When one becomes involved in the tenement problem, and sees for himself how the other-half lives, the East Side is no longer amusing or attractive. The very poverty, squalor, and disorder of it, with the helter-skelter of crazy buildings and vivid colors, may be picturesque enough; but even the artist cannot be interested in it for long. People go there from Upper New York on slumming expeditions with the same morbid curiosity that takes the people of Nether New York to the Morgue; but the horror of the one is the horror of the other, and a taste for either is not healthy. The East Side is a repellent place, a place where people die in the attempt to live; and perhaps too much has been said about it already.
And yet there are other dark features of the city that are not to be slipped by unmentioned if one would make a fair survey and a candid commentary. New York is not all atune to the hum of profitable business; prosperity is not obtrusively in evidence everywhere through-out its limits. The mere fact that ten people out of every hundred among the poor dying within the city limits, are buried in the Potter’s Field buried three deep at that would give one quite a different notion.
As intimated some pages back, these poor are not exclusively of New York growth, not all of home manufacture. Yet immigration is not to be blamed for everything. There is a West Side as well as an East Side, where pauperized Americans live in brick shanties, where negroes and poor whites and Irish-Americans gather in forlorn quarters, and where poverty, crime, and disease are al-most as prevalent as elsewhere in the city. Moreover, right through the heart of the Upper City, between the two dismal Sides, cuts that Great White Way, which has for its high-light the district known as “The Tenderloin” a feature truly enough American, and not the less of a blotch and a patch on the city because illuminated by electricity, and made gaudy by the extravagance of the foolish.
To the rural visitor from Olean or Skowhegan “The Tenderloin” at night looks very attractive, is bubbling over with mirth, or wildly hilarious with champagne. It is “a great sight,” and the gay ladies who furnish the laughter and help drink the champagne seem to lead a charmed life; but when the play is done and the curtain falls, the faces under their rouge show any-thing but gayety. Many before them have laughed the same laughter and gone their way, because “The Tenderloin” has no use for tears; but the “gay time” is simulated, and the life itself is just as hideous after its kind as any to be found in the dens of the hopeless or the dives of the submerged.
The Great White Way is the place where the rapid career usually begins, and the East Side is often the place of its ending. For the processes of degeneracy may finally land the one-time habitue of “The Tenderloin” into the pitiless precincts of the Bowery, or the darkness of the Mott Street opium-joints. “The Tenderloin” is always full of evil promise. Here is where crime is born and brought to maturity. Here is where the police throw out their first drag-net for the defaulter, the embezzler, the forger, the well-dressed thief. Most of the race-track, the pool-room, the bucket-shop people belong here; and confidence men, badger-game men, with pickpockets and ordinary swindlers, are always in its offing, keeping a weather-eye open for prey. The gay ladies sooner or later become the stool-pigeons of the swindlers and help them in their hawking. Such criminals as these seem more cunning than brutal, but perhaps they are more dangerous for that very reason. The police have to keep them on the blotter all the time. “The Tenderloin” is perhaps under stricter surveillance than the Bowery and its purlieus.
And yet on the surface New York, both Upper and Nether, seems to be a well-ordered, law-abiding city. The stranger who strolls along the avenues, or even through the ill-reputed Sides, meets with no overt act of lawlessness, sees no murders or robberies, hears no disturbances, knows no horrors. But each year there are something over one hundred and seventy-five thou-sand prisoners brought to the bar in the various police courts of the city. They are not all charged with stealing, though the loss of property reported at the police stations through burglaries amounts to fifteen or twenty millions a year. There are among the prisoners many thugs, yeggmen, whyos, up for criminal assault; many members of gangs that belong on the Bowery, or Cherry Street, or in Harlem, or along the far avenues, arrested for “doing” each other; many hold-up men, long-shore crooks, and harbor ruffians, with some blackmailers be-longing to the Black Hand or other organizations of criminals. Then there are the vagrants, those charged with being “drunk and disorderly,” the irresponsible, the suddenly insane. Indeed, one hardly knows what New York would do if the police were not on hand to keep the lawless and the violent in restraint.
It is generally supposed that the police of a city have but one duty to perform, namely, to arrest law-breakers; but the New York police have other things than that on their schedule. The department is broken up into many divisions, with just as many different functions as there are divisions. Aside from the regular patrolmen there is the Sanitary Squad, that has to do with enforcing health regulations; the Traffic Squad, that regulates the traffic of the great thoroughfares; the Court Squad, that is in attendance on the courts; the Boiler Squad, that examines engines, boilers, and engineers. Then again there are squads that do special duty in special places, such as the Steamboat, Harbor, Bridge, and Park police; and the picked men that serve along such thoroughfares as Broadway or about the railway stations. Wherever the place of service, the facilities for swift action and concentration of forces are furnished either in horses or bicycles or boats or patrol wagons. The police move swiftlytoo swiftly for the average law-breaker’s comfort.
The bureaus of the department emphasize, again, the many functions of the police. For examples, there are the Detective Bureau, with its interesting machinery for the detection of crime and criminals, and the Bureau of Information, which looks up the antecedents of the several hundred people each year who are “found dead” in the city, takes charge of and finds out about the youthful “runaways” who come to the city because tired of their home life in the country, returns each year several thousand “lost” children, looks after people run over or killed in the city streets, gathers information about the unknown suicides. Then there are the License Bureau, which has to do with the thousands of applications for licenses, the Lost Property Office, where one can recover his belongings by proper identification of them, the Bureau of Encumbrances, which performs all sorts of no man’s duties, and the House of Detention, “the prison of the innocent, “ where witnesses are held pending trials.
Again, the police not only patrol the streets, but they control crowds, regulate public amusements, help the ambulances, stop the fast-driving automobiles, send in fire-alarms, act as witnesses, guard the election booths and boxes, keep order in the courts, ferret out criminals for the District Attorney, haunt the railroad stations for arriving crooks, in short, watch over the whole city that it may come to no harm. It has been said that they watch the city and the criminal classes to their own profit, that they themselves are corrupt and accept bribes and hush-money, that they blackmail the saloons, the bagnios, and the pool-rooms, growing wealthy out of their double dealing. The charge is easily made, since it is general and hits no one in particular; and, some-times, it is specifically made and proved. It would be strange if out of nine or ten thousand men, with almost unlimited power in the matter of blackmail, there were not some wanting in honesty. What then! Is the whole force “rotten” in consequence?
It is true again that occasionally a man is dismissed from the force for cowardice; but who has ever suggested that the police as a body were wanting in courage? As they come out of the police-stations in squads of eight or ten to go on duty, you may notice that practically all of them have smooth and young-looking faces, that their lips shut close as the jaws of a steel trap, and that their chins are often a bit “under-shot” like bulldogs’. From their faces alone you know that the police are not lacking in courage, that they are not afraid of thief or thug or trouble of any kind.
Have they not proved their bravery again and again ? Read the deeds of the honor men who have medals on their coat lapels; or read almost any day in the newspapers, the stopping of runaways by the mounted police in the Central Park, or the perilous rescues at fires. Read the annals of the Harbor Squad, and the scores of times the police have gone overboard into the floating ice of mid-winter to save some poor wretch fallen off a dock in the dark. Read the stories of the Bridge Police and their thrilling adventures with accidents and suicides high up in the air above the East River. Even the bicycle men, who hold up speeding automobiles, convince one that grit belongs to the police either by education or inheritance or tradition. A man cannot remain on the force for long without it.
And when did the police ever run from a mob, or give up a prisoner without a fight, or fail to close in on a thief because he pointed a pistol ? Occasionally a man has been outnumbered, or in the face of certain death has declined to attack single-handed a band of thugs; but he has usually forfeited his baton and shield, and quit the force in consequence thereof. And many a patrolman has been killed outright because of being too brave, because of attacking against overwhelming numbers.
New York is proud of its police force, and keeps re-iterating that it is the very “finest” in all the world a statement that is not modest but has a good deal of truth in it. Certainly as one sees the police at the annual parade, swinging down Fifth Avenue, six thousand strong, there is a feeling that it is an invincible body of men. It marches well; it is precise, alert, disciplined. The men may be relied upon to obey orders absolutely, and to move, attack, and shoot, in case of a riot, as a united body. The mob of the future that can stand up before their moving columns will have more courage than any of its predecessors; and the rescuing party that can break through their solid square or marching diamond will need Gatling guns to prepare the way.
The mounted police, moving fourteen abreast, keep the line formation quite as well as the foot police. They are perfectly drilled, moving each man and horse like a centaur, each line like a solid column. Even the bicycle men and the drivers of the patrol wagons are infused with the military spirit. Precision, accuracy, obedience are stamped upon them all. Honor to General Bingham, who is to be credited with implanting this new spirit in the police! And honor again to the Mayor, who in spite of party pressure and partisan virulence has resolutely sustained the Commissioner of Police in his office and in his work!
The present police regime is decidedly of modern growth. True enough, there were police in the city from the early days, but they were constabulary in nature, and no doubt much mocked and little respected by the flippant and the ungodly in the community. A record of 1693, for instance, describes the policeman of that day as a gorgeous affair in livery, with shoes and stockings of municipal furnishing, and carrying a badge of “ye city arms.” He must have been a target for the slings and arrows of the town, and that is about all. Even so recently as 1850 the police of the city were more like bailiffs than regulars. They wore no uniform, had a star-shaped badge pinned on their coat, and spent most of their time sitting on skids and barrels, or leaning against bars in the corner saloons. After the Draft Riots they became something of a power because moving as a body; and after 1886, when they took a strong hand in the street-car strikes, they became a force to be feared. Since then they have steadily improved in numbers and in discipline, until to-day they have the standing of a small army. There are over nine thousand men on the force, well-officered, well-trained, well-seasoned. New York is very right in being proud of its police.
And also of its firemen. The Fire Department is, again, one of the most efficient in the world. It has become so through sheer necessity. There are ten fires in New York to one in London or Paris, and swiftness in extinguishing them is the result of having not only many to extinguish, but also of having the best modern machinery in the hands of men trained to utilize every possible fraction of time. All the fire-fighting men are athletic. This is required by the rigid examination antecedent to being enrolled in the department. Agility, catlike quickness, strength, are indispensable qualities. Practice does the rest. The engines (now being superseded by the very successful high-pressure system’) are of the latest patterns, the water towers are the highest, the hook-and-ladder extensions the longest obtainable. Electricity, of course, sends in the alarms, rings the gongs, lights the fires in the engines, unsnaps the horses. Everything is done with electric speed. That there may be no precious minute lost in sending in an alarm, there are hundreds of boxes placed in private buildings so that in case of fire it is only necessary to pull down a hook, and an engine will be there in perhaps two minutes.
‘ The High Pressure or Salt Water Service, by which name it is popularly known, has been in most successful operation since July, 1908. ” It is capable of pumping at the rate of fifty million gallons of water in twenty-four hours, against a pressure of 350 pounds per square inch, and this enormous force against which no imaginable conflagration could stand, can be concentrated at any point within the High Pressure Fire District, and made available within two minutes after the alarm of fire is given.” Message of Hon. George B. McClellan, The Mayor, January 4, 1909.
Nothing is answered so quickly as a fire call in an American city.
There are over four thousand men in the uniformed service of the New York Fire Department. In Manhattan and the Bronx alone there are eighty-four engine companies, standing ready night and day, men and horses alike, for the headlong rush to the fire. Just as ready are the thirty-five hook-and-ladder companies with their extension and scaling ladders. They never know what the need or what frightful risk will be asked of them, but they go prepared for anything. Along the rivers there are fire-boats stationed at different piers boats that look like monitors with brass-nozzled hose mounted like rapid-fire guns standing ready again, night and day, for the instant dash up or down the stream to put out dock or steamboat fires. The handling of an emergency with swiftness swiftness above all things is required of every one of them.
To maintain such an equipment, with its bureaus for extinguishing, for preventing, and for investigating fire, is, of course, a pretty item of expense. Seven and a half millions was in the budget for 1908 quite enough to make one gasp at our extravagance. But the outlay is warranted by the circumstances. The fire losses in New York amount to some twelve million dollars a year, and the number of fires to something like ten thousand. The latter figure generally causes a stranger to throw up his hands in horror or despair, and it has been known to give many a native a decided shock. It seems almost incredible that any city could average thirty fires a day, and still live to tell the tale. Yet New York has that record.
How does it happen? What the cause of these many outbreaks of fire? Whose the fault? It is said that our bad construction is to blame, that we build houses of wood that are little more than fire-traps “tinder-boxes” is the more common term. It is said further that the buildings are easily ignited, that they go up swiftly “in puffs of smoke,” and that they shower sparks like shooting stars on all the neighboring buildings. Perhaps there is some truth in that, though there are few wooden buildings left in New York, and those built of brick and stone differ but little from similar structures in London or Paris. As for fire-proof structures, perhaps we are better off in respect of them than any other modern city. Having learned something from our experiences, and much desiring prevention to repetition, there has been a decided effort to construct buildings absolutely fire-proof. But, taking our buildings at their worst, it is not possible that they are ten times more inflammable than those of Europe. Yet we have ten times as many conflagrations. There is some other reason for so much smoke. How do the fires start in the first place? Perhaps the fire figures for the whole United States may help us out, or at least prove suggestive.
The destruction of life by fire in this country amounts to seven thousand people a year, the destruction of property amounts to two hundred millions a year; the fighting of fire, and the protection from it furnished by insurance companies, amounts to four hundred millions a year. This looks very much like waste caused by wanton carelessness. The disregard of consequences, the reckless attitude of mind, is, in fact, quite characteristic of the Americans, and is very speedily adopted by the immigrants who come here. By a queer system of economics a fire is usually regarded by irresponsible people as “a good thing,” either because it gets rid of some undesirable building or because it “gives some poor man a job” in erecting a new structure. And in New York the majority of the fires are directly due to the irresponsibles.
Fifty per cent of the fires originate in the tenements. That in itself is significant. Those who have little or nothing to lose are generally easy in their minds about other people’s losses. What difference does it make to them if they go out of an evening leaving a red-hot stove to take care of itself; or whether a festival candle is placed in a candle-stick or on a straw bed where it is almost sure to fall over and cause a conflagration? In any event they will not lose much. The landlord, whom they usually detest, will have to pay. The almost in-credible tale is told that during a recent feast in one of the East Side quarters nearly forty alarms of fire were sent in in a single afternoon. The carelessness suggested by such a story is simply astounding.
But New York is held responsible for the acts of its masses foreign as well as native and has to be pre-pared for the foolishness or the recklessness of its citizens. Hence the ever ready fire department, and hence the hurry and the speed of it. It is all loss, money and effort thrown out to stop greater loss, and perhaps the only phase of it that is at all compensating is the picturesque look and the heroic act. These are at times thrilling, ennobling, almost inspiring.
There is something in an alarm of fire the clang of the gongs, the whistle of the engines, the clatter of horses’ feet on the pavement, the rumble of the wheels that gives one a thrill. People drop their work and crowd to the window or the door to see the engines go by. Everybody knows that hollow fire-whistle. The trucks and cabs crowd up to the curbs and stand still, the foot-passengers keep on the sidewalks, the street cars stop. A fire-engine always has the right of way. The horses as well as the drivers know that they are to have a clear track and, though they are prepared for unwieldy vehicles that occasionally block their path, they bowl along at great speed. It is a picturesque if common sight in the city, this sweep through the streets of a flashing fire-engine, trailing a huge black streamer of smoke behind it, whistling and clanging, its powerful horses galloping; and after it hose wagons, long hook-and-ladder trucks, with firemen perhaps hastily putting on rubber coats in preparation for action while moving toward the fire. The swiftness .of it, the swirl of the huge trucks around the corners, the occasional skidding on the wet pavements, are exciting. Even the disappearance down an avenue or side street leaves behind a wonder in the air. Strangers turn to ask each other the whereabouts of the fire. Everyone is interested. No matter how familiar the sight, it always produces a thrill.
The excitement increases as one nears the fire itself. The police have perhaps already made a cordon around it, and have the curious pushed back out of the way. Engines on the side streets are spouting smoke, hose carriages are running out lengths of hose, ladders are going up against the walls, water towers are being elevated. There is water in a few minutes, pounding through the hose and playing on the flames, which are possibly already leaping high in air. Stream after stream is brought to bear from different sides, from neighboring houses, from the roof, or through the windows. There is the continual crash of glass, of falling floors, of crumbling walls, with the roar of the flames, the swish of water, the shouts of the mob and the men.
And always danger for the firemen. No one knows when or how it may develop. The pent-up gas within the building may blow out the walls and bury a whole ladderful; the men may be overcome and suffocated by smoke, even though crawling along the floor for air and following the fire hose out; they may be caught in the dreaded back-draft and singed almost to a cinder before it passes. These are just the usual risks of the New York fireman and are accepted as a matter of course. But occasionally there arises for him a more direful emergency the necessity of risking his life to save others. And here the fireman is not only a superb life-saver but frequently a self-sacrificing hero in the bargain.
Often enough, the man or woman at the window or on the roof top, cut off by the flames, appealing to be saved, is economically not worth the saving; often the crippled or the bed-ridden overlooked in the hurried flight and left behind in the house are, economically again, not worth risking young lives for; but no thought of that sort enters the fireman’s mind. All alike are human to him and he must save them. Extension ladders go up, scaling ladders carry the men from story to story, window ledges and cornices are crept along, rooms black with smoke are traversed, the helpless .are brought out and lowered to safety, and perhaps, as the walls fall in, the firemen drop into the safety-nets more dead than alive. It is a common story.
Still more wonderful are the rescues made by firemen of their companions. Perhaps the more adventurous have been caught on the roof, or have been overcome by smoke in rooms, or have fallen with the collapse of a floor into the cellar, where, unconscious, they are drowning in pools of water. The tales told of these rescues of human bridge building, of swinging from window to window, of creeping along lead pipes, of leaps for life are almost unbelievable in their details.’ The things that once took place only in romantic fiction are now and here being outdone in fact.
New York has good reason to be proud of its policemen and its firemen. There are no deeds of heroism more heroic than theirs; and yet, within the ranks, risk and danger are considered merely matters of service. Such service is not so common, however, that it escapes notice. Almost everyone is led to reflect at times upon the model municipality that New York might be were all the branches of its government as devoted to duty as the departments of Fire and Police.