Nonfiction > Jacob A. Riis > The Battle with the Slum > I. Battling Against Heavy Odds
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Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). The Battle with the Slum. 1902.
 
I. Battling Against Heavy Odds
 
THE slum I speak of is our own. We made it, but let us be glad we have no patent on the manufacture. It is not, as one wrote with soul quite too patriotic to let the Old World into competition on any terms, “the offspring of the American factory system.” Not that, thank goodness! It comes much nearer to being a slice of original sin which makes right of might whenever the chance offers. When to-day we clamor for air and light and water as man’s natural rights because necessary to his being, we are merely following in the track Hippocrates trod twenty-five centuries ago. How like the slums of Rome were to those of New York any one may learn from Juvenal’s Satires and Gibbon’s description of Rome under Augustus. “I must live in a place where there are no fires, no nightly alarms,” cries the poet, apostle of commuters. “Already is Ucalegon shouting for water, already is he removing his chattels; the third story in the house you live in is already in a blaze. You know nothing about it. For if the alarm begin from the bottom of the stairs, he will be the last to be burned whom a single tile protects from the rain where the tame pigeons lay their eggs.” (Clearly they had no air-shafts in the Roman tenements!) “Codrus had a bed too small for his Procula; six little jugs, the ornament of his sideboard, and a little can, besides, beneath it.… What a height it is from the lofty roofs from which a potsherd tumbles on your brains. How often cracked and chipped earthenware falls from the windows.… Pray and bear about with you the miserable wish that they may be contented with throwing down only what the broad basins have held.… If you can tear yourself away from the games in the circus, you can buy a capital house at Sora, or Fabrateria, or Frasino, for the price at which you are now hiring your dark-hole for one year. There you will have your little garden… live there enamoured of the pitchfork.… It is something to be able in any spot to have made oneself proprietor even of a single lizard… None but the wealthy can sleep in Rome.” 1   1
  One reads with a grim smile of the hold-ups of old: “‘Where do you come from?’ he (policeman?) thunders out. ‘You don’t answer? Speak or be kicked! Say, where do you hang out?’ It is all one whether you speak or hold your tongue; they beat you just the same, and then, in a passion, force you to give bail to answer for the assault… I must be off. Let those stay… for whom it is an easy matter to get contracts for building temples, clearing rivers, constructing harbors, cleansing sewers, etc.” 2 Not even in the boss and his pull can we claim exclusive right.   2
  Rome had its walls, as New York has its rivers, and they played a like part in penning up the crowds. Within space became scarce and dear, and when there was no longer room to build in rows where the poor lived, they put the houses on top of one another. That is the first chapter of the story of the tenement everywhere. Gibbon quotes the architect Vitruvius, who lived in the Augustan age, as complaining of “the common though inconvenient practice of raising houses to a considerable height in the air. But the loftiness of the buildings, which often consisted of hasty work and insufficient material, was the cause of frequent and fatal accidents, and it was repeatedly enacted by Augustus as well as by Nero that the height of private dwellings should not exceed the measure of seventy feet above the ground.”   3
  “Repeatedly” suggests that the jerry-builder was a hard nut to crack then as now. As to Nero’s edict, New York enacted it for its own protection in our own generation.   4
  Step now across eighteen centuries and all the chapters of the dreary story to the middle of the century we have just left behind, and look upon this picture of the New World’s metropolis as it was drawn in public reports at a time when a legislative committee came to New York to see how crime and drunkenness came to be the natural crop of a population “housed in crazy old buildings, crowded, filthy tenements in rear yards, dark, damp basements, leaking garrets, shops, outhouses, and stables converted into dwellings, though scarcely fit to shelter brutes,” or in towering tenements, “often carried up to a great height without regard to the strength of the foundation walls.” What matter? They were not intended to last. The rent was high enough to make up for the risk—to the property. The tenant was not considered. Nothing was expected of him, and he came up to the expectation, as men have a trick of doing. “Reckless slovenliness, discontent, privation, and ignorance were left to work out their inevitable results, until the entire premises reached the level of tenanthouse dilapidation, containing, but sheltering not, the miserable hordes that crowded beneath smouldering, water-rotted roofs, or burrowed among the rats of clammy cellars.” 3   5
 
 
One of the Five Points Fifty Years ago.
 
  We had not yet taken a lesson from Nero. That came later. But otherwise we were abreast. No doubt the Roman landlord, like his New York brother of a later day, when called to account, “urged the filthy habits of his tenants as an excuse for the condition of the property.” It has been the landlord’s plea in every age. “They utterly forgot,” observes the sanitarian who was set to clean up, “that it was the tolerance of those habits which was the real evil, and that for this they themselves were alone responsible.” 4   6
  Those days came vividly back to me last winter, when in a Wisconsin country town I was rehearsing the story of the long fight, and pointing out its meaning to us all. In the audience sat a sturdy, white-haired, old farmer who followed the recital with keen interest, losing no word. When he saw this picture of one of the Five Points, he spoke out loud: “Yes! that is right. I was there.” It turned out that he and his sister had borne a hand in the attack upon that stronghold of the slum by the forces of decency, in 1849 and 1850, which ended in the wiping out of the city’s worst disgrace. It was the first pitched battle in the fight. Soon after he had come west and taken homestead land; but the daily repetition during a lifetime of the message to men, which the woods and the fields and God’s open sky have in keeping, had not dulled his ears to it, and after fifty years his interest in his brothers in the great city was as keen as ever, his sympathies as quick. He had driven twenty miles across the frozen prairie to hear my story. It is his kind who win such battles, and a few of them go a long way.   7
 
 
The “Old Church” Tenement.
 
  A handful of Methodist women made the Five Points decent. To understand what that meant, look at the “dens of death” in Baxter Street, which were part of it, “houses,” says the health inspector, 5 “into which the sunlight never enters … that are dark, damp, and dismal throughout all the days of the year, and for which it is no exaggeration to say that the money paid to the owners as rent is literally the ‘price of blood.’ ” It took us twenty-four years after that to register the conviction in the form of law that that was good cause for the destruction of a tenement in cold blood; but we got rid of some at that time in a fit of anger. The mortality officially registered in those “dens of death” was 17.5 per cent of their population. We think now that the death-rate of New York is yet too high at 19 or 20 in a thousand of the living.   8
  A dozen steps away in Mulberry Street, called “Death’s Thoroughfare” in the same report, were the “Old Church Tenements,” part of the Five Points and nearly the worst part. “One of the largest contributors to the hospitals,” this repulsive pile had seen the day when men and women sat under its roof and worshipped God. When the congregation grew rich, it handed over its house to the devil and moved uptown. That is not putting it too strong. Counting in the front tenements that shut out what little air and sunshine might otherwise have reached the wretched tenants, it had a population of 360 according to the record, and a mortality of 75 per thousand!   9
 
 
An Old Wooster Street Court.
 
  The sketches of the Fourth Ward and Wooster Street barracks are reproduced from an old report of the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor. They rightly made out, those early missionaries, that the improvement must begin with the people’s homes, or not at all, and allowed no indifference on the part of the public to turn them from their path. It is worth the while of Chicago and the other Western cities that are growing with such joyful metropolitan ambitions, to notice that their slums look to-day very much as New York’s did then. In fifty years how will it be? “The offspring of municipal neglect” the Assembly Committee of 1857 called our “tenement-house” system. “Forgetfulness of the poor” was the way a citizens’ council put it. It comes to the same thing. Whether seen from the point of view of the citizen, the philanthropist, or the Christian, the slum is the poorest investment a city can make, and once made it is not easily unmade. In a Mississippi river town, when pleading for the turning over to the people’s use of some vacant land on the river-shore that would make a fine breathing space, I was told that by and by they would consider it. Just now it was too valuable for factory purposes. When the city had grown opulent, in say twenty-five years, they would be willing to hand it over. Fatal delusion! Men do not grow that kind of sense as they grow rich. The land will be always “too valuable.” When we in New York were scandalized at last into making a park of the Mulberry Bend, it cost us a million and a half, and it had made the slum a fixture, not to be dislodged. No! the way to fight the slum is to head it off. It is like fighting a fire. Chasing it up is hard and doubtful work; the chances are that you will not overtake it till the house is burned down.   10
 
 
A Fourth Ward Colony in the Bad Old Days.
 
  There were those who thought when the Civil War was over, that a big fire would not be the worst thing that could happen to New York; and, if it could have burned sense into men’s minds as it burned up the evidence of their lack of it, they would have been right. But forty per cent—the rent some of the barracks brought—is a powerful damper on sense and conscience, even with the cholera at the door. However, the fear of it gave us the Citizens’ Council of Hygiene, and New York heard the truth for once.   11
  “Not only,” it ran, “does filth, overcrowding, lack of privacy and domesticity, lack of ventilation and lighting, and absence of supervision and of sanitary regulation still characterize the greater number of the tenements; but they are built to a greater height in stories; there are more rear houses built back to back with other buildings, correspondingly situated on parallel streets; the courts and alleys are more greedily encroached upon and narrowed into unventilated, unlighted, damp, and well-like holes between the many-storied front and rear tenements; and more fever-breeding wynds and culs-de-sac are created as the demand for the humble homes of the laboring poor increases.” 6 The Council, which was composed of sixteen of New York’s most distinguished physicians, declared that by ordinary sanitary management the city’s death-rate should be reduced thirty per cent. Its judgment has been more than borne out. In the thirty-five years that have passed since, it has in fact been reduced over fifty per cent.   12
  Men and women were found living in cellars deep down under the ground. One or two of those holes are left still in Park Street near the Five Points Mission, but they have not been used as living-rooms for a generation. In cellars near the river the tide rose and fell, compelling the tenants “to keep the children in bed till ebb-tide.” The plumber had come upon the field, but his coming brought no relief. His was not a case of conscience. “Untrapped soil pipes opened into every floor and poisoned the tenants.”   13
  Where the “dens of death” were in Baxter Street, big barracks crowded out the old shanties. More came every day. I remember the story of those shown in the picture. They had been built only a little while when complaint came to the Board of Health of smells in the houses. A sanitary inspector was sent to find the cause. He followed the smell down in the cellar and, digging there, discovered that the waste pipe was a blind. It had simply been run three feet into the ground and was not connected with the sewer.   14
  The houses were built to sell. That they killed the tenants was no concern of builder’s. His name, by the way, was Buddensiek. A dozen years after, when it happened that a row of tenements he was building fell down ahead of time, before they were finished and sold, and killed the workmen, he was arrested and sent to Sing Sing for ten years, for manslaughter.   15
 
 
Dens of Death.
 
  That time he had forgotten to put lime in the mortar. It was just sand. When the houses fell in the sight of men, the law was at last able to make him responsible. It failed in the matter of the soil pipe. It does sometimes to this very day. Knocking a man in the head with an axe, or sticking a knife into him, goes against the grain. Slowly poisoning a hundred so that the pockets of one be made to bulge may not even banish a man from respectable society. We are a queer lot in some things. However, that is hardly quite fair to society. It is a fact that that part of it which would deserve the respect of its fellow-citizens has got rid of its tenement-house property in recent years. It speculates in railway shares now.   16
  Twenty cases of typhoid fever from a single house in one year was the record that had gone unconsidered. Bedrooms in tenements were dark closets, utterly without ventilation. There couldn’t be any. The houses were built like huge square boxes, covering nearly the whole of the lot. Some light came in at the ends, but the middle was always black. Forty thousand windows, cut by order of the Health Board that first year, gave us a daylight view of the slum: “damp and rotten and dark, walls and banisters sticky with constant moisture.” Think of living babies in such hell-holes; and make a note of it, you in the young cities who can still head off the slum where we have to wrestle with it for our sins. Put a brand upon the murderer who would smother babies in dark holes and bedrooms. He is nothing else. Forbid the putting of a house five stories high, or six, on a twenty-five foot lot, unless at least thirty-five per cent of the lot be reserved for sunlight and air. Forbid it absolutely, if you can. It is the devil’s job, and you will have to pay his dues in the end, depend on it.   17
  And while you are about it make a note of a fact we let go unheeded too long to our harm, and haven’t grasped fully yet. The legislative committee of 1857 said it: “to prevent drunkenness provide every man with a clean and comfortable home.” Call it paternalism, crankery, any other hard name you can think of, all the same it goes down underneath the foundation of things. I have known drunkards to wreck homes a plenty in my time; but I have known homes, too, that made drunkards by the shortest cut. I know a dozen now—yes, ten dozen—from which, if I had to live there, I should certainly escape to the saloon with its brightness and cheer as often and as long as I could to brood there perhaps over the fate which sowed desolation in one man’s path that another might reap wealth and luxury. That last might not be my way, but it is a human way, and it breeds hatred which is not good mortar for us to build with. It does not bind. Let us remember that and just be sensible about things, or we shall not get anywhere.   18
  By which I do not mean that we are not getting anywhere; for we are. Look at Gotham Court, described in the health reports of the sixties as a “packing-box tenement” of the hopeless back-to-back type, which meant that there was no ventilation and could be none. The stenches from the “horribly foul cellars” with their “infernal system of sewerage” must needs poison the tenants all the way up to the fifth story. I knew the court well, knew the gang that made its headquarters with the rats in the cellar, terrorizing the helpless tenants; knew the well-worn rut of the dead-wagon and the ambulance to the gate, for the tenants died there like flies in all seasons, and a tenth of its population was always in the hospital. I knew the story of how it had been built by a Quaker with good intentions, but without good sense, for the purpose of rescuing people from the awful cellar-holes they burrowed in around there,—this within fifty-one years of the death of George Washington, who lived just across the street on the crest of Cherry Hill when he was President,—and how in a score of years from the time it was built it had come to earn the official description, “a nuisance which, from its very magnitude, is assumed to be unremovable and irremediable.” 7 That was at that time. But I have lived to see it taken in hand three times, once by the landlord under compulsion of the Board of Health, once by Christian men bent upon proving what could be done on their plan with the worst tenement house. And a good deal was accomplished. The mortality was brought below the general death-rate of the city, and the condition of the living was made by comparison tolerable. Only the best was bad in that spot, on account of the good Quaker’s poor sense, and the third time the court was taken in hand it was by the authorities, who destroyed it, as they should have done a generation before. Oh, yes, we are getting there; but that sort of thing takes time.   19
 
 
Gotham Court.
 
  Going through Whitechapel, London, about the time we were making ready to deal with Gotham Court as it deserved, I photographed Green Dragon yard as typical of what I saw about me. Compare the court and the yard and see the difference between our slum problem and that of Old World cities. Gotham Court contained 142 families when I made a canvass of it in the old days, comprising over 700 persons, not counting the vagrants who infested the cellars. The population of green Dragon Yard was greater than the sight of it would lead you to expect, for in Whitechapel one room flats were the rule; but with its utmost crowding it came nowhere near the court. Sullen discontent was the badge of it. Gotham Court was in an active state of warfare at all hours, for its population was evenly divided between Irish and Italians, with only two German families, who caught it from both sides. But there was hope in that, for they were on the move; before the court was torn down, one-third of its tenants were Greeks. Their slum over yonder is dead, black, given over to smoky chimneys and bad draughts, with redeyed and hopeless men and women forever blowing the bellows on ineffectual fires. Ours is alive if it is with fighting. There is yeast in it, and bright skies without, if not within. I don’t believe there is a bellows to be had in New York. Our slum, with its greater crowd, has more urgent need of sharp attention, chiefly because of the overflow of theirs which it receives. But after all, even that represents what still had courage and manhood enough to make it want to get away and do better. We shall “get there” if we don’t give up. It sometimes seems to me that their only hope is to get here.   20
 
 
Green Dragon Yard, London
 
  Speaking of the fair beginning of Gotham Court reminds me of the Big Flat in Mott Street, a mighty tenement with room for a hundred families that was another instance of reform still-born; by which I mean that it came before we were ready for it, and willing to back it up; also before we knew just how. That house was built by the philanthropists of those days on such a generous scale that it reached clear through the block to Elizabeth Street. It had not occurred to the builders that the neighborhood was one in which such an arrangement might prove of special convenience to the lawbreakers with which it swarmed. Thieves and thugs made it a runway, and decent people shunned it. Other philanthropists, with the will but without the wisdom that was needed, took it up and tried to make a workingwoman’s home of it; but that end was worse than the beginning. The women would have none of the rules that went with the philanthropy, and the Big Flat lapsed back among the slum tenements and became the worst of a bad lot. I speak of it here because just now the recollection of it is a kind of a milestone in the battle with the slum. Twenty years after, A. T. Stewart, the merchant prince, set another in the Park Avenue Hotel which he intended for his working-girls; and that was a worse failure than the first, for it never served the purpose he intended for it. And now, just as I am writing this, they are putting the finishing touches to a real woman’s hotel up-town which will not be a failure, though it will hardly reach the same class which the remodellers of the Big Flat had in mind. However, we shall get there, too, now we know the way.   21
 
 
Flagged Hallway in the “Big Flat.”
 
  Slowly, with many setbacks, we battled our way into the light. A Board of Health had come with the cholera panic in 1866. The swine that ran at large in the streets, practically the only scavengers, were banished. The cholera and the yellow fever that had ravaged the city by turns never came back. The smallpox went its way, too, 8 and was heard of again only once as an epidemic, till people had forgotten what it was like,—enough to make them listen to the anti-vaccination cranks,—and politics had the health department by the throat again and held the gate open. We acquired tenement house laws, and the process of education that had begun with the foraging ground of the swine was extended step by step to the citizen’s home. Short steps and cautious were they. Every obstacle which the landlord’s cunning and the perversion of the machinery of the law to serve his interests could devise was thrown in the way. It was a new doctrine to that day that any power should intervene between him and the tenants who represented his income, and it was held to be a hardship if not downright robbery. The builder took the same view. Every tenement house plan was the subject of hot debate between the Health Board and the builder, or his architect. The smallest air-shaft had to be wrung out of him, as it were, by main strength. The church itself was too often on the side of the enemy, where its material interests were involved. Trinity, the wealthiest church corporation in the land, was in constant opposition as a tenement house landlord, and finally, to save a few hundred dollars, came near upsetting the whole structure of tenement law that had been built up in the interest of the toilers and of the city’s safety with such infinite pains. The courts were reluctant. Courts in such matters record rather than lead the state of the public mind, and now that the immediate danger of an epidemic was over, the public mind had a hard time grasping the fact that bettering the housing of the poor was simple protection for the community. When suit was brought against a bad landlord, judges demanded that the department must prove not only that a certain state of soil saturation, for instance, was dangerous to health, but that some one had been actually made sick by that specified nuisance. Fat-boilers, slaughter-house men, and keepers of other nuisances made common cause against the new decency, and with these obstacles in front, the Sanitarians found the enemy constantly recruited from the rear. With the immense immigration that poured in after the Civil War, the evil with which they were struggling grew enormously. Economic problems other than the old one of rent came to vex us. The sweater moved into the East Side tenements. Child-labor grew and swelled.   22
  The tenement had grown its logical crop. In the sweating conspiracy it is a prime factor. Its extortionate rates make the need, and the need of the poor was ever the opportunity of their oppressor. What they have to take becomes the standard of all the rest. Sweating is only a modern name for it. The cause is as old as the slum itself.   23
 
 
Jersey Street Rookeries.
 
  However, the new light was not without its allies. Chief among them was the onward march of business that wiped out many a foul spot which had sorely tried the patience of us all. A carriage factory took the place of the Big Flat when it had become a disgusting scandal. Jersey Street, a short block between Mulberry and Crosby streets, to which no Whitechapel slum could hold a candle, became a factory street. No one lives there now. The last who did was murdered by the gang that grew as naturally out of its wickedness as a toadstool grows on a rotten log. He kept the saloon on the corner of Crosby Street. Saloon and tenements are gone together. Where they were are rows of factories, empty and silent at night. A man may go safely there now at any hour. I should not have advised strangers to try that when it was at its worst, though Police Headquarters was but a block away.   24
 
 
The Survival of the Unfittest.
 
  I photographed that phase of the battle with the slum just before they shut in the last tenement in the block with a factory building in its rear. It stood for a while after that down in a deep sort of pocket with not enough light struggling down on the brightest of days to make out anything clearly in the rooms,—truly a survival of the unfittest; but the tenants stayed. They had access through a hallway on Crosby Street; they had never been used to a yard; as for the darkness, that they had always been used to. They were “manured to the soil,” in the words of Mrs. Partington. But at length business claimed the last foot of the block, and peace came to it and to us.   25
  All the while we were learning. It was emphatically a campaign of education. When the cholera threatened there was the old disposition to lie down under the visitation and pray. The council pointed to the fifteen hundred cases of smallpox ferreted out by its inspectors “in a few days,” and sternly reminded the people of Lord Palmerston’s advice to those who would stay an epidemic with a national fast, that they had better turn to and clean up. We pray nowadays with broom in hand, and the prayer tells. Do not understand me as discouraging the prayer; far from it. But I would lend an edge to it with the broom that cuts. That kind of foolishness we got rid of; the other kind that thinks the individual’s interest superior to the public good—that is the thing we have got to fight till we die. But we made notches in that on which to hang arguments that stick. Human life then counted for less than the landlord’s profits; to-day it is weighed in the scale against them. Property still has powerful pull. “Vested rights” rise up and confront you, and no matter how loudly you may protest that no man has the right to kill his neighbor, they are still there. No one will contradict you, but they won’t yield—till you make them. In a hundred ways you are made to feel that vested rights are sacred, if human life is not. But the glory is that you can make them yield. You couldn’t then.   26
  We haven’t reached the millennium yet. But let us be glad. A hundred years ago they hanged a woman on Tyburn Hill for stealing a loaf of bread. To-day we destroy the den that helped make her a thief.   27

Note 1. Satire III, Juvenal. [ back ]

Note 2. Satire III, Juvenal. [ back ]

Note 3. Report of Select-Committee of Assembly, New York, 1857. [ back ]

Note 4. New York Health Department Report, 1866, Appendix A, p. 6. [ back ]

Note 5. Report of Board of Health, New York, 1869, p.346. [ back ]

Note 6. Council of Hygiene’s Report, 1866. [ back ]

Note 7. Health Department Report, 1870, p. III. [ back ]

Note 8. They had “health wardens” in the old days, and the Council of Hygiene tells of the efficient way two of them fought the smallpox. One stood at the foot of the stairs and yelled to those minding a patient in the next story to “put pieces of camphor about the clothes of the sick and occasionally throw a piece on the hot stove.” The other summoned the occupants of a smallpox smitten tenement to the hall door and cautioned them to say nothing about it to any one, or he would send them all to the pesthouse! [ back ]

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