Home  »  The Battle with the Slum  »  On Whom Shall we Shut the Door?

Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). The Battle with the Slum. 1902.


On Whom Shall we Shut the Door?

THE JEW and the Italian have filled the landscape so far, because, as a matter of fact, that is what they do. Yesterday it was the Irishman and the Bohemian. To-morrow it may be the Greek, who already undersells the Italian from his pushcart in the Fourth Ward, and the Syrian, who can give Greek, Italian, and Jew points at a trade. The rebellious Slovak holds his own corner in our industrial system, though never for long. He yearns ever for the mountain sides of his own Hungary. He remembers, where the Jew tries only to forget. From Dalmatia comes a new emigration, and there are signs that the whole Balkan peninsula has caught the fever and is waiting only for cheap transportation to be established on the Danube to the Black Sea, when there is no telling what will be heading our way. I sometimes wonder what thoughts come to the eagle that perches over the great stone gateway on Ellis Island, as he watches the procession that files through it into the United States day after day, and never ends. He looks out of his grave, unblinking eye at the motley crowd, but gives no sign. Does he ask: “Where are the Pilgrim Fathers, the brave Huguenots, the patient Puritans, the sturdy priests, and the others that came for conscience’ sake to build upon this continent a home for freedom? And these, why do they come with their strange tongues—for gold?” True, eagle! but look to the roster of those who fought and died for the freedom those pioneers planted, who watered the tree with their life blood, and see how many you find inscribed there who came through that gate. Go to the public school and hear their children speak the tongue that is sweet to your ear; hear their young voices as they salute the flag that is theirs:

One Door that has been opened: St. John’s Park in Hudson Street—once a Graveyard.

“We give our heads and our hearts to our country. One country, one language, one flag!”

Fear not, eagle! While that gate is open let no one bar the one you guard. While the flag flies over the public school, keep it aloft over Ellis Island and have no misgivings. The school has the answer to your riddle.

About once a week I am asked: Would I shut out any, and whom and how and why? Sometimes, looking at it from the point of view of the tenement and the sweat shop,—that is to say, the city,—I think I would. And were that all, I certainly should. But then, there comes up the recollection of a picture of the city of Prague that hangs in a Bohemian friend’s parlor, here in New York. I stood looking at it one day, and noticed in the foreground cannon that pointed in over the city. I spoke of it, unthinking, and said to my host that they should be trained, if against an enemy, the other way. The man’s eye flashed fire. “Ha!” he cried, “here, yes!” When I think of that, I do not want to shut the door.

Again, there occurs to me an experience the police had a few years ago in Mulberry Street. They were looking for a murderer, and came upon a nest of Italian thugs who lived by blackmailing their countrymen. They were curious about them, and sent their names to Naples with a request for information. There came back such a record as none of the detectives had ever seen or heard of before. All of them were notorious criminals, who had been charged with every conceivable crime, from burglary to kidnapping and “maiming,” and some not to be conceived of by the American mind. Five of them together had been sixty-three times in jail, and one no less than twenty-one times. Yet, though they were all “under special surveillance,” they had come here without let or hindrance within a year. When I recall that, I want to shut the door quick. I sent the exhibit to Washington at the time.

Dr. Jane Elizabeth Robbins, the “Woman Doctor.”

But then, again, when I think of Mrs. Michelangelo, in her poor mourning for one child run over and killed, wiping her tears away and going bravely to work to keep the home together for the other five until the oldest shall be old enough to take her father’s place; and when, as now, there strays into my hand the letter from my good friend, the “woman doctor” in the slum, in which she wrote, when her father lay dead: “The little scamps of the street have been positively pathetic; they have made such shy, boyish attempts at friendliness; one little chap offered to let me hold his to while it was spinning, in token of affection,”—when I read that, I have not the heart to shut anybody out.

Except, of course, the unfit, the criminal, and the pauper, cast off by their own, and the man brought over here merely to put money into the pockets of the steamship agent, the padrone, and the mine owner. We have laws to bar these out. Suppose we begin by being honest with ourselves and the immigrant, and respecting our own laws. The door that is to be shut is over yonder, at the port where they take ship. There is where the scrutiny is to be made, to be effective. When the door has been shut and locked against the man who left his country for his country’s good, whether by its “assistance” or not, and when trafficking in the immigrant for private profit has been stopped, then, perhaps, we shall be better able to decide what degree of ignorance in him constitutes unfitness for citizenship and cause for shutting him out. Perchance then, also, we shall hear less of the cant about his being a peril to the republic. Doubtless ignorance is a peril, but the selfishness that trades upon ignorance is a much greater. He came to us without a country, ready to adopt such a standard of patriotism as he found, at its face value, and we gave him the rear tenement and slum politics. If he accepted the standard, whose fault was it? His being in such a hurry to vote that he could not wait till the law made him a citizen was no worse, to my mind, than the treachery of the “upper class” native, who refuses to go to the polls for fear he may rub up against him there. This last let us settle with first, and see what remains of our problem. We can approach it honestly, then, at all events.

I came into town on the Pennsylvania Railroad the other day just when the emigrant lighter had tied up at the wharf to discharge its west-bound cargo. For a full hour I stood watching the stream of them, thousands upon thousands, carrying knapsacks and trunks, odd in speech and ways, but all of them with hopeful faces set toward the great country where they were to win their own way. So they answered the query of the eagle at the island gate. Scarce an hour within the gate, they were no longer a problem. The country needs these men of strong arms and strong courage. It is in the city the shoe pinches. What can we do to relieve it?

Much could be done with effective inspection on the other side, to discourage the blind immigration that stops short in the city’s slums. They come to better themselves, and it is largely a question of making it clear to them that they do not better themselves and make us to be worse off by staying there, whereas their going farther would benefit both. But I repeat that that lever must be applied over there, to move this load. Once they are here, we might have a land and labor bureau that would take in the whole country, and serve as a great directory and distributing agency, instead of leaving it to private initiative to take up the crowds,—something much more comprehensive than anything now existing. There would still be a surplus; but at least it would be less by so many as we sent away. And in the nature of things the congestion would be lessened as more went out. Immigrants go where they have friends, and if those friends lived in Michigan we should not be troubled with them long in New York. If the immigration came all from one country, we should, because of that, have no problem at all, or not much of one at all events, except perhaps in the Jews, who have lived in Ghettos since time out of mind. The others would speedily be found making only a way station of New York. It is the constant kaleidoscopic change I spoke of that brings us hordes every few years who have to breaks entirely new ground. It seems to have been always so. Forty years after the settlement of Manhattan Island, says Theodore Roosevelt in his history of New York, eighteen different languages and dialects were spoken in its streets, though the future metropolis was then but a small village. “No sooner,” says he, “has one set of varying elements been fused together, than another stream has been poured into the crucible.” What was true of New York two hundred years ago is true to-day of the country of which it is the gateway.

In dealing with the surplus that remains, we shall have to rely first and foremost on the public school. Of that I shall speak hereafter. It can do more and better work than it is doing, for the old as for the young, when it becomes the real neighborhood centre, especially in the slums. The flag flies over it, that is one thing, and not such a little thing as some imagine. I think we are beginning to see it, with our Flag Day and our putting it out when we never thought of it five or six years ago. And by the way, when last I was in Denmark, my native land, I noticed they had a way of flying the flag on Sunday,—whether in honor of the day, or because they loved it, or because they felt the need of flying it in the face of their big and greedy German neighbor, I shall not say. But it was all right. Why can we not do the same? It would not hurt the flag, and it would not hurt the day. They would both be better for it—we would all be. You cannot have too much of the flag in the right way, and there would be nothing wrong about that. Just go into one of the Children’s Aid Society’s ragged schools, where the children are practically all from abroad, and see how they take to it. Watch an Italian parade, in which it is always borne side by side with the standard of United Italy, and if you had any doubts about what it stands for you will change your mind quickly. The sight of it is worth a whole course in the school, for education in citizenship.

One Way of bringing the Children into Camp: Basket-weaving in Vacation School.

And then it looks fine in the landscape always. It always makes me think there that I added to the red and white of my fathers’ flag only the blue of heaven, where wrongs are righted, and I feel better for it. Why should it not have the same effect on others? I know it has.

The school might be made the means, as the house to which all the life of the neighborhood turned, of enrolling the immigrants in the perilous years when they are not yet citizens. I know what they mean; I have gone through them, seen most of the mischief they hold for the unattached. That is the mischief, that they are unattached. A way must be found of claiming them, if they are not to be lost to the cause of good citizenship where they might so easily have been saved. I spoke of it in “The Making of an American.” They want to belong, they are waiting to be claimed by some one, and the some one that comes is Tammany with its slum politics. The mere enrolling of them, with leave to march behind a band of music, suffices with the young. They belong then. The old are used to enrolment. Where they came from they were enrolled in the church, in the army, by the official vaccinator, by the tax-collector—oh, yes, the tax-collector—and here, set all of a sudden adrift, it seems like a piece of home to have some one come along and claim them, write them down, and tell them that they are to do so and so. Childish, is it? Not at all. It is just human nature, the kind we are working with.

The mere fact that the schoolhouse is there, inviting them in, is something. When it comes to seek them out, to invite them to their own hall for discussion, for play, it will be a good deal, particularly if the women go along. And the enrolment of the schoolhouse could be counted as being for decency.

It makes all the difference what the start is like. “Excellency,” wrote an Italian to his consul in New York, “I arrived from Italy last week. As soon as I landed a policeman clubbed me. I am going to write to Victor Emmanuel how things are done here. Viva 1’ Italia! Abbasso 1’ America!” I should not be surprised to find that man plotting anarchy in Paterson as soon as he got his bearings, and neither need you be.

There is still another alternative to either keeping them out or keeping them in the city, namely, to ship them away after they have reached the slum and been stranded there, individually or in squads. The latter way was tried when the great Jewish immigration first poured in, in the early eighties. Five colonies of refugee Jews were started in southern New Jersey, but they failed. The soil was sandy and poor, and the work unfamiliar. Thrown upon his own resources, in a strange and unfriendly neighborhood, the man grew discouraged and gave up in despair. The colonies were in a state of collapse when the New York managers of the Baron de Hirsch Fund took them under the arms and gave them a start on a new plan. They themselves had located a partly industrial, partly farming, community in the neighborhood. They persuaded several large clothing contractors to move their plants out to the villages, where they would be assured of steady hands, with much less chance of disturbing strikes; while on the other hand their workers would have steadier work and could never starve in dull seasons, for they could work their farms and gardens. And, indeed, a perfect frenzy for spading and hoeing seized them when the crops appeared, with promise of unlimited potatoes for the digging of them. The experiment is still in progress. It is an experiment, because as yet the Hirsch Fund millions back the colonies up, and there is no passing of reasonable judgment upon them till they have stood alone awhile. To all appearances they are prospering, Woodbine, the Hirsch colony, especially so, with its agricultural school that has set out upon the mission of turning the Jew back to the soil from which he has been barred so long. Its pupils came out of the sweat shops and the tenement barracks of the Ghetto, and a likelier lot it would not be easy to find. One can but wish that the hopes of their friends may be realized in fullest measure. They have put their hands to a task that seems like turning back the finger of time, and snags of various kinds beset their way.

I remember the President of the Board coming into my office one day with despair written all over him: of a hundred families, carefully picked to go into the country where homes and work awaited them, when it came to the actual departure only seven wanted to go. It was the old story of objection to “the society of the stump.” The wanted the crowds, the bands, the kosher butcher shops, the fake auction stores, and the synagogues they were used to. They have learned a lesson from that in the Jersey colonies, and are building entertainment halls for the social life that is to keep them together. Only a year or so ago an attempt at home-building, much nearer New York, at New Orange, just over the hills in Jersey, came to an abrupt end. It left out the farming end, aiming merely at the removal of needle workers from the city with their factory. A building was put up for a large New York tailoring firm, and it moved over bodily with its men—that is, with such as were willing to go. Work was plentiful in the city, and they were not all ready to surrender the tenement for the sake of a home upon the land, though a very attractive little cottage awaited them on singularly easy terms. However that was almost got over when the firm suddenly threw up the contract. It proved to be costlier for them to manufacture away from the city, and they could not complete.

If there is yet an element of doubt about the Jew as a colonist, there is none about his ability to make ends meet as an individual farmer, given a fair chance. More than a thousand such are now scattered through the New England states and the dairy counties of New York. The Jewish Agricultural Aid Societies of New York and Chicago gave them their start, and report decided progress. The farmers are paying their debts and laying away money. As a dairy farmer or poultry raiser the Jew has more of an immediate commercial grip on the situation and works with more courage than if he has to wait for long, uncertain crops. In Sullivan and Ulster counties, New York, a hundred Jewish farmers keep summer boarders besides, and are on the highroad to success. Very recently the New York society has broken new paths upon an individual “removal plan,” started by the B’nai B’rith in 1900. Agents are sent throughout the country to make arrangements with Jewish communities for the reception of workers from the Ghetto; and so successful have been these efforts that at this writing some five thousand have been moved singly and scattered over the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific—that is, in not yet three years since the beginning. They are carefully looked after, and the reports show that over eighty per cent of all do well in their new surroundings. This result has been wrought at a per capita expense of twelve dollars, not a very great sum for such a work.

In its bold outline the movement contemplates nothing less than the draining of the Ghetto by the indirect process of which I spoke. “The importance of it,” says the Removal Committee in its report for 1901, “is found, not in the numbers removed, but in the inauguration of the movement, which should and must be greatly extended, and which is declared to be of far-reaching significance. The experience of past years has proven that almost every family removed becomes a centre around which immediately and with ever increasing force others congregate. The committee in charge of the Russian immigration in 1890, 1891, etc., has evidence that cities and towns, to which but a very small number of newly arrived immigrants were sent, have become the centres of large Russia-Jewish communities. No argument is needed to emphasize this statement.”

It is pleasing to be told that the office of the Removal Committee has been besieged by eager applicants from the beginning. So light is breaking also in that dark corner.

There is enough of it everywhere, if one will only look away from the slum to those it holds fast. “The people are all right,” was the unvarying report of the early Tenement House Committees, “if we only give them half a chance.” When the country was in the throes of the silver campaign, the newspapers told the story of an old laborer who went to the sub-treasury and demanded to see the “boss.” He undid the strings of an old leathern purse with fumbling fingers, and counted out more than two hundred dollars in gold eagles, the hoard of a lifetime of toil and self-denial. They were for the government, he said. He had not the head to understand all the talk that was going on, but he gathered from what he heard that the government was in trouble, and that somehow it was about not having gold enough. So he had brought what he had. He owed it all to the country, and now that she needed it he had come to give it back.

The man was an Irishman. Very likely he was enrolled in Tammany and voted its ticket. I remember a tenement at the bottom of a back alley, over on the East Side, where I once went visiting with the pastor of a mission chapel. Up in the attic there was a family of father and daughter in two rooms that had been made out of one by dividing off the deep dormer window. It was midwinter, and they had no fire. He was a pedler, but the snow had stalled his push-cart, and robbed them of their only other source of income, a lodger who hired cot room in the attic for a few cents a night. The daughter was not able to work. But she said, cheerfully, that they were “getting along.” When it came out that she had not tasted solid food for many days, was starving in fact,—indeed, she died within a year, of the slow starvation of the tenements that parades in the mortality returns under a variety of scientific names which all mean the same thing,—she met her pastor’s gentle chiding with the excuse: “Oh, your church has many that are poorer than I. I don’t want to take your money.”

These were Germans, ordinarily held to be close-fisted; but I found that in their dire distress they had taken in a poor old man who was past working, and kept him all winter, sharing with him what they had. He was none of theirs; they hardly even knew him, as it appeared. It was enough that he was “poorer than they,” and lonely and hungry and cold.

The Children’s Christmas Tree.

It was over here that the children of Mr. Elsing’s Sunday-school gave out of the depth of their poverty fifty-four dollars in pennies to be hung on the Christmas tree as their offering to the persecuted Armenians. One of their teachers told me of a Bohemian family that let the holiday dinner she brought them stand and wait, while they sent out to bid to the feast four little ragamuffins of the neighborhood who else would have gone hungry. And here it was in “the hard winter” when no one had work, that the nurse from the Henry Street settlement found her cobbler patient entertaining a lodger, with barely bread in the house for himself and his boy. He introduced the stranger with some embarrassment, and when they were alone, excused himself for doing it. The man was just from prison—a man with “a history.”

“But,” said the nurse, doubtfully, “is it a good thing for your boy to have that man in the house?”

There was a passing glimpse of uneasiness in the cobbler’s glance, but it went as quickly as it had come. He laid his hand upon the nurse’s. “This,” he said, “ain’t no winter to let a fellow from Sing Sing be on the street.”

I might keep on, and fill many pages with instances of such kind, which simply go to prove that our poor human nature is at least as robust on Avenue A as up on Fifth Avenue, if it has half a chance, and often enough with no chance at all; and I might set over against it the product of sordid and mean environment which one has never far to seek. Good and evil go together in the tenements as in the fine houses, and the evil sticks out sometimes merely because it lies nearer the surface. The point is that the good does outweigh the bad, and that the virtues that turn the balance are after all those that make for manhood and good citizenship anywhere; while the faults are oftenest the accidents of ignorance and lack of training, which it is the business of society to correct. I recall my discouragement when I looked over the examination papers of a batch of candidates for police appointment,—young men largely the product of our public schools in this city and elsewhere,—and read in them that five of the original New England states were “England, Ireland, Scotland, Belfast, and Cork”; that the Fire Department ruled New York in the absence of the mayor,—I have sometimes wished it did, and that he would stay away awhile, while they turned the hose on at the City Hall to make a clean job of i,—and that Lincoln was murdered by Ballington Booth. But we shall agree, no doubt, that the indictment of those papers was not of the men who wrote them, but of the school that stuffed its pupils with useless trash, and did not teach them to think. Neither have I forgotten that it was one of these very men who, having failed and afterward got a job as a bridge policeman, on his first pay day went straight from his post, half frozen as he was, to the settlement worker who had befriended him and his sick father, and gave him five dollars for “some one who was poorer than they.” Poorer than they! What worker among the poor has not heard it? It is the charity of the tenement that covers a multitude of sins. There were thirteen in this policeman’s family, and his wages were the biggest item of income in the house.

Jealousy, envy, and meanness wear no fine clothes and masquerade under no smooth speeches in the slums. Often enough it is the very nakedness of the virtues that makes us stumble in our judgment. I have in mind the “difficult case” that confronted some philanthropic friends of mine in a rear tenement on Twelfth Street, in the person of an aged widow, quite seventy I should think, who worked uncomplainingly for a sweater all day and far into the night, pinching and saving and stinting herself, with black break and chickory coffee as her only fare, in order that she might carry her pitiful earnings to her big, lazy lout of a son in Brooklyn. He never worked. My friends’ difficulty was a very real one, for absolutely every attempt to relieve the widow was wrecked upon her mother heart. It all went over the river. Yet would you have had her different?

Sometimes it is only the unfamiliar setting that shocks. When an East Side midnight burglar, discovered and pursued, killed a tenant who blocked his way of escape, not long ago, his “girl” gave him up to the police. But it was not because he had taken human life. “He was good to me,” she explained to the captain whom she told where to find him, “but since he robbed the church I had no use for him.” He had stolen, it seems, the communion service in a Staten Island church. The thoughtless laughed. But in her ignorant way she was only trying to apply the ethical standards she knew. Our servant, pondering if the fortune she was told is “real good” at fifteen cents, when it should have cost her twenty-five by right, only she told the fortune-teller she had only fifteen, and lied in telling, is doing the same after her fashion. Stunted, bemuddled, as their standards were, I think I should prefer to take my chances with either rather than with the woman of wealth and luxury who gave a Christmas party to her lap-dog, as on the whole the sounder and by far the more hopeful.

All of which is merely saying that the country is all right, and the people are to be trusted with the old faith in spite of the slum. And it is true, if we remember to put it that way,— in spite of the slum. There is nothing in the slum to warrant that faith save human nature as yet uncorrupted. How long it is to remain so is altogether a question of the sacrifices we are willing to make in our fight with the slum. As yet, we are told by the officials having to do with the enforcement of the health ordinances, which come closer to the life of the individual than any other kind, that the poor in the tenements are “more amenable to the law than the better class.” It is of the first importance, then, that we should have laws deserving of their respect, and that these laws should be enforced, lest they conclude that the whole thing is a sham. Respect for law is a very powerful bar against the slum. But what, for instance, must the poor Jew understand, who is permitted to buy a live hen at the market, but neither to kill nor keep it in his tenement, and who on his feast day finds a whole squad of policemen detailed to follow him around and see that he does not do any of the things with his fowl for which he must have bought it? Or the day laborer, who drinks his beer in a “Raines law hotel,” where brick sandwiches, consisting of two pieces of bread with a brick between, are set out on the counter, in derision of the state law which forbids the serving of drinks without “meals”? The Stanton Street saloon keeper who did that was solemnly acquitted by a jury. Or the boy, who may buy fireworks on the Fourth of July, but not set them off? These are only ridiculous instances of an abuse that pervades our community life to an extent which constitutes one of its gravest perils. Insincerity of that kind is not lost on our fellow-citizen by adoption, who is only anxious to fall in with the ways of the country; and especially is it not lost on his boy.

We shall see how it affects him. He is the one for whom we are waging the battle with the slum. He is the to-morrow that sits to-day drinking in the lesson of the prosperity of the big boss who declared with pride upon the witness stand that he rules New York, that judges pay him tribute, and that only when he says so a thing “goes”; and that he is “working for his own pocket all the time just the same as everybody else.” He sees corporations pay blackmail and rob the people in return, quite according to the schedule of Hester Street. Only there it is the police who charge the pedler twenty cents, while here it is the politicians taking toll of the franchises, twenty per cent. Wall Street is not ordinarily reckoned in the slum, because of certain physical advantages; but, upon the evidence of the day, I think we shall have to conclude that the advantage ends there. The boy who is learning such lessons,— how is it with him?

The president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children says that children’s crime is increasing, and he ought to know. The managers of the Children’s Aid Society, after nearly fifty years of wrestling with the slum for the boy, in which they have lately seemed to get the upper hand, said recently, that on the East Side children are growing up in certain districts “entirely neglected,” and that the number of such children “increases beyond the power of philanthropic and religious bodies to cope properly with their needs.” In the Tompkins Square Lodging House the evening classes were thinning out, and the keeper wailed, “Those with whom we have dealt of late have not been inclined to accept this privilege; how to make night school attractive to shiftless, indifferent street boys is a difficult problem to solve.”

Perhaps it was only that he had lost the key. Across the square, the Boys’ Club of St. Mark’s Place, that began with a handful, count seven thousand members to-day, and is building a house of its own. The school census man announces that no boy in that old stronghold of the “bread or blood” brigade need henceforth loiter in the street because of there not being room in the public school, and the brigade has disbanded for want of recruits. The factory is being more and more firmly shut against the boy, and the bars let down at the playground. From Tompkins Square, nevertheless, came Jacob Beresheim, whose story let me stop here to tell you.