As one goes down the side streets leading from the Bowery to the East River almost any one of them will furnish illustration he notices many and increasing changes. The buildings are usually of brick with perhaps stone or terra-cotta trimmings, not small in proportions nor mean in entrances, but marred in appearance by many iron fire-escapes that descend in flights to the street. The fire-escapes are often littered with sorry-looking clothing, boxes, or cans; the blinds and doorposts are grimy with finger marks, the windows are dirty and often broken, and the steps and area ways are worn smooth with the shuffle of many feet. The streets are just as wide, and cleaned perhaps as often as the other streets of the city, but there are rows and rows of pushcarts that occupy the gutters, and the refuse from them makes the streets appear unkempt and not cared for.
Business after its kind goes on here as elsewhere, all sorts of shops are open, trucks rumble over the pavements, people come and go with bundles and baskets. And there is the same crowding and huddling of people as on Broadway, only more so. The East Side is possibly the most congested district in the world. Figures are forthcoming from sociologists to show how many hundreds live on a block, or how many thousands live in a square mile of these tenements; but the passer-by does not need the figures. He can see for himself some thousands, at least, without leaving the curb. In warm weather the doorways exude humanity, and the windows fairly bulge with people. The protrusions of heads, arms, and elbows seem forced by the pressure of people from within. The fire-escapes and roof lines and cellar-areas hold their quota again. As for the streets, they are always full of half-grown children, while the sidewalks are more or less strewn with crawling babies. The stranger steps over them, and is lucky if he does not step on them. Always and every-where are children, children, children.
The cross-streets running parallel with the Bowery Orchard, Ludlow, Allen, Catherine, Market, or almost any other in that region are even worse than the side streets. Along them there are rows and rows of three-story buildings, with shops below and tenement quarters above, all somewhat the worse for wear, all hung with fire-escapes, all crowded and overflowing. Even the cellars are sometimes occupied for living quarters in defiance of law. Occasionally there is an alley or small court that runs back or across the rear of the buildings, with its accumulation of rubbish and wretched out-houses where children play, and women sit, and thieves have their runways and hiding-places.
These are the tenements, where people gather by the scores in small, ill-ventilated rooms, and ply the sewing-machine, making cheap clothing. Men, women, and children work in these sweat-shops, eat there, sleep there. On almost every floor is the common hallway where people wash. Nothing is private. The inhabitants are tenants in common of all the liberty and all the license of the tenement.
In such rookeries, where dozens of families live in the same nest and each one is in the other one’s way, there is a continual round of evil communication, foul talk, thieving, brawls, fights, and often murders. The respectable poor, cast there by temporary loss of work perhaps, begin to feel the contamination at once. In the acceptance of charity they lose self-respect, and, possibly, in a short time they are pauperized quite willing to be helped and taken care of by others. The next step is vagrancy, with its attendant evils. Drink takes the place of food with the men and women, the young girls become depraved, the children frequent the alleys and the gutters rather than the schools. Degeneracy is swift and demoralization sure. It is almost impossible to uphold decency in such circumstances.
Then comes in disease to lend an added horror to the scene. Tuberculosis is in the lead; and all the train’ of ills contingent upon insufficient food, bad sanitation, foul air and evil habits, follow after. The small children bear the brunt of the attack, or rather they succumb to it; but all classes feel it. In the winter, crowded in small, ill-ventilated rooms for warmth, pneumonia ferrets them out; in summer, with the heat puffing in at the windows and the buzz of flies in the air, they are victims of intestinal troubles. Such a combination of miseries, such a welter of poverty, crime, and disease, make the well-to-do shudder, the charitable over-sympathetic and perhaps over-zealous, and the sociologists and settlement workers indignant. And not without cause.
This is not the place to thresh out the question of the tenements, and yet one cannot jump over it or push around it in a search for the picturesque or the commercial in New York. It comes up insistently with a “What can be done to stop the misery?” The charity organizations and the settlement workers have given answer, but it is not an altogether satisfactory answer. The substance of it is, Help the tenement dwellers to get on their feet, help them to get work, to live better, to be better mentally, morally, physically. Unfortunately, that is what a great many of them the paupers, the vagrants, the criminals do not want and will not have. Reclamation is something that even the socialist becomes pessimistic over at times. The outlook there is not encouraging.
Mr. Robert Hunter, a man of much experience, rather insists that government do its duty and provide properly for the children, the sick, the crippled, the criminal, and also those in poverty. As regards the crippled and the helpless, whether old or young, everyone will agree that Mr. Hunter’s remedy is the right one. For those who are merely pauperized or poverty-stricken perhaps the remedy is objectionable for no other reason than because it helps humanity. It is doubtful if people can be helped without harm resulting therefrom. A crutch is a convenient thing to lean upon, but how quickly it takes the place of a leg and renders the latter useless. What government has already done in schoolhouses, hospitals, almshouses, penitentiaries, Mr. Hunter deems insufficient. He would improve and better them, extend their scope and inclusion, make them more effective and comfort-able. There it is again. Making things comfortable for people is to cripple their own exertions toward the same end. Carry their burdens, and they will let you carry to the end of the chapter.
Mr. Riis, another man of much experience with the slums and the tenements, has a different remedy. He would abolish the’ tenements, erect new and sanitary buildings with light and air, give the East Side family a chance at privacy and a home, and the children more schools, parks, and playgrounds. He insists that the tenement is the root of the evil, that it is badly constructed, ill-ventilated, a hot-bed of crime and disease. He is quite right about the hot-bed, but is the building alone to blame? The same buildings housed respectable families in old New York fifty years ago, but there came from them neither murders nor contagions. Up town in the New York of to-day one finds scores of apartment-houses where there are small, half-dark bedrooms, opening on narrow air-shafts, where people live (and pay high rents for the privilege); but again they do not produce crime or disease. Moreover, it should be noted that the situation has been greatly improved in the last five years by new tenements that are better types of housing in respect to light, ventilation, and general sanitary conditions, in conformity to new laws; but the East Side re-mains practically the East Side.’ Is it the tenement that is so very bad, or is it the crowding of the tenants that produces the evil? If the East Side populace were transferred to the Central Park, with the blue sky only for a roof and fresh air all around, there would still crop out disease and crime from overcrowding. The military camp, and that too under strict discipline, often proves as much.
The pleas for better homes, family privacy, children’s playgrounds, more sunshinein short, better living and greater comfort are, however, well made. A better living should be provided. But neither the charitably disposed, nor the landlord, nor the city government, should provide it. The tenant should maintain himself and his family. Adversity is often galling, depressing, exhausting; but the breadwinner who emerges from it does so with more self-respect, a stronger will, a greater confidence, than ever. It is the making of the man.
But self-help, it is well argued, is not possible for all those on the East Side not possible at least within the city’s limits. There are over a hundred thousand tenements and over a million of the poorer class of ten-ants in New York. There is hardly proper breathing space on the island for such a mass, to say nothing of comfortable homes and playgrounds. To improve the tenements is perhaps a temporary makeshift. And besides, it results immediately in a new influx of tenants from without to take advantage of the improved conditions. The line of least resistance, whether it be a bread line or pleasant tenement conditions, is sure to be followed. The underlying evil of congestion is not even scotched.
To the cry of 1r. Riis, “Abolish the tenements!” there may be suggested an alternative. Why not abolish the tenants? Not all of them. There must, of course, be working people living in the city, and presumably there always will be factories to supply a large part of them with work, though perhaps they might better be located out of the town; but there are certain undesirable citizens, masquerading as “working people,” who crowd the tenements and congest the city to the danger point, who might be eliminated from the problem, by forcing them to live elsewhere. Force (not necessarily physical) will be necessary, for of their own accord these people will not live outside the city. Rapid transit, a decent home in the country, plenty of fresh air and sunshine, with steady work, have been tried and found to be without charm or interest for them. They prefer the crowded quarters of the town, with all their vice and squalor and misery and crime.
The undesirable class that should be abolished is the criminal, the vagrant, the beggar, the pauper, the man who works only when the job is easy and agreeable, and the man who insists upon working himself and his family to death in the sweat-shops. If these could be forbidden the city, a large percentage of the misery, vice, and disease of the present tenement would be done away with at once. But how is it to be accomplished?
If there is any virtue in our boasted home rule of municipalities, then a city should be able, by law, to exclude the vagrant and the pauper classes. It might not be possible to do this by a threat of prosecution, as some-times criminals are driven out by the police; but it could be done, perhaps by taxation. In Berlin, for instance, the stranger finds, after a ten days’ or a two weeks’ stop in the city, that he is visited by a tax-collector, who insists upon his contributing to the municipal purse. This is direct taxation, which cannot be levied by our United States government, but may be levied by our state or city governments. A small specific sum for each person coming to live in the city (say, ten dollars or more a head, payable upon entrance and punishable by imprisonment and deportation if evaded) would not exclude the worthy, the capable, and the industrious, but would shut out practically the criminal, the vagrant, and the pauper classes which now make the slums, and sow the city with plague spots, and burden the tax-payer for their support.
Again, it might be possible through the Health Department to regard the tenements as public nuisances, and thus cause their abatement; or by regarding them as a menace to the public health, to insist that there be only so many people allowed on each city “block,” or in each house, or on each floor of a house. There is already some prescription of the number of cubic feet of air that each tenement-occupant must have; but it is almost impossible to prevent its evasion. As soon as the inspector’s back is turned, the rooms fill up again with “boarders” or “relatives”; and the old crowding goes on, even in the newest and most improved tenements. Still, it should be possible for the modern city to rid itself of its criminal and vagrant classes. As a measure of self-protection it is being forced upon the consideration more and more each day. New York is not bound, either in law or in common humanity, to feed, clothe, and harbor all the undesirables that steamship lines bring to it from abroad. And it is the duty of Congress to lend a hand by stopping such people from coming into the country in the first place.
We are now nearer to the gist of the matter. Congress with its suicidal laissez-faire policy as regards immigration, by permitting Europe to send us any kind of immigrants it pleases, is directly responsible for the over-crowded tenements of the city. In round numbers, a million immigrants a year arrive at the port of New York. Of these fully three-quarters (750,000) are of very questionable desirability, to say the least. They are Russians, Poles, Bohemians, Lithuanians, Greeks, Rumanians, Slovaks, Armenians, Sicilians. They are the class that do not go to the farm, but to the city; and if they work at all it is in the sweat-shop, the factory, and the mine. They benefit the steamship lines that bring them here by some twenty dollars a head; they furnish a cheap unskilled labor for the manufacturer and the mine operator; and they burden and render miserable whatever city or community they settle in. Naturally, the poorest and most worthless of the 750,000 never get any farther than their port of entry New York. They go over to the East Side and help on the misery there. Each year as the crowding increases Charity girds its loins and sends forth an extra appeal; the bread lines are ex-tended until the police are forced to break them up; social-ism and anarchy parade, talk, importune, and threaten; and the torrent of woe in the tenements grows wider and deeper.
Mr. Hunter and others, in intimate touch with conditions, state that most of the poverty-stricken in the cities are foreigners, that ninety-five per cent of the slum-dwellers are of foreign birth, and again that over fifty per cent of the paupers and the insane are foreign-born. The settlement workers practically unite in testimony to the effect that the most incorrigible slummers, paupers, and vagrants are the Italians and the Jews. The United Hebrew Charities keeps reporting something over one hundred thousand Jews in New York who are unable to supply themselves with the immediate necessaries of life. The report if made for the other nationalities put down among the undesirables would not be essentially different. And on one point all the settlement workers are once more practically united. The American-born of this foreign parentage is the most vicious criminal of them all.
So it seems that the city is supporting, not alone its own indigent and poverty-stricken, not alone its own paupers and vagrants, but those of other countries that are dumped upon New York docks by devil-may-care steamship companies. “We have Russia’s poverty, Poland’s poverty, Italy’s poverty, Hungary’s poverty, Bohemia’s poverty and what other nations have we not?” How shall the city ever improve the East Side and its tenements with yearly a heavier influx than be-fore of just this element? How shall the police cope with crime when it keeps increasing with the continued coming of these foreign hordes? Once more, it is the plain duty of Congress to stop this immigration, or else assume the responsibility for it instead of putting it on the shoulders of New York. The undesirables should be turned back at the entrance of the harbor, if not earlier, by United States law. Failing in that, the city should close its door and open it only on the payment of an admission fee (a suitable tax) that would prohibit the worthless element from entering.
But what are the unfortunates without the gates to do? Where are they to go? They do not like living in the country, they are not farmers, they are not even mechanics or good ordinary day-laborers. They have al-ways been used to the city and city life. What are they to do?’ Fortunately, so long as these people remain without the gates, New York does not have to answer those questions. It can ignore them. And if it chose to fling back savagely, “Go to the farms and small villages and work there, or go back to the country from which you came,” no one could gainsay either the frankness nor the justness of the answer. Why should the beggar be such a chooser of what he likes or dislikes? Those who made the United States and those who are now upholding the country, native and foreign alike, have not asked about the work before them whether they liked it or not; they have taken hold of it and done it. No man in this western world does exactly as he pleases except this same pauper, vagrant, and criminal. It is perhaps time he was compelled to do his duty rather than allowed to do his pleasure.
And a measure of compulsion would do no harm to the same class already within the city. There has been perhaps too much charity, too much help. Humanity is that strange contrary animal which, if one seeks to lift it up, will insist upon getting down; and if pushed down, it will insist upon getting up. The pauper and the vagrant would not only be a surprise to himself, but a benefit perhaps to the town if he were arbitrarily set to work on the public streets. Getting for him comfortable and Turks and Greeks are peddlers and shop-keepers rather than laborers; the Sicilians will work in railways and tunneling, but they prefer city employment of a political nature leaning on a broom in the Street Cleaning Department, for instance if they can get it.
All of which sounds harsh in judgment and seems wanting in sympathy. But why should not one’s sympathy go out to the just as well as to the unjust? Why not sympathize with the city rather than with those who would ruin it? There is no under-dog in the fight. That simile is almost always misleading. The only person who is holding down the vagrant is himself. Putting him upon his feet and giving him a shoulder to lean upon have failed most lamentably. Other nations have compelled him, out of his own strength, to get upon his feet and stand there. There are no such slums as ours in German cities; there are no East Sides in Stockholm; there are no beggars or vagrants in Switzerland. We might profit by their experience.
Such at least is the feeling of the average person who turns this tenement question over and over, seeking an answer. It seems almost impossible to help or improve conditions by kindness or charity, and one wonders if there might not be some virtue in resisting them. A city ‘must protect itself or suffer the consequences of neglect. New York must do something with its East Side. It is not merely an objectionable spot to municipal art societies something that mars the beauty of the city or an item of expense to the tax-payer and the charitably disposed; it is a menace to the public health, a prolific source of contagion. Worst of all, it is a sink of crime and immorality. It is not creditable to New York. It is one of the city’s most hideous features, one of its most violent and forbidding contrasts.