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


The Band Begins to Play

“NOTHING in this world of ours is settled until it is settled right.” From the moment we began the fight for the children’s play there was but one ending to that battle; but it did seem sometimes a long way off, never farther than when, just four months ago, the particular phase of it that had seemed to promise most was officially stamped as nonsense. The playgrounds on top of the big schoolhouses, which were to be the neighborhood roof-gardens of our fond imaginings, were “of little use,” said the school committee that had them in charge. The people wouldn’t go there. So, then, let them be given up. And a school commissioner with whom I argued the case on the way home responded indulgently that some of my notions “were regarded as Utopian,” however sincerely held.

Let me see, that was in May. The resolution I speak of had passed the Committee on Care of Buildings on April 18. Today is the 20th of August, and I have just come home from an evening spent on one of those identical school-roofs under the electric lamps, a veritable fairyland of delight. The music and the song and laughter of three thousand happy children ring in my ears yet. It was a long, laborious journey up all the flights of stairs to that roof, for I am not as young as I was and sometimes scant of breath; but none sweeter did I ever take save the one under the wild-rose hedge I told of in “The Making of an American” when I went to claim my bride. Ah! brethren, what are we that we should ever give up, or doubt the justice of His fight who bade us let the little ones come unto Him and to clear the briers and thorns, that choked the path, from their way?

Seven years we hacked away at the briers in that path. It is so long since the state made it law that a playground should go with every public school, five since as secretary of the Small Parks Committee I pleaded with the Board of Education to give the roof playground to the neighborhood after school hours. I remember that the question was asked who would keep order, and the answer, “The police will be glad to.” I recalled without trouble the time when they had to establish patrol posts on the tenement roofs in defence against the roughs whom the street had trained to rebellion against law and order. But I was a police reporter; they were not. They didn’t understand. The playschool came; the indoor playgrounds were thrown open evenings under the pressure they brought in their train. And at that point we took a day off, as it were, to congratulate one another on how wondrous smart and progressive we had been. The machinery we had started we let be, to run itself.

It ran into the old rut. The janitor got it in tow, and presently we heard from the “play centres” that “the children didn’t avail themselves” of their privileges. On the roof playground the janitor had turned the key. The Committee on Care of Buildings spoke his mind: “They were of little use; too hot in summer and too cold in winter.” We were invited to quit our fooling and resume business at the old stand of the three R’s, and let it go with that. That was what schools were for. It takes time, you see, to grow an idea, as to grow a colt or a boy, to its full size.

President Burlingham, who in his day drew the bill that made it lawful to use the schools for neighborhood purposes other than the worship of those same three R’s, went around with me one night to see what ailed the children who would not play.

In the Mulberry Bend school the janitor had carefully removed the gymnastic apparatus the boys were aching for, and substituted four tables, around which they sat playing cards under the eye of a policeman. They were “educational” cards, with pictures of Europe and Asia and Africa and America on, but it required only half a minute’s observation to tell us that they were gambling—betting on which educational card would turn up next. What the city had provided was a course in scientific gambling with the policeman to see that it was done right. And over at Market and Monroe streets, where they have an acre or more of splendid asphalted floor—such a ball room!—and a matchless yard, the best in the city, twoscore little girls were pitifully cooped up in a corner, being taught something, while outside a hundred clamored to get in, making periodic rushes at the door, only to encounter there a janitor’s assistant with a big club and a roar like a bull to frighten them away. “Orders,” he told us. The yard was dark and dismal. That was the school by the way, whence the report came that they “hadn’t availed themselves” of the opportunity to play.

It helped, when that story was told. There is nothing in our day like the facts, and they came out that time. There was the roof-garden on the Educational Alliance Building with its average of more than five thousand a day, young and old, last summer (a total of 344,424 for the season), in flat contradiction of the claim that the children “wouldn’t go up on the roof.” Not, surely, if it was only to encounter a janitor with a club there. But a brass band now? There were a few professional shivers at that, but our experience with the one we set playing in the park on Sunday, years ago, came to the rescue. When it had played its last piece to end and there burst forth as with one voice from the mighty throng, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow!” some doubts were set at rest for all time. They were never sensible, but after that they were silly.

So the janitor was bidden bring out his key. Electric lights were strung. “We will save the money somewhere else,” said Mayor Low. The experiment was made with five schools, all on the crowded East Side.

I was at dinner with friends at the University Settlement, directly across from which, on the other corner, is one of the great new schools, No. 20, I think. We had got to the salad when through the open window there came a yell of exultation and triumph that made me fairly jump in my chair. Below in the street a mighty mob of children and mothers had been for half an hour besieging the door of the schoolhouse. The yell signalized the opening of it by the policeman in charge. Up the stairs surged the multitude. We could see them racing, climbing, toiling, according to their years, for the goal above where the band was tuning up. One little fellow with a trousers leg and a half, and a pair of suspenders and an undershirt as his only other garments, labored up the long flight, carrying his baby brother on his back. I watched them go clear up, catching glimpses of them at every turn, and then I went up after.

I found them in a corner, propped against the wall, a look of the serenest bliss on their faces as they drank it all in. It was their show at last. The band was playing “Alabama,” and fifteen hundred boys and girls were dancing, hopping, prancing to the tune, circling about and about while they sang and kept time to the music. When the chorus was reached, every voice was raised to its shrillest pitch: “Way—down—yonder—in—the—cornfield.” And for once in my life the suggestion of the fields and the woods did not seem hopelessly out of place in the Tenth Ward crowds. Baby in its tired mother’s lap looked on wide-eyed, out of the sweep of the human current.

The band ceased playing, and the boys took up some game, dodging hither and thither in pursuit of a ball. How they did it will ever be a mystery to me. There did not seem to be room for another child, but they managed as if they had it all to themselves. There was no disorder; no one was hurt, or even knocked down, unless in the game, and that was the game, so it was as it should be. Right in the middle of it, the strains of “Sunday Afternoon,” all East Side children’s favorite, burst forth, and out of the seeming confusion came rhythmic order as the whole body of children moved, singing, along the floor.

Down below, the deserted street—deserted for once in the day—had grown strangely still. The policeman nodded contentedly: “good business, indeed.” This was a kind of roof patrol he could appreciate. Nothing to do; less for to-morrow, for here they were not planning raids on the grocer’s stock. They were happy, and when children are happy, they are safe, and so are the rest of us. It is the policeman’s philosophy, and it is worth taking serious note of.

A warning blast on a trumpet and the “Star-spangled Banner” floated out over the house-tops. The children ceased dancing; every boy’s cap came off, and the chorus swelled loud and clear:

  • “—in triumph shall wave
  • O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”The light shone upon the thousand upturned faces. Scarce one in a hundred of them all that did not bear silent witness to persecution which had driven a whole people over the sea, without home, without flag. And now—my eyes filled with tears. I said it: I am getting old and silly.

    It was so at the still bigger school at Hester and Orchard streets. At the biggest of them all, and the finest, the same No. 177 where the janitor’s assistant “shooed” the children away with his club, the once dismal yard had been festooned with electric lamps that turned night into day, and about the band-stand danced nearly three thousand boys and girls to the strains of “Money Musk,” glad to be alive and there. A ball-room forsooth! And it is going to be better still; for once the ice has been broken, there are new kinks coming in this dancing programme that is the dear dissipation of the East Side. What is to hinder the girls, when the long winter days come, from inviting in the fellows, and papa and mamma, for a real dance that shall take the wind out of the sails of the dance-halls? Nothing in all the world. Nor even will there be anything to stop Superintendent Maxwell from taking a turn himself, as he said he would, or me either, if I haven’t danced in thirty years. I just dare him to try.

    The Fellows and Papa and Mamma shall be invited in yet.

    The man in charge of the ball-room at No. 177—I shall flatly refuse to call it a yard—said that he didn’t believe in any other rule than order, and nearly took my breath away, for just then I had a vision of the club in the doorway; but it was only a vision. The club was not there. As he said it, he mounted the band-stand and waved the crowd to order with his speaking-trumpet.

    “A young lady has just lost her gold watch on the floor,” he said. “It is here under your feet. Bring it to me, the one who finds it.” There was a curious movement of the crowd, as if every unit in it turned once about itself and bowed, and presently a shout of discovery went up. A little girl with a poor shawl pinned about her throat came forward with the watch. The manager waved his trumpet at me with a bright smile.

    “You see it works.”

    The entire crowd fell in behind him in an ecstatic cake-walk, expressive of its joy and satisfaction, and so they went, around and around.

    On that very corner, just across the way, a dozen years ago, I gave a stockbroker a good blowing up for hammering his cellar door full of envious nails to prevent the children using it as a slide. It was all the playground they had.

    The “Slide” that was the Children’s only Playground once.

    On the way home I stopped at the first of all the public schools to acquire a roof playground, to see how they did it there. The janitor had been vanquished, but the pedagogue was in charge, and he had organized the life out of it all. The children sat around listless, and made little or no attempt to dance. A harassed teacher was vainly trying to form the girls into ranks for exercises of some kind. They held up their hands in desperate endeavor to get her ear, only to have them struck down impatiently, or to be summarily put out if they tried again. They did not want to exercise. They wanted to play. I tried to voice their grievance to the “doctor” who presided.

    “Not at all,” he said decisively; “there must be system, system!”

    “Tommyrot!” said my Chicago friend at my elbow, and I felt like saying “thank you!” I don’t know but I did. They have good sense in Chicago. Jane Addams is there.

    The doctor resumed his efforts to teach the boys something, having explained to me that downstairs, where they are when it rains, there were seven distinct echoes to bother the band. Two girls “spieled” in the corner, a kind of dancing that is not favored in the playground. There had been none of that at the other places. The policeman eyed the show with a frown.

    So there was a fly in our ointment, after all. But for all that, the janitor is downed, his day dead. This of all things at last has been “settled right,” and the path cleared for the children’s feet, not in New York only, but everywhere and for all time. I, too, am glad to be alive in the time that saw it done.