Nonfiction > Jacob A. Riis > The Battle with the Slum > VI. The Mills Houses
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Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). The Battle with the Slum. 1902.
 
VI. The Mills Houses
 
SITTING by my window the other day, I saw a boy steering across the street for my little lad, who was laying out a base-ball diamond on the lawn. It seems that he knew him from school.   1
  “Hey,” he said, as he rounded to at the gate, “we’ve got yer dad’s book to home; yer father was a bum onct.”   2
 
 
A Seven-cent Lodging House in the Bowery.
 
  Proof was immediately forthcoming that whatever the father might have been, his son was able to uphold the family pride, and I had my revenge. Some day soon now my boy will read his father’s story 1 himself, and I hope will not be ashamed. They read it in their way in the other boy’s house, and got out of it that I was a “bum” because once I was on the level of the Bowery lodging house. But if he does not stay there, a man need not be that; and for that matter, there are plenty who do whom it would be a gross injury to call by such a name. There are lonely men, who, with no kin of their own, prefer even such society as the cheap lodging house has to offer to the desolation of the tenement; and there are plenty of young lads from the country, who, waiting in the big city for the something that is sure to turn up and open their road to fortune, get stranded there. Beginning, perhaps, at the thirty-cent house, they go down, down, till they strike the fifteen or the ten cent house, with the dirty sheets and the ready club in the watchman’s hand. And then some day, when the last penny is gone, and the question where the next meal is going to come from looms larger than the Philippine policy of the nation, a heavy-browed man taps one on the shoulder with an offer of an easy job—easy and straight enough in the mood the fellow is in just then; for does not the world owe him a living? It is one of the devil’s most tempting baits to a starving man that makes him feel quite a moral hero in taking that of which his more successful neighbor has deprived him. The heavy-browed fellow is a thief, who is out recruiting his band which the police have broken up in this or some other city. By and by his victim will have time, behind prison bars, to make out the lie that caught him. The world owes no man a living except as the price of honest work. But, wrathful and hungry, he walks easily into the trap.   3
  That was what Inspector Byrnes meant by calling the cheap lodging houses nurseries of crime. I have personally, as a police reporter, helped trace many foul crimes to these houses where they were hatched. They were all robberies to begin with, but three of them ended in murder. Most of my readers will remember at least one of them, the Lyman S. Weeks murder in Brooklyn, a thoroughly characteristic case of the kind I have described. A case they never heard of, because it was nipped in the bud, was typical of another kind. Two young Western fellows had come on, on purpose to hold up New York, and were practising in their lodging, but not, it seems, with much success, for the police pulled them in at their second or third job. When searched, a tintype, evidently of Bowery make, was found in the pocket of one, showing them at rehearsal. They grinned when asked about it. “We done a fellow up easy that way,” they said, “and we’d a mind to see how it looked.” They were lucky in being caught so soon. A little while, and the gallows would have claimed them, on the road they were travelling.   4
 
 
They had a Mind to see how it looked.
 
  I mention this to show the kind of problem we have in our Bowery lodging houses, with their army of fifteen or sixteen thousand lodgers, hanging on to the ragged edge most of them, and I have only skimmed the surface of it at that. The political boss searches the depths of it about election time when he needs votes; the sanitary policeman in times of epidemic, when small-pox or typhus fever threatens. All other efforts to reach it had proved unavailing when D. O. Mills, the banker, built his two “Mills Houses,” No. 1 in Bleecker Street for the West Side and No. 2 in Rivington Street for the homeless of the East Side. They did reach it, by a cut’cross lots as it were, by putting the whole thing on a neighborly basis. It had been just business before, and, like the keeping of slum tenements, a mighty well-paying one. The men who ran it might well have given more, but they didn’t. It was the same thing over again: let the lodgers shift as they could; their landlord lived in style on the avenue. What were they to him except the means of keeping it up?   5
 
 
Doorway of the Mills House, No. 1
 
  The Mills Houses do not neglect the business end. Indeed, they insist upon it. “No patron,” said Mr. Mills at the opening, “will receive more than he pays for, unless it be my hearty good-will and good wishes. It is true that I have devoted thought, labor, and capital to a very earnest effort to help him, but only by enabling him to help himself. In doing the work on so large a scale, and in securing the utmost economies in purchases and in administration, I hope to give him a larger equivalent for his money than has hitherto been possible. He can, without scruple, permit me to offer him this advantage; but he will think better of himself, and will be a more self-reliant, manly man and a better citizen, if he knows that he is honestly paying for that he gets.” That had the right ring to it, and from the beginning so have the houses had. Big, handsome hotels, as fine as any, with wide marble stairs for the dark hole through which one dived into the man-traps of old. Mr. Mills gave to the lodger a man’s chance, if he is poor. His room is small, but the bed for which he pays twenty cents is clean and good. Indeed, it is said that the spring in it was made by the man who made the springs for the five-dollar beds in the Waldorf-Astoria, and that it is just the same. However that may be, it is comfortable enough, as comfortable as any need have it in Bleecker Street or on Fifth Avenue. The guest at the Mills House has all the privileges the other has, except to while away the sunlit hours in his bed. Then he is expected to be out hustling. At nine o’clock his door is barred against him, and is not again opened until five in the afternoon. But there are smoking and writing rooms, and a library for his use; games if he chooses, baths when he feels like taking one, and a laundry where he may wash his own clothes if he has to save the pennies, as he likely has to. It is a good place to do it, too, for he can sleep comfortably and have two square meals a day for fifty cents all told. There is a restaurant in the basement where his dinner costs him fifteen cents.   6
  I will not say that the dinner is as savory as the one they would serve at Delmonico’s, but he comes to it probably with a good deal better appetite, and that is the thing after all. I ate with him once, and here is the bill of fare of that day. I kept it.   7
SoupOne Meat DishTwo Vegetables
DessertTea, Coffee or Milk
15 cents
SOUPS
Consommé with NoodlesPurèe of Tomatoes
HOT MEATS
Roast Turkey, Cranberry Sauce
Roast Beef, Dish Gravy
Fricasseed Spring Lamb with Mushrooms
COLD MEAT
Boiled Fresh Beef Tongue
FISH
Fried Smelts, Tartare Sauce
Boiled Cod, Egg Sauce
VEGETABLES
Boiled Sweet PotatoesMashed Potatoes
Cauliflower, Hollandaise SauceFried Egg Plant
Celery Salad
DESSERT
Plum Pudding, Hard or Lemon Sauce
Pumpkin PieBaked Apples
TeaCoffeeMilk
  I will own the turkey seemed to me to taste of codfish and the codfish of turkey, as if it were all cooked in one huge dish; but there was enough of it, and it was otherwise good. And the fault may have been with my palate, probably was. It is getting to be quite the thing for clubs with a social inquiry turn to meet and take their dinners at Mills House No.1 in Bleecker Street, so it must be all right. Perhaps I struck the cook’s off day. 2   8
 
 
Evening in One of the Courts in the Mills House, No.1.
 
  No.1 is the largest, with rooms for 1554 guests, and usually there are 1554 there. No.2 in Rivington Street has 600 rooms. Together they are capable of housing about twelve per cent of all who nightly seek the cheap lodging houses, not counting the Raines law hotels, which are chiefly used for purposes of assignation. The Bowery houses have felt the competition, and have been compelled to make concessions that profit the lodger. The greatest gain to him is the chance of getting away from there. At the Mills Houses he is reasonably safe from the hold-up man and the recruiting thief. Though the latter often gives the police the Bleecker Street house as his permanent address on the principle that makes the impecunious seeker of a job conduct his correspondence from the Fifth Avenue Hotel or the Savoy, he is rarely found there, and if found, is not kept long. If he does get in, he is quiet and harmless because he has to be. Crooks in action seek crooked houses kept by crooked men, and they find them along the Bowery more readily than anywhere. There are the shows and the resorts that draw the young lads, who, away from home, are all too easily drawn, to their undoing. The getting them out of their latitude is the greatest gain, and this service the Mills House performs, to a salutary extent. The more readily since its fame has gone abroad, and the Mills House has become a type. There is scarcely a mail now that does not bring me word from some city in the West or East that a Mills House has been started there in the effort to grapple with the problem of the floating population. The fear that their reputation may help increase that problem by drawing greater crowds from the country is rather strained, it seems to me. The objection would lie against free shelters, but hardly against a business concern that simply strives to give the poor lodger his money’s worth. As to him, the everlasting pessimist predicted, when the Mills Houses were opened, that they would have to “make bathing compulsory.” The lodger has given him the lie; the average has been over 400 bathers per day,—one in five,—and the record has passed 1000. No doubt soap may be cheap and salvation dear, but on the other hand cleanliness does and must ever begin godliness when fighting the slum, and no one who ever took a look into one of the old-style lodging houses will doubt that we are better off by so much. The Mills houses have paid four, even five, per cent on their owner’s investment of a million and a half. It follows that the business will attract capital, which means that there will be an end of the old nuisance. Beyond this, they have borne and will bear increasingly a hand in setting with the saloon with which they compete on its strong ground—that of social fellowship. It has no rival in the Bowery house or in the boarding-house back bedroom. Every philanthropic effort to fight it on that ground has drawn renewed courage and hope from Mr. Mills’s work and success.   9
  Many years ago a rich merchant planned to do for his working women the thing Mr. Mills has done for lonely men. Out on Long Island he built a town for his clerks that was to be their very own. But it came out differently. The Long Island town became a cathedral city and the home of wealth and fashion; his woman’s boarding house a great public hotel far beyond the reach of those he sought to benefit. The passing years saw his great house, its wealth, its very name, vanish as if they had never been, and even his bones denied by ghoulish thieves rest in the grave. There is no more pathetic page in the history of our city than that which records the eclipse of the house of Alexander T. Stewart, merchant prince. I like to think of the banker’s successful philanthropy as a kind of justice to the memory of the dead merchant, more eloquent than marble and brass in the empty crypt. Mills House No.1 stands upon the site of Mr. Stewart’s old home, where he dreamed his barren dream of benevolence to his kind.   10
  His work lies undone yet. While I am writing this, they are putting the roof on a great structure in East Twenty-ninth Street that is to be the “Woman’s Hotel” of the city and bear the name of Martha Washington. It is intended for business and professional women who can pay from seven or eight dollars a week up to almost anything for their board and lodging, and it is expected to fill so great a need as to be commercially profitable at once. That will be well, and we shall all be glad. But who will build the Mills House for lonely girls and women who cannot pay seven or eight dollars a week, and would not go to the Woman’s Hotel if they could? The social cleft between Madison Avenue and Bleecker Street is too wide to be bridged by the best intentions of a hotel company. I doubt if they would know where to go in that strange uptown country. When as an immigrant I paid two dollars a day for board that was not worth fifty cents, in a Greenwich Street house, I might have lodged in comfort in a Broadway hotel for less money, had I only known where. There are hosts of half-starved women and girls living in cheerless back rooms,—or, rather, they do not live, they exist on weak coffee or tea, laying up an evil day for the generation of which they are to be the mothers,—to whom such a house would be home, freedom, and life. Ask any working girls’ vacation society whence the need of their labor early and late, if not to put a little life and vigor into those ill-nourished bodies. Ask the priest, or any one who knows the temptations of youth, how much that bald and dreary life of theirs counts for in the fight he has on hand. Who will build the working women’s hotel somewhere between Stewart’s old store and Twenty-third Street, east of Broadway, that shall give them their sadly needed chance? And while about it, let him add a wing, or build a separate house, such as they have in Glasgow, for widows with little children, that shall answer another of our perplexing problems,—a house, this latter, with nursery, kindergarten, and laundry, where the mother might know her child safe while she provided for it with her work. Who will be the D. O. Mills of these helpless ones?   11
 
 
Lodging Room in the Leonard Street Police Station.
 
  Or is there but one Mills? I have heard it said that he has been waiting, asking the same question. Let him wait no longer, then, if he would put the finishing touch to a practical philanthropy that will rank in days to come with the great benefactions to mankind.   12
 
 
Women’s Lodging Room in Eldridge Street Police Station.
 
  I have dwelt upon the need of bracing up the home, or finding something to replace it as nearly like it as could be, where that had to be done, because the home is the key to good citizenship. Unhappily for the great cities, there exists in them all a class that has lost the key or thrown it away. For this class, New York, until three years ago, had never made any provision. The police station lodging rooms, of which I have spoken, were not to be dignified by the term. These vile dens, in which the homeless of our great city were herded, without pretence of bed, of bath, of food, on rude planks, were the most pernicious parody on municipal charity, I verily believe, that any civilized community had ever devised. To escape physical and moral contagion in these crowds seemed humanly impossible. Of the innocently homeless lad they made a tramp by the shortest cut. To the old tramp they were indeed ideal provision, for they enabled him to spend for drink every cent he could beg or steal. With the stale beer dive, the free lunch counter, and the police lodging room at hand, his cup of happiness was full. There came an evil day, when the stale beer dive shut its doors and the free lunch disappeared for a season. The beer pump, which drained the kegs dry and robbed the stale beer collector of his ware, drove the dives out of business; the Raines law forbade the free lunch. Just at this time Theodore Roosevelt shut the police lodging rooms, and the tramp was literally left out in the cold, cursing reform and its fruits. It was the climax of a campaign a generation old, during which no one had ever been found to say a word in defence of these lodging rooms; yet nothing had availed to close them.   13
 
 
A “Scrub” and her Bed—the Plank.
 
  The city took lodgers on an old barge in the East River, that winter (1896), and kept a register of them. We learned something from that. Of nearly 10,000 lodgers, one-half were under thirty years old and in good health—fat, in fact. The doctors reported them “well nourished.” Among 100 whom I watched taking their compulsory bath, one night, only two were skinny; the others were stout, well-fed men, abundantly able to do a man’s work. They all insisted that they were willing, too; but the moment inquiries began with a view of setting such to work as really wanted it, and sending the rest to the island as vagrants, their number fell off most remarkably. From between 400 and 500 who had crowded the barge and the pier sheds, the attendance fell on March 16, the day the investigation began, to 330, on the second day to 294, and on the third day to 171; by March 21 it had been cut down to 121. The problem of the honestly homeless, who were without means to pay for a bed even in a ten-cent lodging house, and who had a claim upon the city by virtue of residence in it, had dwindled to surprisingly small proportions. Of 9386 lodgers, 3622 were shown to have been here less than sixty days, and 968 more not a year. The old mistake, that there is always a given amount of absolutely homeless destitution in a city, and that it is to be measured by the number of those who apply for free lodging, had been reduced to a demonstration. The truth is that the opportunity furnished by the triple alliance of stale beer, free lunch, and free lodging at the police station was the open door to permanent and hopeless vagrancy. Men, a good bishop said, will do what you pay them to do: if to work, they will work; if you make it pay them to beg, they will beg; if to maim helpless children makes begging pay better, they will do that too. See what it is to encourage laziness in man whose salvation is work.   14
 
 
What a Search of the Lodgers brought forth.
 
  A city lodging house was established, with decent beds, baths, and breakfast, and a system of investigation of the lodger’s claim that is yet to be developed to useful proportions. The link that is missing is a farm school, for the training of young vagrants to habits of industry and steady work, as the alternative of the workhouse. Efforts to forge this link have failed so far, but in the good time that is coming, when we shall have learned the lesson that the unkindest thing that can be done to a young tramp is to let him go on tramping, and when magistrates shall blush to discharge him on the plea that “it is no crime to be poor in this country,” they will succeed, and the tramp also we shall then have “druv into decency.” When I look back now to the time, ten or fifteen years ago, when, night after night, with every police station filled, I found the old tenements in the “Bend” jammed with a reeking mass of human wrecks that huddled in hall and yard, and slept, crouching in shivering files, all the way up the stairs to the attic, it does seem as if we had come a good way, and as if all the turmoil and the bruises and the fighting had been worth while. New York is no longer, at least when Tammany is out, a tramp’s town. And that is so much gained, to us and to the tramp.   15

Note 1. “The Making of an American.” [ back ]

Note 2. Since reading this proof I have been over and verified my diagnosis. The trouble must have been with me. The soup and the mutton and the pie had each its proper savor, and the cook is all right. So is the lunch. There is no fifty-cent lunch in the city that I know of which is better. [ back ]

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