his people.
All of these houses on Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Streets, in which the Balkan people live, are of the oldest in this part of the city, with no fire-escapes and no conveniences of any kind, with walls almost falling by them-selves and dark hallways and dark bedrooms. And the little light that would come in is obstructed by the rear housessun-leeches.
The restaurants are all on the basement floors, and the simple fare is served mostly in earthen dishes decorated with crude colored flowers of these people’s own make and importation. Here and there a wooden spoon of the kind that is boiled in oil for hardening its fiber makes its appearance on a table. It is seldom that any of these people can speak more than a few words of the English language. They are mostly small tradesmen of the kind that masquerade as Persians. Like the Armenians and other Orientals, they peddle at night among the tables of the restaurants with rugs and laces and things of that kind. Some of them are occupied doing small carpentry work; others work in the adjoining sweat-shops and factories, which occupy both sides of Delancey Street from the corner of Forsyth Street down to the bridge. Gradually the strongest of them are being fed by the adjoining labor agencies to the steel-mills and coal-mines of Pennsylvania, especially when there happens to be a strike. Ignorant of the language of the country, desolate and sad, lonely, isolated, they are easy prey for strike-breaking agencies. They neither have newspapers in their own language nor are they of sufficient numbers to make it worth while for any one institution to keep them informed of things happening in the country. They are largely left to themselves, and such information as they can pick up from neighbors misinforms more than informs. I have seen many a one plod-ding over the Croatian newspaper “Narodny List,” or the Jugo-Slavic, trying to understand what was in it, in the belief that these were American newspapers.
What a relief to come out suddenly from these hopeless streets, which reek with the stench of all the kitchens and sewers and the garbage piled up high on the sidewalk and the suffocating odors floating from the barges on the East River that carry away the dirt and waste of the city ! What a relief when suddenly coming into Tompkins Square, with the wide acres that were once dangerous salt marshes, and the big, inviting houses all about the square. Children of the neighborhood play together in the sand or within the wire-inclosed fences, rough-housing one another, jumping over one another, but rubbing shoulders nevertheless, and learning to appreciate each other’s qualities between two vigorous punches and a dozen curses. Immigrants with-out children are not an asset to America. . . . There should be a law about that . . . concerning landlords especially. There should be a law inflicting severe punishment on those who refuse to let their houses to people with children.
To the west, on Tenth Street, rises the big old annex of St. Mark’s in the Bouwerie, in which the Leonardo da Vinci School is housed. Across from it is the Boys’ Club. Further down are the Tompkins Square Settlement and the several day nurseries where tots with queerly shaped heads are crying in one and the same language for the arrival of their mothers. For really, if there is any hope at all for these people, it is in the squares and in the parksplaying in the sand or hoisting themselves on the bars of the gymnastic apparatus. The square is now being more and more taken possession of by the Poles, who are beginning to crowd the neighborhood, ousting the Italians, forcing them to move further northward. At night when the blond-haired Poles promenade on the alleys, arm in arm with their high-cheekboned beaus, Tompkins Square is War-saw, Crakow, or Lemberg.
But I have already traveled away from the Balkans. There never will be peace there. There never will be peace here among them until their blood shall have disappeared among the other peoples of the neighborhood. Italians who have still remained in what was once their stronghold are intermarrying with them. In this respect the Italians, by intermarrying with almost every nation in the city, are doing the greatest service to Americaabsorbing small tribal bloods.