Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). The Battle with the Slum. 1902.XI
Letting in the Light
In my delight I walked upon the grass. It seemed as if I should never be satisfied till I had felt the sod under my feet,—sod in the Mulberry Bend! I did not see the gray-coated policeman hastening my way, nor the wide-eyed youngsters awaiting with shuddering delight the catastrophe that was coming, until I felt his cane laid smartly across my back and heard his angry command:
“Hey! Come off the grass! D’ye think it is made to walk on?”
So that was what I got for it. It is the way of the world. But it was all right. The park was there, that was the thing. And I had my revenge. I had just had a hand in marking five blocks of tenements for destruction to let in more light, and in driving the slum from two other strongholds. Where they were, parks are being made to-day in which the sign “Keep off the grass!” will never be seen. The children may walk in them from morning till night, and I too, if I want to, with no policeman to drive us off. I tried to tell the policeman something about it. But he was of the old dispensation. All the answer I got was a gruff:
“G’wan now! I don’t want none o’ yer guff!”
It was all “guff” to the politicians, I suppose, from the day the trouble began about the Mulberry Bend, but toward the end they woke up nobly. When the park was finally dedicated to the people’s use, they took charge of the celebration with immense unction, and invited themselves to sit in the high seats and glory in the achievement which they had done little but hamper and delay from the first. They had not reckoned with Colonel Waring, however. When they had had their say, the colonel arose, and, curtly reminding them that they had really had no hand in the business, proposed three cheers for the citizen effort that had struck the slum this staggering blow. There was rather a feeble response on the platform, but rousing cheers from the crowd, with whom the colonel was a prime favorite, and no wonder. Two years later he laid down his life in the fight which he so valiantly and successfully waged. It is the simple truth that he was killed by politics. The services which he had rendered the city would have entitled him in any reputable business to be retained in the employment that was his life and his pride. Had he been so retained, he would not have gone to Cuba, and would in all human probability be now alive. But Tammany is not “in politics for its health” and had no use for him, though no more grievous charge could be laid at his door, even in the heat of the campaign, than that he was a “foreigner,” being from Rhode Island. Spoils politics never craved a heavier sacrifice of any community.
It was Colonel Waring’s broom that first let light into the slum. That which had come to be considered an impossible task he did by the simple formula of “putting a man instead of a voter behind every broom.” The words are his own. The man, from a political dummy who loathed his job and himself in it with cause, became a self-respecting citizen, and the streets that had deen dirty were swept. The ash barrels which had befouled the sidewalks disappeared, almost without any one knowing it till they were gone. The trucks that obstructed the children’s only playground, the street, went with the dirt, despite the opposition of the truckman who had traded off his vote to Tammany in the past for stall room at the curbstone. They did not go without a struggle. When appeal to the alderman proved useless, the truckman resorted to strategy. He took a wheel off, or kept a perishing nag, that could not walk, hitched to the truck over night to make it appear that it was there for business. But subterfuge availed as little as resistance. In the Mulberry Bend he made his last stand. The old houses had been torn down, leaving a three-acre lot full of dirt mounds and cellar holes. Into this the truckmen of the Sixth Ward hauled their carts, and defied the street cleaners. They were no longer in their way, and they were on the Park Department’s domain, where no Colonel Waring was in control. But while their owners were triumphing, the children playing among the trucks set one of them rolling down into a cellar, and three or four of the little ones were crushed. That was the end. The trucks disappeared. Even Tammany has not ventured to put them back, so great was the relief of their going. They were not only a hindrance to the sweeper and the skulking places of all manner of mischief at night, but I have repeatedly seen the firemen baffled in their efforts to reach a burning house, where they stood four and six deep in the wide “slips” at the river.
Colonel Waring did more for the cause of labor than all the walking delegates of the town together, by investing a despised but highly important task with a dignity which won the hearty plaudits of a grateful city. When he uniformed his men and announced that he was going to parade with them so that we might all see what they were like, the town laughed and poked fun at the “white wings”; but no one went to see them who did not come away converted to an enthusiastic belief in the man and his work. Public sentiment, that had been half reluctantly suspending judgment, expecting every day to see the colonel “knuckle down to politics” like his predecessors, turned in an hour, and after that there was little trouble. The tenement house children organized street cleaning bands to help along the work, and Colonel Waring enlisted them as regular auxiliaries and made them useful.
They had no better friend. When the unhappy plight of the persecuted pushcart men—all immigrant Jews, who were blackmailed, robbed, and driven from pillar to post as a nuisance after they had bought a license to trade in the street—appealed vainly for a remedy, Colonel Waring found a way out in a great morning market in Hester Street that should be turned over to the children for a playground in the afternoon. But though he proved that it would pay interest on the investment in market fees, and many times in the children’s happiness, it was never built. It would have been a most fitting monument to the man’s memory. His broom saved more lives in the crowded tenements than a squad of doctors. It did more: it swept the cobwebs out of our civic brain and conscience, and set up a standard of a citizen’s duty which, however we may for the moment forget, will be ours until we have dragged other things than our pavements out of the mud.
Even the colonel’s broom would have been powerless to do that for “the Bend.” That was hopeless and had to go. There was no question of children or playground involved. The worst of all the gangs, the Whyós, had its headquarters in the darkest of its dark alleys; but it was left to the police. We had not begun to understand that the gangs meant something to us beyond murder and vengeance, in those days. No one suspected that they had any such roots in the soil that they could be killed by merely destroying the slum. The cholera was rapping on our door, and, with the Bend there, we felt about it as a man with stolen goods in his house must feel when the policeman comes up the street. Back in the seventies we began discussing what ought to be done. By 1884 the first Tenement House Commission had summoned up courage to propose that a street be cut through the bad block. In the following year a bill was brought in to destroy it bodily, and then began the long fight that resulted in the defeat of the slum a dozen years later.
It was a bitter fight, in which every position of the enemy had to be carried by assault. The enemy was the deadly official inertia that was the outcome of political corruption born of the slum plus the indifference of the mass of our citizens, who probably had never seen the Bend. If I made it my own concern to the exclusion of all else, it was only because I knew it. I had been part of it. Homeless and alone, I had sought its shelter, not for long,—that was not to be endured,—but long enough to taste of its poison, and I hated it. I knew that the blow must be struck there, to kill. Looking back now over those years, I can see that it was all as it should be. We were learning the alphabet of our lesson then. We could have learned it in no other way so thoroughly. Before we had been at it more than two or three years, it was no longer a question of the Bend merely. The Small Parks law, that gave us a million dollars a year to force light and air into the slum, to its destruction, grew out of it. The whole sentiment which in its day, groping blindly and angrily, had wiped out the disgrace of the Five Points, just around the corner, crystallized and took shape in its fight. It waited merely for the issue of that, to attack the slum in its other strongholds; and no sooner was the Bend gone than the rest surrendered. Time was up.
But it was not so easy campaigning at the start. In 1888 plans were filed for the demolition of the block. It took four years to get a report of what it would cost to tear it down. About once in two months during all that time the authorities had to be prodded into a spasm of activity, or we would probably have been yet where we were then. Once, when I appealed to the corporation counsel to give a good reason for the delay, I got the truth out of him without evasion.
“Well, I tell you,” he said blandly, “no one here is taking any interest in that business. That is good enough reason for you, isn’t it?”
It was. That Tammany reason became the slogan of an assault upon official incompetence and treachery that hurried things up considerably. The property was condemned at a total cost to the city of a million and a half, in round numbers, including the assessment of half a million for park benefit which the property owners were quick enough, with the aid of the politicians, to get saddled on the city at large. In 1894 the city took possession and became the landlord of the old barracks. For a whole year it complacently collected the rents and did nothing. When it was shamed out of that rut, too, and the tenements were at last torn down, the square lay as the wreckers had left it for another year, until it became such a plague spot that, as a last resort, with a citizen’s privilege, I arraigned the municipality before the Board of Health for maintaining a nuisance upon its premises. I can see the shocked look of the official now, as he studied the complaint.
“But, my dear sir,” he coughed diplomatically, “isn’t it rather unusual? I never heard of such a thing.”
“Neither did I,” I replied, “but then there never was such a thing before.”
That night, while they were debating the “unusual thing,” happened the accident to the children of which I spoke, emphasizing the charge that the nuisance was “dangerous to life,” and there was an end. In the morning the Bend was taken in hand, and the following spring the Mulberry Bend Park was opened.
I told the story of that in “The Making of an American,” and how the red tape of the comptroller’s office pointed the way out, after all, with its check for three cents that had gone astray in the purchase of a school site. Of that sort of thing we had enough. But the Gilder Tenement House Commission had been sitting, the Committee of Seventy had been at work, and a law was on the statute books authorizing the expenditure of three million dollars for two open spaces in the parkless district on the East Side, where Jacob Beresheim was born. It had been shown that while the proportion of park area inside the limits of the old city was equal to one-thirteenth of all, below Fourteenth Street, where one-third of the people lived, it was barely one-fortieth. It took a citizen’s committee appointed by the mayor just three weeks to seize the two park sites for the children’s use, and it took the Good Government Clubs with their allies at Albany less than two months to get warrant of law for the tearing down of the houses ahead of final condemnation, lest any mischance befall through delay or otherwise,—a precaution which subsequent events proved to be eminently wise. I believe the legal proceedings are going on yet.
The playground part of it was a provision of the Gilder law that showed what apt scholars we had been. I was a member of that committee, and I fed fat my grudge against the slum tenement, knowing that I might not again have such a chance. Bone Alley went. I shall not soon get the picture of it, as I saw it last, out of my mind. I had wandered to the top floor of one of the ramshackle tenements in the heart of the block, to a door that stood ajar, and pushed it open. On the floor lay three women rag-pickers with their burdens, asleep, overcome by the heat and beer, the stale stench of which filled the place. Swarms of flies covered them. The room—no! let it go. Thank God, we shall not again hear of Bone Alley. Where it cursed the earth with its gloom and its poverty, the sun shines to-day on children at play. If we are slow to understand the meaning of it all, they will not be. We shall have light from that quarter when they grow up, on what is truly “educational” in the bringing up of young citizens. The children will teach us something for a change that will do us lasting good.
Half a dozen blocks away, in Rivington Street, the city’s first public bath-house has at last been built, after many delays, and godliness will have a chance to move in with cleanliness. The two are neighbors everywhere, but in the slum the last must come first. Glasgow has half a dozen public baths. Rome, two thousand years ago, washed its people most sedulously, and in heathen Japan to-day, I am told, there are baths, as we have saloons, on every corner. Christian New York never had an all-year bath-house until now. In a tenement population of 255,033 the Gilder Commission found only 306 who had access to bathrooms in the houses where they lived, and they would have found the same thing wherever they went. The Church Federation canvass of the Fifteenth Assembly District over on the West Side, where they did not go, counted three bath-tubs to 1321 families. Nor was that because they so elected. The People’s Baths took in 121,386 half dimes last year (1901) for as many baths, and more than forty per cent of their customers were Italians. In the first five months of the present year the Rivington Street baths accommodate 224,876 bathers, of whom 66,256 were women and girls. And this in winter. The free river baths have registered five and six millions of bathers in one brief season. The “great unwashed” were not so from choice, it would appear.
The river baths were only for summer, and their time is past. As the sewers that empty into the river multiply, it is getting less and less a place fit to bathe in, though the boys find no fault. Sixteen public bath-houses on shore are to take the place of the swimming baths. They are all to be in the crowded tenement districts. The sites for the first three are being chosen now. And a wise woman offers to build and equip one all complete at her own expense, as her gift to the city.
Pull up now a minute, if you think, with some good folks, that the world is not advancing, but just marking time, and look back half a century. I said that New York never had a public bath till now. I meant a free bath. As long ago as 1852, just fifty years ago, the Association for improving the Condition of the Poor built one in Mott Street near Grand Street, and spent 42,000 in doing it. It ran eight years, and was then closed for want of patronage. Forty years passed, and it was again the Association for improving the Condition of the Poor that built the People’s Baths in the same neighborhood. That time they succeeded at once. And now here we are, planning a great system of municipal baths as the people’s right, not as a favor to any one, and the old lie that the poor prefer to steep in their squalor is no longer believed by any person with sense. This month contracts will be given out for the fitting of nine public schools with shower-baths where we had one before, and notice is given that that one will be open to the people on Sunday mornings. No, we are not marking time; we are forging ahead. Every park, every playground, every bath-house, is a nail in the coffin of the slum, and every big, beautiful schoolhouse, built for the people’s use, not merely to lock the children up in during certain hours for which the teachers collect pay, is a pole rammed right through the heart of it so that even its ghost shall never walk again. For ever so much of it we thank that association of men of splendid courage and public spirit. They fight to win because they believe in the people. They fight with the people and so they are bound to win.
Every once in a while these days a false note in it all jars upon me—a note of dread lest those we are trying to help get tired of the word “reform” and balk. Reform such as we have occasionally had is to blame for some of that. Certainly you do not want to reform men by main strength, drag them into righteousness by the hair of the head, as it were. And let it be freely admitted that the man on Fifth Avenue needs to be reformed quite as much as his neighbor in Mulberry Street whom he forgot,—more, since it is his will to mend things that has to be righted, while it is the other’s power to do it that is lacking. But right there stop. Let us have no pretending that there is nothing to mend. There is a good deal, and it is not going to be mended by stuffing the one you would help with conceit and ingratitude. Ingratitude does not naturally inhabit the slums, but it is a crop that is easily grown there, and where it does grow there is an end of efforts to mend things in that generation. You do not want to come down to your work for your fellows, when you go from the brown-stone front to the tenement; but neither do you want to make him believe that you feel you are coming up to him, for you know you do not feel that way. And moreover, it is not true, if you are coming at all. You want to come right over, to help him reform conditions of his life with which he cannot grapple alone, and it is as good for him, as it is for you to know that you are doing it. For that is the brotherhood. And now you can see how that is the only thing that really helps. Charity may corrupt, correction may harden and estrange,—in the family they do neither. There you can give and take without offence. Children of one Father! Spin all the fine theories you like, build up systems of profound philosophy, of social ethics, of philanthropic endeavor; back to that you get—if you get anywhere at all.
I did not mean to preach. I was just thinking that the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor, in its fifty years of battling with all that makes the slum, has come nearer that ideal than any and all the rest of us. And the president of it these ten years, the same who with his brother tried to reform Gotham Court, is the head, too, of the citizens’ union which is the whole reform programme in a nutshell. All of which is as it ought to be.
To return to the East Side where the light was let in. Bone Alley brought thirty-seven dollars under the auctioneer’s hammer. Thieves’ Alley, in the other park down at Rutgers Square, where the police clubbed the Jewish cloakmakers a few years ago for the offence of gathering to assert their right to “being men, live the life of men,” as some one who knew summed up the labor movement, brought only seven dollars, and the old Helvetia House, where Boss Tweed and his gang met at night to plan their plundering raids on the city’s treasury, was knocked down for five. Kerosene Row, in the same block, did not bring enough to have bought kindling wood with which to start one of the numerous fires that gave it its bad name. It was in Thieves’ Alley that the owner in the days long gone by hung out the sign, “No Jews need apply.” I stood and watched the opening of the first municipal playground upon the site of the old alley, and in the thousands that thronged street and tenements from curb to roof with thunder of applause, there were not twoscore who could have found lodging with the old Jew-baiter. He had to go with his alley, before the better day could bring light and hope to the Tenth Ward.
What became of the people who were dispossessed? The answer to that is the reply, too, to the wail that goes up from the speculative builder every time we put the screws on the tenement house law. It does not pay him to build any more, he says. But when the multitudes of Mulberry Bend, of Hester Street, and of the Bone Alley Park were put out, there was more than room enough for them in new houses ready for their use. In the Seventh, Tenth, Eleventh, Thirteenth, and Seventeenth wards, where they would naturally go if they wanted to be near home, there were 4268 vacant apartments with room for over 18,000 tenants at our New York average of four and a half to the family. Including the Bend, the whole number of the dispossessed was not 12,000. On Manhattan Island there were at that time more than 37,000 vacant flats, so that it seems those builders were either “talking through their hats,” or else they were philanthropists pure and simple. And I know they were not that. The whole question of rehousing the population that had been so carefully considered abroad made us no trouble, though it gave a few well-meaning people unnecessary concern. The unhoused were scattered some, which was one of the things we hoped for, but hardly dared believe would come to pass. Many of them, as it appeared, had remained in their old slum more from force of habit and association than because of necessity.
“Everything takes ten years,” said Abram S. Hewitt, when, exactly ten years after he had as mayor championed the Small Parks Act, he took his seat as chairman of the Advisory Committee on Small Parks. The ten years had wrought a great change. It was no longer the slum of to-day, but that of to-morrow, that challenged attention. The committee took the point of view of the children from the first. It had a large map prepared, showing where in the city there was room to play and where there was none. Then it called in the police and asked them to point out where there was trouble with the boys; and in every instance the policeman put his finger upon a treeless slum.
“They have no other playground than the street,” was the explanation given in each case. “They smash lamps and break windows. The storekeepers kick and there is trouble. That is how it begins.” “Many complaints are received daily of boys annoying pedestrians, storekeepers, and tenants by their continually playing baseball in some parts of almost every street. The damage is not slight. Arrests are frequent, much more frequent than when they had open lots to play in.” This last was the report of an up-town captain. He remembered the days when there were open lots there. “But those lots are now built upon,” he said, “and for every new house there are more boys and less chance for them to play.”
The committee put a red daub on the map to indicate trouble. Then it asked those police captains who had not spoken to show them where their precincts were, and why they had no trouble. Every one of them put his finger on a green spot that marked a park.
“My people are quiet and orderly,” said the captain of the Tompkins Square precinct.
The police took the square from a mob by storm twice in my recollection, and the commander of the precinct was hit on the head with a hammer by “his people” and laid out for dead.
“The Hook Gang is gone,” said he of Corlears Hook. The professional pursuit of that gang was to rob and murder inoffensive citizens by night and throw them into the river, and it achieved a bad eminence at its calling.
“The whole neighborhood has taken a change, and decidedly for the better,” said the captain of Mulberry Street; and the committee rose and said that it had heard enough.
The map was hung on the wall, and in it were stuck pins to mark the site of present and projected schools as showing where the census had found the children crowding. The moment that was done the committee sent the map and a copy of chapter 338 of the laws of 1895 to the mayor, and reported that its task was finished. This is the law and all there is of it:—
“The people of the State of New York, represented in Senate and Assembly, do enact as follows:—
“Section 1. Hereafter no schoolhouse shall be constructed in the city of New York without an open-air playground attached to or used in connection with the same.
“Section 2. This act shall take effect immediately.”
Where the map was daubed with red the school pins crowded one another. On the lower East Side, where child crime was growing fast, and no less than three storm centres were marked down by the police, nine new schools were going up or planned, and in the up-town precinct whence came the wail about the ball players there were seven. It was common sense, then, to hitch the school playground and the children together. It seemed a happy combination, for the new law had been a stumbling-block to the school commissioners, who were in a quandary over the needful size of an “open-air playground.” The roof garden idea, which was at the start a measure of simple economy to save large expenditure for land, had suggested a way out. But there was the long vacation, when schools are closed and children most in need of a chance to play. To get the playground on the roof of the schoolhouse recognized as the public playground seemed a long step toward turning it into a general neighborhood evening resort, that should be always open, and so towards bringing school and people, and especially the school and the boy, together in a bond of mutual sympathy good for them both.
That was the burden of the committee’s report. It made thirteen recommendations besides, as to the location of parks and detached playgrounds, only two of which have been adopted to date. But that is of less account—as also was the information imparted to me as secretary of the committee by our late Tammany mayor—and may he be the last—that we had “as much authority as a committee of bootblacks in his office”—it is all of less account than the fact that the field has at last been studied and its needs been made known. The rest will follow, with or without the politician’s authority. One of the two suggestions carried out was for a riverside park in the region up-town, on the West Side, where the Federation of Churches and Christian Workers found “saloon social ideals minting themselves upon the minds of the people at the rate of seven saloon thoughts to one educational thought.” “Hudson-bank” (it is at the foot of West Fifty-third Street) has been a playground these three years, in the charge of the Outdoor Recreation League, and it is recorded with pride by the directors, that not a board was stolen from the long fence that encloses it in all that time, while fences all about were ripped to pieces. Boards have a market value in that neighborhood and private property was not always highly regarded. But this is “the children’s”; that is why, within a year now, the bluff upon which the playground is will have been laid out as a beautiful park, and a bar set to the slum in that quarter, where it already had got a firm grip. Hard by there is a recreation pier, and on summer evenings the young men of the neighborhood may be seen trooping riverward with their girls to hear the music. The gang that “laid out” two policemen, to my knowledge, has gone out of business.
The best-laid plans are sometimes upset by surprising snags. We had planned for two municipal playgrounds on the East Side, where the need is greatest, and our plans were eagerly accepted by the city authorities. But they were never put into practice. A negligent attorney killed one, a lazy clerk the other. And both served under the reform government. The first of the two playgrounds was to have been in Rivington Street, adjoining the new public bath, where the boys, for want of something better to do, were fighting daily battles with stones, to the great damage of windows and the worse aggravation of the householders. Four hundred children in that neighborhood petitioned the committee for a place of their own, where there were no windows to break; and we found one. It was only after the proceedings had been started that we discovered that they had been taken under the wrong law and the money spent in advertising had been wasted. It was then too late. The daily assaults upon the windows were resumed.
The other case was an attempt to establish a model school park in a block where more than four thousand children attended day and night school. The public school and the Pro-Cathedral, which divided the children between them, were to be allowed to stand, at opposite ends of the block. The surrounding tenements were to be torn down to make room for a park and playground which should embody the ideal of what such a place ought to be, in the opinion of the committee. For the roof garden was not in the original plan except as an alternative of the streetlevel playground, where land came too high. The plentiful supply of light and air, the safety from fire, to be obtained by putting the school in a park, beside the fact that it could thus be “built beautiful,” were considerations of weight. Plans were made, and there was great rejoicing in Essex Street, until it came out that this scheme had gone the way of the other. The clerk who should have filed the plans in the register’s office left that duty to some one else, and it took just twenty one days to make the journey, a distance of five hundred feet or less. The Greater New York had come then with Tammany, and the thing was not heard of again. When I traced the failure down to the clerk in question, and told him that he had killed the park, he yawned and said: —
“Yes, and I think it is just as well it is dead. We haven’t any money for those things. It is very nice to have small parks, and very nice to have a horse and wagon, if you can afford it. But we can’t. Why, there isn’t enough to run the city government.”
So the labor of weary weeks and months in the children’s behalf was all undone by a third-rate clerk in an executive office; but he saved the one thing he had in mind: the city government is “run” to date, and his pay is secure.
It is a pity to have to confess it, but it was not the only time reform in office gave its cause a black eye in the sight of the people. The Hamilton Fish Park that took the place of Bone Alley was laid out with such lack of sense that it will have to be worked all over again. The gymnasium and bath in it that cost, I am told, 90,000, was never of any use for either purpose and was never opened. A policeman sat in the door and turned people away, while around the corner clamoring crowds besieged the new public bath I spoke of. There were more people waiting, sitting on the steps and strung out halfway through the block, when I went over to see, one July day, than could have found room in three buildings like it. So, also, after seven years, the promised park down by the Schiff Fountain called Seward Park lies still, an unlovely waste, waiting to be made beautiful. Tammany let its heelers build shanties in it to sell fish and dry-goods and such in. Reform just let things be, no matter how bad they were, and broke its promises to the people.
No, that is not fair. There was enough to do besides, to straighten up things. Tammany had seen to that. This very day the contractor’s men are beginning work in Seward Park, which shall give that most crowded spot on earth its pleasure-ground, and I have warrant for promising that within a year not only will the “HamFish” Park be restored, but Hudsonbank and the Thomas Jefferson Park in Little Italy, which are still dreary wastes, be opened to the people; while from the Civic Club in Richard Croker’s old home ward comes the broad hint that unless condemnation proceedings in the case of the park and playground, to take the place of the old tenements at East Thirty-fifth Street and Second Avenue, are hurried by the Tammany Commission, the club will take a hand and move to have the commission cashiered. There is to be no repetition of the Mulberry Bend scandal.
It is all right. Neither stupidity, spite, nor cold-blooded neglect will be able much longer to cheat the child out of his rights. The playground is here to wrestle with the gang for the boy, and it will win. It came so quietly that we hardly knew of it till we heard the shouts. It took us seven years to make up our minds to build a play pier,—recreation pier is its municipal title,—and it took just about seven weeks to build it when we got so far; but then we learned more in one day than we had dreamed of in the seven years. Half the East Side swarmed over it with shrieks of delight, and carried the mayor and the city government, who had come to see the show, fairly off their feet. And now that pier has more than seven comrades—great, handsome structures, seven hundred feet long, some of them, with music every night for mother and the babies, and for papa, who can smoke his pipe there in peace. The moon shines upon the quiet river, and the steamers go by with their lights. The street is far away with its noise. The young people go sparking in all honor, as it is their right to do. The councilman who spoke of “pernicious influences” lying in wait for them there made the mistake of his life, unless he has made up his mind to go out of politics. That is just a question of effective superintendence, as is true of model tenements, and everything else in this world. You have got to keep the devil out of everything, yourself included. He will get in if he can, as he got into the Garden of Eden. The play piers have taken a hold of the people which no crabbed old bachelor can loosen with trumped-up charges. Their civilizing influence upon the children is already felt in a reported demand for more soap in the neighborhood where they are, and even the grocer smiles approval.
The play pier is the kindergarten in the educational campaign against the gang. It gives the little ones a chance. Often enough it is a chance for life. The street as a playground is a heavy contributor to the undertaker’s bank account in more than one way. Distinguished doctors said at the tuberculosis congress this spring that it is to blame with its dust for sowing the seeds of that fatal disease in the half-developed bodies. I kept the police slips of a single day in May two years ago, when four little ones were killed and three crushed under the wheels of trucks in tenement streets. That was unusual, but no day has passed in my recollection that has not had its record of accidents, which bring grief as deep and lasting to the humblest home as if it were the pet of some mansion on Fifth Avenue that was slain. In the Hudson Guild on the West Side they have the reports of ten children that were killed in the street immediately around there. The kindergarten teaching has borne fruit. Private initiative set the pace, but the playground idea has at last been engrafted upon the municipal plan. The Outdoor Recreation League was organized by public-spirited citizens, including many amateur athletes and enthusiastic women, with the object of “obtaining recognition of the necessity for recreation and physical welfare of the people.” Together with the School Reform Club and the Federation of Churches and Christian Workers, it maintained a playground on the uptown West Side where the ball came into play for the first time as a recognized factor in civic progress. The day might well be kept for all time among those that mark human emancipation, for it was social reform and Christian work in one, of the kind that tells.
Only the year before, the athletic clubs had vainly craved the privilege of establishing a gymnasium in the East River Park, where the children wistfully eyed the sacred grass, and cowered under the withering gaze of the policeman. A friend whose house stands opposite the park found them one day swarming over her stoop in such shoals that she could not enter, and asked them why they did not play tag under the trees instead. The instant shout came back, “’Cause the cop won’t let us.” And now even Poverty Gap is to have its playground—Poverty Gap, that was partly transformed by its one brief season’s experience with its Holy Terror Park, a dreary sand lot upon the site of the old tenements in which the Alley Gang murdered the one good boy in the block, for the offence of supporting his aged parents by his work as a baker’s apprentice. And who knows but the Mulberry Bend and “Paradise Park” at the Five Points may yet know the climbing pole and the vaulting buck. So the world moves. For years the city’s only playground that had any claim upon the name—and that was only a little asphalted strip behind a public school in First Street—was an old graveyard. We struggled vainly to get possession of another, long abandoned. But the dead were of more account than the living.
But now at last it is their turn. I watched the crowds at their play where Seward Park is to be. The Outdoor Recreation League had put up gymnastic apparatus, and the dusty square was jammed with a mighty multitude. It was not an ideal spot, for it had not rained in weeks, and powdered sand and cinders had taken wing and floated like a pall over the perspiring crowd. But it was heaven to them. A hundred men and boys stood in line, waiting their turn upon the bridge ladder and the travelling rings, that hung full of struggling and squirming humanity, groping madly for the next grip. No failure, no rebuff, discouraged them. Seven boys and girls rode with looks of deep concern—it is their way—upon each end of the seesaw, and two squeezed into each of the forty swings that had room for one, while a hundred counted time and saw that none had too much. It is an article of faith with these children that nothing that is “going” for their benefit is to be missed. Sometimes the result provokes a smile, as when a band of young Jews, starting up a club, called themselves the Christian Heroes. It was meant partly as a compliment, I suppose, to the ladies that gave them club room; but at the same time, if there was anything in a name, they were bound to have it. It is rather to cry over than to laugh at, if one but understands it. The sight of these little ones swarming over a sand heap until scarcely an inch of it was in sight, and gazing in rapt admiration at the poor show of a dozen geraniums and English ivy plants on the windowsill of the overseer’s cottage, was pathetic in the extreme. They stood for ten minutes at a time, resting their eyes upon them. In the crowd were aged women and bearded men with the inevitable Sabbath silk hat, who it seemed could never get enough of it. They moved slowly, when crowded out, looking back many times at the enchanted spot, as long as it was in sight.
Perhaps there was in it, on the part of the children at least, just a little bit of the comforting sense of proprietorship. They had contributed of their scant pennies more than a hundred dollars toward the opening of the playground, and they felt that it was their very own. All the better. Two policemen watched the passing show, grinning; their clubs hung idly from their belts. The words of a little woman whom I met once in Chicago kept echoing in my ear. She was the “happiest woman alive,” for she had striven long for a playground for her poor children, and had got it.
“The police like it,” she said. “They say that it will do more good than all the Sunday-schools in Chicago. The mothers say, ‘This is good business.’ The carpenters that put up the swings and things worked with a will; everybody was glad. The police lieutenant has had a tree called after him. The boys that did that used to be terrors. Now they take care of the trees. They plead for a low limb that is in the way, that no one may cut it off.”
The twilight deepens and the gates of the playground are closed. The crowds disperse slowly. In the roof garden on the Hebrew Institute across East Broadway lights are twinkling and the band is tuning up. Little groups are settling down to a quiet game of checkers or lovemaking. Paterfamilias leans back against the parapet where palms wave luxuriously in the summer breeze. The newspaper drops from his hand; he closes his eyes and is in dreamland, where strikes come not. Mother knits contentedly in her seat, with a smile on her face that was not born of the Ludlow Street tenement. Over yonder a knot of black-browed men talk with serious mien. They might be met any night in the anarchist café, half a dozen doors away, holding forth against empires. Here wealth does not excite their wrath, nor power their plotting. In the roof garden anarchy is harmless, even though a policeman typifies its government. They laugh pleasantly to one another as he passes, and he gives them a match to light their cigars. It is Thursday, and smoking is permitted. On Friday it is discouraged because it offends the orthodox, to whom the lighting of a fire, even the holding of a candle, is anathema on the Sabbath eve.
The band plays on. One after another, tired heads droop upon babes slumbering peacefully at the breast. Ludlow Street—the tenement—are forgotten; eleven o’clock is not yet. Down along the silver gleam of the river a mighty city slumbers. The great bridge has hung out its string of shining pearls from shore to shore. “Sweet land of liberty!” Overhead the dark sky, the stars that twinkled their message to the shepherds on Judæan hills, that lighted their sons through ages of slavery, and the flag of freedom borne upon the breeze,—down there the tenement, the—Ah, well! let us forget as do these.
Now if you ask me: “And what of it all? What does it avail?” let me take you once more back to the Mulberry Bend, and to the policeman’s verdict add the police reporter’s story of what has taken place there. In fifteen years I never knew a week to pass without a murder there, rarely a Sunday. It was the wickedest, as it was the foulest, spot in all the city. In the slum the two are interchangeable terms for reasons that are clear enough for me. But I shall not speculate about it, only state the facts. The old houses fairly reeked with outrage and violence. When they were torn down, I counted seventeen deeds of blood in that place which I myself remembered, and those I had forgotten probably numbered seven times seventeen. The district attorney connected more than a score of murders of his own recollection with Bottle Alley, the Whyó Gang’s headquarters. Five years have passed since it was made into a park, and scarce a knife had been drawn or a shot fired in all that neighborhood. Only twice have I been called as a police reporter to the spot. It is not that the murder has moved to another neighborhood, for there has been no increase of violence in Little Italy or wherever else the crowd went that moved out. It is that the light has come in and made crime hideous. It is being let in wherever the slum has bred murder and robbery, bred the gang, in the past. Wait, now, another ten years, and let us see what a story there will be to tell.
Avail? Why, it was only the other day that Tammany was actually caught applauding Comptroller Coler’s words in Plymouth Church, “Whenever the city builds a schoolhouse upon the site of a dive and creates a park, a distinct and permanent mental, moral, and physical improvement has been made, and public opinion will sustain such a policy, even if a dive-keeper is driven out of business and somebody’s ground rent is reduced.” And Tammany’s press agent, in his enthusiasm, sent forth this pæan: “In the light of such events how absurd it is for the enemies of the organization to contend that Tammany is not the greatest moral force in the community.” Tammany a moral force! The park and the playground have availed, then, to bring back the day of miracles.