Nonfiction > Jacob A. Riis > The Making of an American > XIII. Roosevelt comes—Mulberry Street’s Golden Age
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Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914). The Making of an American. 1901.
 
XIII. Roosevelt comes—Mulberry Street’s Golden Age
 
SEE now how things fall out. Hardly had I sent the chapter to the printer in which I posted proofreaders as enemies of mankind when here comes the proof of the previous one with a cordial note of thanks from this particular enemy “for the inspiration” he found in it. So then I was mistaken, as I have been often before, and owe him the confession. Good land! what are we that we should think ourselves always right, or, lest we do wrong, sit idle all our lives waiting for light? The light comes as we work toward it. Roosevelt was right when he said that the only one who never makes mistakes is the one who never does anything. Preserve us from him; from the man who eternally wants to hold the scales even and so never gets done weighing—never hands anything over the counter. Take him away and put red blood into his veins. And let the rest of us go ahead and make our mistakes—as few as we can, as many as we must; only let us go ahead.   1
   All of which has reference to other things I have in mind, not to the proof--reader, against whom I have no grudge to--day. As for him, perhaps, he is just a sign that the world moves.   2
   Move it did at last in the year (1894) that gave us the Lexow Investigating Committee, the Citizens’ Seventy, and reform. Tammany went out, speeded on its way by Dr. Parkhurst, and an administration came in that was pledged to all we had been longing and laboring for. For three years we had free hands and we used them. Mayor Strong’s administration was not the millennium, but it brought New York much nearer to it than it had ever been, and it set up some standards toward which we may keep on striving with profit to ourselves. The Mayor himself was not a saint. He was an honest gentleman of sturdy purpose to do the right, and, normally, of singular practical wisdom in choosing the men to help him do it, but with an intermittent delusion that he was a shrewd politician. When it came uppermost he made bargains and appointed men to office who did their worst to undo what good the Warings, the Roosevelts, and their kind had wrought. In the struggle that ensued Mayor Strong was always on the side of right, but when he wanted most to help he could not. It is the way of the world. Nevertheless, as I said, it moved.   3
   How far we came is history, plain to read in our streets that will never again be as dirty as they were, though they may not be as clean as Waring left them; in the threescore splendid new schoolhouses that stand as monuments of those busy years; in the open spots that let the sunlight into the slum where it was darkest and most foul; in the death rate that came down from 26.32 per thousand of the living in 1887 to 19.53 in 1897. That was the “Ten Years’ War” 1 I wrote about and have here before referred to. The three years of the Strong administration saw all the big battles in which we beat the slum. I am not going to rehearse them, for I am trying to tell my own story, and now I am soon done with it. I carried a gun as a volunteer in that war, and that was all; not even in the ranks at that. I was ever an irregular, given to sniping on my own hook. Roosevelt, indeed, wanted me to have a seat among Mayor Strong’s official advisers; but we had it out over that when he told me of it, and the compact we made that he told me of it, and the compact we made that he should never ask that service of me he has kept. So he spared the Mayor much embarrassment; for, as I said, I am not good in the ranks, more is the pity: and me he saved for such use as I could be of, which was well. For shortly it all centred in Mulberry Street, where he was.   4
   We were not strangers. It could not have been long after I wrote “How the Other Half Lives” that he came to the Evening Sun office one day looking for me. I was out, and he left his card, merely writing on the back of it that he had read my book and had “come to help.” That was all and it tells the whole story of the man. I loved him from the day I first saw him; nor ever in all the years that have passed has he failed of the promise made then. No one ever helped as he did. For two years we were brothers in Mulberry Street. When he left I had seen its golden age. I knew too well the evil day that was coming back to have any heart in it after that.   5
   Not that we were carried heavenward “on flowery beds of ease” while it lasted. There is very little ease where Theodore Roosevelt leads, as we all of us found out. The lawbreaker found it out who predicted scornfully that he would “knuckle down to politics the way they all did,” and lived to respect him, though he swore at him, as the one of them all who was stronger than pull. The peaceloving citizen who hastened to Police Headquarters with anxious entreaties to “use discretion” in the enforcement of unpopular laws found it out and went away with a new and breathless notion welling up in him of an official’s sworn duty. That was it; that was what made the age golden, that for the first time a moral purpose came into the street. In the light of it everything was transformed.   6
   Not all at once. It took us weary months to understand that the shouting about the “enforcement of the dead Excise Law” was lying treachery or rank ignorance, one as bad as the other. The Excise Law was not dead. It was never so much alive as under Tammany, but it was enforced only against those saloon-keepers who needed discipline. It was a Tammany club, used to drive them into camp with; and it was used so vigorously that no less than eight thousand arrests were made under it in the year before Roosevelt made them all close up. Pretty lively corpse, that! But we understood at last, most of us; understood that the tap-root of the police blackmail was there, and that it had to be pulled up if we were ever to get farther. We understood that we were the victims of our own shamming, and we grew to be better citizens for it. The police force became an army of heroes—for a season. All the good in it came out; and there is a lot of it in the worst of times. Roosevelt had the true philosopher’s stone that turns dross to gold, in his own sturdy faith in his fellow-man. Men became good because he thought them so.   7
   By which I am not to be understood as meaning that he just voted them good—the police, for instance—and sat by waiting to see the wings grow. No, but he helped them sprout. It is long since I have enjoyed anything so much as I did those patrol trips of ours on the “last tour” between midnight and sunrise, which earned for him the name of Haroun al Roosevelt. I had at last found one who was willing to get up when other people slept—including, too often, the police—and see what the town looked like then. He was more than willing. I laid out the route, covering ten or a dozen patrol-posts, and we met at 2 A.M. on the steps of the Union League Club, objects of suspicion on the part of two or three attendants and a watchman who shadowed us as night-prowlers till we were out of their bailiwick. I shall never forget that first morning when we travelled for three hours along First and Second and Third avenues, from Forty-second Street to Bellevue, and found of ten patrolmen just one doing his work faithfully. Two or three were chatting on saloon corners and guyed the President of the Board when he asked them if that was what they were there for. One was sitting asleep on a butter-tub in the middle of the sidewalk, snoring so that you could hear him across the street, and was inclined to be “sassy” when aroused and told to go about his duty. Mr. Roosevelt was a most energetic roundsman and a fair one to boot. It was that quality which speedily won him the affection of the force. He hunted high and low before he gave up his man, giving him every chance. We had been over one man’s beat three times, searching every nook and cranny of it, and were reluctantly compelled to own that he was not there, when the “boss” of an all-night restaurant on Third Avenue came out with a club as we passed and gave the regulation signal, raps on the sidewalk. There was some trouble in his place. Three times he repeated the signal calling for the patrolman on the beat before he turned to Roosevelt, who stood by, with the angry exclamation:—   8
 
 
“One was sitting asleep on a buttertub.”
 
   “Where in thunder does that copper sleep? He orter’d tole me when he giv’ up the barber-shop, so’s a fellow could find him.”   9
   We didn’t find him then, but he found the President of the Board later on when summoned to Police Headquarters to explain why he had changed his sleeping quarters. The whole force woke up as a result of that night’s work, and it kept awake those two years, for, as it learned by experience, Mr. Roosevelt’s spectacles might come gleaming around the corner at any hour. He had not been gone a year before the Chief found it necessary to transfer half the force in an up-town precinct to keep it awake. The firemen complained that fires at night gained too much headway while the police slept. There was no Roosevelt to wake them up.   10
   Looking after his patrolmen was not the only errand that took him abroad at night. As Police President, Mr. Roosevelt was a member of the Health Board, and sometimes it was the tenements we went inspecting when the tenants slept. He was after facts, and learned speedily to get them as he could. When, as Governor, he wanted to know just how the Factory Law was being executed, he came down from Albany and spent a whole day with me personally investigating tenements in which sweating was carried on. I had not found a Governor before, or a Police President either, who would do it; but so he learned exactly what he wanted to know, and what he ought to do, and dia it.   11
   I never saw Theodore Roosevelt to better advantage than when he confronted the labor men at their meeting-place, Clarendon Hall. The police were all the time having trouble with strikers and their “pickets.” Roosevelt saw that it was because neither party understood fully the position of the other and, with his usual directness, sent word to the labor organizations that he would like to talk it over with them. At his request I went with him to the meeting. It developed almost immediately that the labor men had taken a wrong measure of the man. They met him as a politician playing for points, and hinted at trouble unless their demands were met. Mr. Roosevelt broke them off short:—   12
   “Gentlemen!” he said, with that snap of the jaws that always made people listen, “I asked to meet you, hoping that we might come to understand one another. Remember, please, before we go farther, that the worst injury any one of you can do to the cause of labor is to counsel violence. It will also be worse for himself. Understand distinctly that order will be kept. The police will keep it. Now we can proceed.”   13
   I was never so proud and pleased as when they applauded him to the echo. He reddened with pleasure, for he saw that the best in them had come out on top, as he expected it would.   14
   It was of this incident that a handle was first made by Mr. Roosevelt’s enemies in and out of the Police Board—and he had many—to attack him. It happened that there was a music hall in the building in which the labor men met. The yellow newspapers circulated the lie that he went there on purpose to see the show, and the ridiculous story was repeated until the liars nearly persuaded themselves that it was so. They would not have been able to understand the kind of man they had to do with, had they tried. Accordingly they fell into their own trap. It is a tradition of Mulberry Street that the notorious Seeley dinner raid was planned by his enemies in the department of which he was the head, in the belief that they would catch Mr. Roosevelt there. The diners were supposed to be his “set.”   15
   Some time after that I was in his office one day when a police official of superior rank came in and requested private audience with him. They stepped aside and the policeman spoke in an undertone, urging something strongly. Mr. Roosevelt listened. Suddenly I saw him straighten up as a man recoils from something unclean and dismiss the other with a sharp: “No, sir! I don’t fight that way.” The policeman went out crestfallen. Roosevelt took two or three turns about the floor, struggling evidently with strong disgust. He told me afterward that the man had come to him with what he said was certain knowledge that his enemy could that night be found in a known evil house up-town, which it was his alleged habit to visit. His proposition was to raid it then and so “get square.” To the policeman it must have seemed like throwing a good chance away. But it was not Roosevelt’s way; he struck no blow below the belt. In the Governor’s chair afterward he gave the politicians whom he fought, and who fought him, the same terms. They tried their best to upset him, for they had nothing to expect from him. But they knew and owned that he fought fair. Their backs were secure. He never tricked them to gain an advantage. A promise given by him was always kept to the letter.   16
   Failing to trap him only added to the malignity of his enemies. Roosevelt was warned that he was “shadowed” night and day, but he laughed their scheming to scorn. It is an article of faith with him that an honest man has nothing to fear from plotters, and he walked unharmed among their snares. The whole country remembers the year-long fight in the Police Board and Mayor Strong’s vain attempt to remove the obstructionist who, under an ill-conceived law, was able to hold up the scheme of reform. Most of the time I was compelled to stand idly by, unable to help. Once I eased my feelings by telling Commissioner Parker in his own office what I thought of him. I went in and shut the door, and then told it all to him. Nor did I mince matters; I might not get so good a chance again. Mr. Parker sat quite still, poking the fire. When I ceased at last, angry and exasperated, he looked up and said calmly:—   17
   “Well, Mr. Riis, what you tell me has at least the merit of frankness.”   18
   You see how it was. I should never have been able to help in the Board. Out of it, my chance came at last when it was deemed necessary to give the adversary “a character.” Mr. Roosevelt had been speaking to the Methodist ministers, and as usual had carried all before him. The community was getting up a temper that would shortly put an end to the deadlock in the Police Board and set the wheels of reform moving again. Then one day we heard that Commissioner Parker had been invited by the Christian Endeavorers of an up-town church to address them on “Christian Citizenship.” That was not consecrated common sense. I went to the convention of Endeavorers the next week and told them so. I asked them to send a despatch to Governor Black then and there endorsing Roosevelt and Mayor Strong, and urging him to end the deadlock that made public scandal by removing Commissioner Parker; and they did. I regret to say that I felt compelled to take a like course with the Methodist ministers, for so I grieved a most good-natured gentleman, Colonel Grant, who was Mr. Parker’s ally in the Board. Grant was what was described as “a great Methodist.” But I feel sure that Brother Simmons would have approved of me. I was following the course he laid down. The one loyal friend Mr. Roosevelt had in the Board was Avery D. Andrews, a strong, sensible, and clean young man, who stood by his chief to the last, and left with him a good mark on the force.   19
   The yellow newspapers fomented most industriously the trouble in the Board, never failing to take the wrong side of any question. One of them set about doling out free soup that winter, when work was slack, as a means, of course, of advertising its own “charity.” Of all forms of indiscriminate almsgiving, that is the most offensive and most worthless, and they knew it, or they would not have sent me a wheedling invitation to come and inspect their “relief work,” offering to have a carriage take me around. I sent word back that I should certainly look into the soup, but that I should go on foot to it. Roosevelt and I made the inspection together. We questioned the tramps in line, and learned from their own lips that they had come from out of town to take it easy in a city where a man did not have to work to live. We followed the pails that were carried away from the “relief station” by children, their contents sometimes to figure afterwards as “free lunch” in the saloon where they had been exchanged for beer; and, knowing the facts, we denounced the thing as a nuisance. The paper printed testimonials from Commissioners Parker and Grant, who certified from Mulberry Street, which they had not left, that the soup was a noble Christian charity, and so thought it evened things up, I suppose. I noticed, however, that the soup ran out soon after, and I hope we have seen the last of it. We can afford to leave that to Philadelphia, where common sense appears to be drowned in it.   20
   I had it out with them at last all together. When I have told of it let the whole wretched thing depart and be gone for good. It was after Roosevelt had gone away. That he was not there was no bar to almost daily attacks on him, under which I chafed, sitting at the meetings as a reporter. I knew right well they were intended to provoke me to an explosion that might have given grounds for annoying me, and I kept my temper until one day, when, the subject of dives being mentioned, Commissioner Parker drawled, with the reporter from the soup journal whispering in his ear:—   21
   “Was not—er-r—that the place where—er-r—Mr. Roosevelt went to see a show with his friend?”   22
   He was careful not to look in my direction, but the reporter did, and I leaped at the challenge. I waited until the Board had formally adjourned, then halted it as Mr. Parker was trying to escape. I do not now remember what I said. It would not make calm reading, I suspect. It was the truth, anyhow, and came pretty near being the whole truth. Mr. Parker fled, putting his head back through the halfclosed door to explain that he “only knew what that reporter told” him. In the security of his room it must have occurred to him, however, that he had another string to his bow; for at the next session Commissioner Grant moved my expulsion because I had “disturbed the Board meeting.” But President Moss reminded him curtly that I had done nothing of the kind, and that ended it.   23
   One of the early and sensational results of reform in Mulberry Street was the retirement of Superintendent Byrnes. There was not one of us all who had known him long who did not regret it, though I, for one, had to own the necessity of it; for Byrnes stood for the old days that were bad. But, chained as he was in the meanness and smallness of it all, he was yet cast in a different mould. Compared with his successor, he was a giant every way. Byrnes was a “big policeman.” We shall not soon have another like him, and that may be both good and bad. He was unscrupulous, he was for Byrnes —he was a policeman, in short, with all the failings of the trade. But he made the detective service great. He chased the thieves to Europe, or gave them license to live in New York on condition that they did not rob there. He was a Czar, with all an autocrat’s irresponsible powers, and he exercised them as he saw fit. If they were not his, he took them anyhow; police service looks to results first. There was that in Byrnes which made me stand up for him in spite of it all. Twice I held Dr. Parkhurst from his throat, but in the end I had to admit that the Doctor was right. I believed that, untrammelled, Byrnes might have been a mighty engine for good, and it was with sorrow I saw him go. He left no one behind him fit to wear his shoes.   24
 
 
Chief of Police Thomas Byrnes.
 
   Byrnes was a born policeman. Those who hated him said he was also a born tyrant. He did ride a high horse when the fit was on him and he thought it served his purpose. So we came into collision in the early days when he was captain in Mercer Street. They had a prisoner over there with a story which I had cause to believe my rivals had obtained. I went to Byrnes and was thundered out of the station-house. There he was boss and it suited him to let me see it. We had not met before. But we met again that night. I went to the Superintendent of Police, who was a Republican, and, applying all the pressure of the Tribune, which I served, got from him an order on Captain Byrnes to let me interview his prisoner. Old Mr. Walling tore his hair; said the thing had never been done before, and it had not. But I got the order and got the interview, though Byrnes, black with rage, commanded a policeman to stand on either side of the prisoner while I talked to him. He himself stood by, glaring at me. It was not a good way to get an interview, and, in fact, the man had nothing to tell. But I had my way and I made the most of it. After that Captain Byrnes and I got along. We got to think a lot of each other after a while.   25
   Perhaps he was a tyrant because he was set over crooks, and crooks are cowards in the presence of authority. His famous “third degree” was chiefly what he no doubt considered a little wholesome “slugging.” He would beat a thief into telling him what he wanted to know. Thieves have no rights a policeman thinks himself bound to respect. But when he had to do with men with minds he had other resources. He tortured his prisoner into confession in the Unger murder case by locking him up out of reach of a human voice, or sight of a human face, in the basement of Police Headquarters, and keeping him there four days, fed by invisible hands. On the fifth he had him brought up through a tortuous way, where the tools he had used in murdering his partner were displayed on the walls as if by accident. Led into the Inspector’s presence by the jailer, he was made to stand while Byrnes finished a letter. Then he turned his piercing glance upon him with a gesture to sit. The murderer sank trembling upon a lounge, the only piece of furniture in the room, and sprang to his feet with a shriek the next instant: it was the one upon which he had slaughtered his friend, all blood-bespattered as then. He sprawled upon the floor, a gibbering, horror-stricken wretch, and confessed his sin.   26
   As in this instance, so in the McGloin murder case, the moral certainty of guilt was absolute, but the legal evidence was lacking. McGloin was a young ruffian who had murdered a saloon-keeper at a midnight raid on his place. He was the fellow who the night before he was hanged invited the Chief of Detectives to “come over to the wake;they’ll have a devil of a time.” For six months Byrnes had tried everything to bring the crime home to him, but in vain. At last he sent out and had McGloin and his two “pals” arrested, but so that none of them knew of the plight of the others. McGloin was taken to Mulberry Street, and orders were given to bring the others in at a certain hour fifteen or twenty minutes apart. Byrnes put McGloin at the window in his office while he questioned him. Nothing could be got out of him. As he sat there a door was banged below. Looking out he saw one of his friends led across the yard in charge of policemen. Byrnes, watching him narrowly, saw his cheek blanch; but still his nerve held. Fifteen minutes passed; another door banged. The murderer, looking out, saw his other pal led in a prisoner. He looked at Byrnes. The Chief nodded:—   27
   “Squealed, both.”   28
   It was a lie, and it cost the man his life. “The jig is up then,” he said, and told the story that brought him to the gallows.   29
   I could not let Byrnes go without a word, for he filled a large space in my life. It is the reporter, I suppose, who sticks out there. The boys called him a great faker, but they were hardly just to him in that. I should rather call him a great actor, and without being that no man can be a great detective. He made life in a mean street picturesque while he was there, and for that something is due him. He was the very opposite of Roosevelt—quite without moral purpose or the comprehension of it, yet with a streak of kindness in him that sometimes put preaching to shame. Mulberry Street swears by him to-day, even as it does, under its breath, by Roosevelt. Decide from that for yourself whether his presence there was for the good or the bad.   30
   In writing “How the Other Half Lives” I had been at great pains not to overstate my case. I knew that it would be questioned, and was anxious that no flaws should be picked in it, for, if there were, harm might easily come of it instead of good. I saw now that in that I had been wise. The Gilder Tenement-House Commission more than confirmed all that I had said about the tenements and the schools. The Reinhardt Committee was even more emphatic on the topic of child labor. I was asked to serve on the Seventy’s sub-committee on Small Parks. In the spring of 1896, the Council of Confederated Good Government Clubs appointed me its general agent, and I held the position for a year, giving all my spare time to the planning and carrying out of such work as it seemed to me ought to make a record for a reform administration. We wanted it to last. That was a great year. They wanted a positive programme, and my notions of good government were nothing if not positive. They began and ended with the people’s life. We tore down unfit tenements, forced the opening of parks and playgrounds, the establishment of a truant school and the remodelling of the whole school system, the demolition of the overcrowded old Tombs and the erection on its site of a decent new prison. We overhauled the civil courts and made them over new in the charter of the Greater New York. We lighted dark halls; closed the “cruller” bakeries in tenement-house cellars that had caused the loss of no end of lives, for the crullers were boiled in fat in the early morning hours while the tenants slept, and when the fat was spilled in the fire their peril was awful. We fought the cable-car managers at home and the opponents of a truant school at Albany. We backed up Roosevelt in his fight in the Police Board, and—well, I shall never get time to tell it all. But it was a great year. That it did not keep the Good Government clubs alive was no fault of my programme. It was mine, I guess. I failed to inspire them with the faith that was in me. I had been going it alone so long that I did not know how to use the new tool that had come to hand. There is nothing like an organization if you know how to use it. I did not. Perhaps, also, politics had something to do with it. They were in for playing the game. I never understood it.   31
   But if I did not make the most of it, I had a good time that year. There were first the two small parks to be laid out over on the East Side, where the Gilder Commission had pointed to the smothering crowds. I had myself made a member of the Citizens’ Committee that was appointed to locate them. It did not take us any nine years or six, or three. We did the business in three weeks, and having chosen the right spots, we went to the Legislature with a bill authorizing the city to seize the property at once, ahead of condemnation, and it was passed. We were afraid that Tammany might come back, and the event proved that we were wise. You bring up the people slowly to a reform programme, particularly when it costs money. They will pay for corruption with a growl, but seem to think that virtue ought always to be had for nothing. It makes the politicians’ game easy. They steal the money for improvements, and predict that reform will raise the tax-rate. When the prophecy comes true, they take the people back in their sheltering embrace with an “I told you so!” and the people nestle there repentant. There was a housing conference at which that part of the work was parcelled out: the building of model tenements to the capitalists who formed the City and Suburban Homes Company; the erection of model lodging-houses to D. O. Mills, the banker philanthropist, who was anxious to help that way. I chose for the Good Government clubs the demolition of the old tenements. It was my chance. I hated them. A law had been made the year before empowering the Health Board to seize and destroy tenementhouse property that was a threat to the city’s health, but it had remained a dead letter. The authorities hesitated to attack property rights, vested rights. Charles G. Wilson, the President of the Board, was a splendid executive, but he was a holdover Tammany appointee, and needed backing.   32
   Now that Theodore Roosevelt sat in the Health Board, fresh from his war on the police lodgingrooms of which I told, they hesitated no longer. I put before the Board a list of the sixteen worst rear tenements in the city outside of the Bend, and while the landlords held their breath in astonishment, they were seized, condemned, and their tenants driven out. The Mott Street Barracks were among them. In 1888 the infant death-rate among the 350 Italians they harbored had been 325 per thousand—that is to say, one-third of all the babies died that year. That was the kind of evidence upon which those rear tenements were arraigned. Ninety-four of them, all told, were seized that year, and in them there had been in four years 956 deaths—a rate of 62.9 when the general city death-rate was 24.63. I shall have once more, and for the last time, to refer to “A Ten Years’ War” for the full story of that campaign. As I said, it was great.   33
 
 
The Mott Street Barracks.
 
   Conceive, if you can, the state of mind of a man to whom a dark, overcrowded tenement had ever been as a personal affront, now suddenly finding himself commissioned with letters of marque and reprisal, as it were, to seize and destroy the enemy wherever found, not one at a time, but by blocks and battalions in the laying out of parks. I fed fat my ancient grudge and grew good humor enough to last me for a dozen years in those two. They were the years when, in spite of hard work, I began to grow stout, and honestly, I think it was tearing down tenements that did it. Directly or indirectly, I had a hand in destroying seven whole blocks of them as I count it up. I wish it had been seventy.   34
   The landlords sued, but the courts sided with the Health Board. When at last we stopped to take breath we had fairly broken the back of the slum and made precedents of our own that would last a while. Mr. Roosevelt was personally sued twice, I think, but that was all the good it did them. We were having our innings that time, and there were a lot of arrears to collect. The city paid for the property that was taken, of course, and more than it ought to have paid, to my way of thinking. The law gave the owner of a tenement that was altogether unfit just the value of the brick and timbers that were in it. It was enough, for “unfit” meant murderous, and why should a man have a better right to kill his neighbor with a house than with an axe in the street? But the lawyers who counselled compromise bought Gotham Court, one of the most hopeless slums in the Fourth Ward, for nearly $20,000. It was not worth so many cents. The Barracks with their awful baby death-rate were found to be mortgaged to a cemetery corporation. The Board of Health gave them the price of opening one grave for their share, and tore down the rear tenements. A year or two later I travelled to Europe on an ocean steamer with the treasurer of that graveyard concern. We were ten days on the way, and I am afraid he did not have altogether a good time of it. The ghost of the Barracks would keep rising out of the deep before us, sitting there in our steamer chairs, from whichever quarter the wind blew. I suppose he took it as a victory when the Court of Appeals decided upon a technicality that the Barracks should not have been destroyed; but so did I, for they were down by that time. The city could afford to pay. We were paying for our own neglect, and it was a good lesson.   35
 
 
Gotham Court.
 
   I have said more than once in these pages that I am not good at figuring, and I am not; a child could do better. For that very reason I am going to claim full credit for every time I do a sum right. It may not happen again. Twice during that spell, curiously enough, did I downright distinguish myself in that line. I shall never be able to tell you how; I only know that I did it. Once was when I went before the Board of Estimate and Apportionment to oppose an increase in the appropriation for the Tombs which the Commissioner of Correction had asked for. His plea was that there had been a large increase in the census of the prison, and he marched up a column of figures to prove it. To the amazement of the Board, and really, if the truth be told, Of myself, I demonstrated clearly from his own figures that not only had there been no increase, but that there could not be without criminally overcrowding the wretched old prison, in which already every cell had two inmates, and some three. The exhibit was so striking that the Commissioner and his bookkeeper retired in confusion. It was just the power of the facts again. I wanted to have the horrid old pile torn down, and had been sitting up nights acquainting myself with all that concerned it. Now it is gone, and a good riddance to it.   36
   The other computation was vastly more involved. It concerned the schools, about which no one knew anything for certain. The annual reports of the Department of Education were models of how to say a thing so that no one by any chance could understand what it was about. It was possible to prove from them that, while there was notoriously a dearth of school accommodation, while children knocked vainly for admission and the Superintendent clamored for more schools, yet there were ten or twenty thousand seats to spare. But it was not possible to get the least notion from them of what the real need was. I tried for many months, and then set about finding out for myself how many months, and then set about finding out for many months, and then set about finding out for myself how many children who ought to be in school were drifting about the streets. The truant officers, professionally discreet, thought about 800. The Superintendent of Schools guessed at 8000. The officers of the Association for the Improvement of the Conditįon of the Poor, with an eye on the tenements, made it 150,000. I canvassed a couple of wards from the truant officers’ reports, and Dr. Tracy compared the showing with the statistics of population. From the result I reasoned that there must be about 50,000. They scorned me at the City Hall for it. It was all guesswork they said, and so it was. We had first to have a school census, and we got one, so that we might know where we were at. But when we had the result of that first census before us, behold! it showed that of 339,756 children of school age in the city, 251,235 were accounted for on the roster of public or private schools, 28,452 were employed, and 50,069 on the street or at home. So that, if I am not smart at figuring, I may reasonably claim to be a good guesser.   37
   The showing that a lack of schools which threw an army of children upon the street went hand in hand with overcrowded jails made us get up and demand that something be done. From the school executive came the helpless suggestion that the thing might be mended by increasing the classes in neighborhoods where there were not enough schools from sixty to seventy-five. Forty or forty-five pupils is held to be the safe limit anywhere. But the time had passed for such pottering. New York pulled itself together and spent millions in building new schools while “the system” was overhauled; we dragged in a truant school by threatening the city authorities with the power of the State unless they ceased to send truants to institutions that received child criminals. But a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still; we shall have to do that all over again next. My pet scheme was to have trained oculists attached to the public schools, partly as a means of overcoming stupidity—half of what passes for that in the children is really the teacher’s; the little ones are near-sighted; they cannot see the blackboard—partly also that they might have an eye on the school buildings and help us get rid of some where they had to burn gas all day. That was upset by the doctors, who were afraid that “private practice would be interfered with.” We had not quite got to the millennium yet. It was so with our bill to establish a farm school to win back young vagrants to a useful life. It was killed at Albany with the challenge that we “had had enough of reform in New York.” And so we had, as the events showed. Tammany came back.   38
   But not to stay. We had secured a hold during those three years which I think they little know of. They talk at the Wigwam of the “school vote,” and mean the men friends and kin of the teachers on whom the machine has a grip, or thinks it has; but there is another school vote that is yet to be heard from, when the generation that has had its right to play restored to it comes to the polls. That was the great gain of that time. It was the thing I had in mind back of and beyond all the rest. I was bound to kill the Bend, because it was bad. I wanted the sunlight in there, but so that it might shine on the children at play. That is a child’s right, and it is not to be cheated of it. And when it is cheated of it, it is not the child but the community that is robbed of that beside which all its wealth is but tinsel and trash. For men, not money, make a country great, and joyless children do not make good men.   39
 
 
A Tenement House Air-shaft.
 
   So when the Legislature, urged by the Tenement House Commission, made it law that no public school should ever again be built in New York without an outdoor playground, it touched the quick. Thereafter it was easy to rescue the small parks from the landscape gardener by laying them under the same rule. It was well we did it, too for he is a dangerous customer, hard to get around. Twice he has tried to steal one of the little parks we laid out, the one that is called Seward Park, from the children, and he “points with pride” almost to the playground in the other, which he laid out so badly that it was a failure from the start. However, we shall convert him yet; everything in its season.   40
   The Board of Education puzzled over its end of it for a while. The law did not say how big the playground should be, and there was no precedent. No, there was not. I found the key to that puzzle, at least one that fitted, when I was Secretary of the Small Parks Committee. It was my last act as agent of the Good Government clubs to persuade Major Strong to appoint that committee. It made short work of its task. We sent for the police to tell us where they had trouble with the boys, and why. It was always the same story: they had no other place to play in than the street, and there they broke windows. So began the trouble. It ended in the police-station and the jail. The city was building new schools by the score. We got a list of the sites, and as we expected, they were where the trouble was worst. Naturally so; that was where the children were. There, then, was our field as a playground committee. Why not kill two birds with one stone, and save money by making them one? By hitching the school and the boys’ play together we should speedily get rid of the truant. He was just there as a protest against the school without play.   41
   We asked the Board of Education to make their school playgrounds the neighborhood recreation centres. So they would not need to worry over how big they should be, but just make them as big as they could, whether on the roof or on the ground. They listened, but found difficulties in “the property.” Odd, isn’t it, this disposition of the world to forever make of the means the end, to glorify the establishment! It was the same story when I asked them to open the schools at night and let in the boys to have their clubs there. The saloon was bidding for them, and bidding high, but the School Board hesitated because a window might be broken or a janitor want extra pay for cleaning up. Before a reluctant consent was given I had to make a kind of promise that I would not appear before the Board again to argue for throwing the doors wider still. But it isn’t going to keep me from putting in the heaviest licks I can, in the campaign that is coming, for turning the schools over to the people bodily, and making of them the neighborhood centre in all things that make for good, including trades-union meetings and political discussions. Only so shall we make of our schools real corner-stones of our liberties. So, also, we shall through neighborhood pride restore some of the neighborhood feeling, the home feeling that is now lacking in our cities to our grievous loss. Half the tenement-house population is always moving, and to the children the word “home” has no meaning. Anything that will help change that will be a great gain. And that old Board is gone long since, anyhow.   42
   The club prevailed in the end. At least one school let it in, and though the boys did break a window-pane that winter with a ball, they paid for it like men, and that ghost was laid. The school playground holds aloof yet from the neighborhood except in the long vacation. But that last is something, and the rest is coming. It could not be coming by any better road than the vacation schools, which are paving the way for common sense everywhere. “Everything takes ten years,” said Abram S. Hewitt, when he took his seat as the chairman of the Small Parks Committee. Ten years before, when he was Mayor, he had put through the law under which the Mulberry Bend had been at last wiped out. We held our meetings at the City Hall, where I had been spurned so often. All things come to those who wait—and fight for them. Yes, fight! I say it advisedly. I have come to the time of life when a man does not lay about him with a club unless he has to. But—eternal vigilance is the price of liberty! To be vigilant is to sit up with a club. We, as a people, have provided in the republic a means of fighting for our rights and getting them, and it is our business to do it. We shall never get them in any other way. Colonel Waring was a wise man as well as a great man. His declaration that he cleaned the streets of New York, all prophecies to the contrary notwithstanding, by “putting a man instead of a voter behind every broom,” deserves to be put on the monument we shall build by and by to that courageous man, for it is the whole gospel of municipal righteousness in a nutshell. But he never said anything better than when he advised his fellow-citizens to fight, not to plead, for their rights. So we grow the kind of citizenship that sets the world, or anyhow our day, ahead. We will all hail the day when we shall be able to lay down the club. But until it comes I do not see that we have any choice but to keep a firm grip on it.   43

Note 1. In Danish: “Jeg er vist skindód.” [ back ]

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