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Crowded Districts of Large Cities

November 17, 1896 — First Convention, National Council of Jewish Women, Tuxedo Hall, New York City


In bringing a report of the crowded districts of great cities to you to-day, I am aware that whatever I could say to impress you would be from the personal experiences and conclusions obtained by some years’ residence in such a quarter of one city only, or the less valuable observations made as visitor and stranger to like districts in other cities. But before we enter into particular descriptions or the ethics of their existence anywhere, I would remind you of the real insight that may be obtained by all, not only of the congested regions of great cities, but of the causes and results of their existence.

Such important education is to be found in the clear reading of official reports, vital statistics, labor reports and annuals, tenement-house reports, police reports, police records, school reports, charity organization and institution year-books — such literature as may be had for the asking, yet is, in many ways, the important social, history-making literature of our times. Then, more interesting, perhaps, are the evidences that may be found in stories and magazine articles, by the residents of social settlements and missions, the thoughts of visiting philosophers, who, eager to know the crowds, have camped for a time in these back-yards of our great cities, and have given the fruit of their meditations to others. There are the deeper works of students of sociology, who have looked upon these crowded districts as human laboratories, coldly, or inspired by a higher than scientific interest, a human one, to know the people, the men and the women, the children and the conditions that make “masses” and “districts” and “East Sides,” have brought their experiences to scholarly consideration. Knowing that these things are, they must next see why, and perhaps have thus furnished what has been likened to the ophthalmoscope, the instrument that made it possible to see into the eye, and thus revealing the disease, gave the physician the opportunity of curing it. Furnished with such an ophthalmoscope, the physician of social wrongs may heal and take from modern civilization its most baneful growth. 

Such reading as this suggests might be called “dry,” mere skeletons of figures to be recognized only by people “interested in that sort of thing,” literature not to be found in any but the specialist’s library. But it is not dry; and even if so, it is a literature that concerns us all, more than any news compiled, and if awaiting readers now, will some day force the attention of the whole world. But read each figure a human being; read that every wretched unlighted tenement described is a home for people, men and women, old and young, with the strength and the weaknesses, the good and the bad, the appetites and wants common to all. Read, in descriptions of sweat-shops, factories, and long-hour work-days, the difficulty, the impossibility of well-ordered living under the conditions outlines. Understanding reading of these things must bring a sense of fairness outraged, the disquieting conviction that something is wrong somewhere, and turning to your own contrasting life you will feel a responsibility of the how and the why and the wherefore. Say to yourself, “If there is a wrong in our midst, what can I do? What is my responsibility? Who is to blame? Do I owe reparation?

All this is a plea for the intelligent reading of the things that pertain to the people of the crowded districts of all cities, that something more may be given to the subject than the few moments in a convention’s program; that the suggestion may be made, and the thought carried home that more carefully-prepared witnesses are yours to be called up at all times and for the asking. 

Agreeing that a common condition must be produced by a common cause, in order to understand its life anywhere, we need only confine ourselves to a study of the crowded district that is familiar to the witness you have called up to-day. As it is a crowded district of our metropolis, it belongs to all the country, and therefore is yours. It presents, only in a greater degree due to an unfortunate geographical condition, the state of people anywhere who are poor, and unlearned, and clannish, and strange. Though a sweeping classification is an easy way of tabulating, it is unjust to say of our neighbors, the greater number of whom are Russian or Polish Jews, that they are the least clean, the most unlovely and ungrateful, and terms put more harshly. This is a generalization to be denied, excepting to put out that an equal degree of ignorance and an equal depth of poverty will create the same conditions of filth and unattractiveness, whether found among Russians, Italians, or Irish. It is more often a cause of astonishment to us to find polished brass and scrubbed floors under difficult circumstances than to find inexcusable uncleanliness; and the lessons of patience and affection and courtesy are constantly presented to us by them.

Let us take for definite allusion three wards of New York, those in my immediate neighborhood, the seventh, tenth, and eleventh, populated, according to the last census, by 190,388 people, covering 504 acres — something over 377 people to each acre — including in these figures, however, one division of 32 acres, — Second, Columbia, Rivington, and Clinton Streets (between Avenues B and D south of Second Street) — with 986.4 persons to every acre of the 32, representing the most crowded community on the face of the earth. 

Now, I do not know what these figures may bring up to your vision; to one who has seen the portion of the city referred to, in summer and winter, by day and by night, they bring up a dark picture of this small part of an English-speaking city, peopled by nearly 200,000, the greater number of whom speak an unknown tongue; foreigners with foreign standards of living, often having been forced to leave their homes; coming here with the inheritances of mistrust and a low standard of living; coming, though, with high hopes of a new start, in a country where education is possible to all, where the poorest may be respected, and where democracy sways; coming here likewise with lower aspirations, or no aspiration at all; brought here in the expectation of profiting by the wealth and generosity of the country, without a thought of contributing to it. These parasites are a small number in the very large tenement-house population of New York, which is eight-fifteenths of the whole.

If to dwell upon the newly-arrived would divert our discussion to that of the restriction of emigration, let us rather consider what those who are here already actually experience: what opportunities the children of the poorly-paid and unskilled laborers have; what effect it may have upon the circulation of the body politic, to infuse into its arteries the life-current of people who live day after day under conditions disadvantageous to growth, civic, physical and moral. 

The crowding you may realize; the language of the street is a jargon; the signs over the places of business are frequently in Hebrew with misspelled English translations, occasionally furnishing grim humor to the foreigner, for here you are the foreigner yourself, in your own home. Your eye is met by such business notices as: “Marriages legally performed inside,” and a competitor offers to perform the same service cheaper than any one else, and in most approved style; and by the hand-organ, with or without a monkey — the greatest delight of the street — and the prettiest dancing of the prettiest, most neglected looking children that can be seen anywhere. The houses are dilapidated, filth-infected, and dark: old houses, once the homes of the wealthy and fastidious, converted to present uses by a process of decay, and maintained at the smallest expense possible to bring the largest returns possible; rear tenements, built upon what was left of the city lots of front houses; houses facing the street, utilizing the space that was once a garden; tall new tenements built upon single city lots 25 x 100 feet, with four families to a floor, each single lot tenanted by twenty to twenty-four different families; with saloon and one store generally in the basement. This variety of tenement-house, the familiar “double-decker,” occupying 86 to 90 percent of the lot’s depth, is in many ways worse than the old remodeled residence, its airshafts and basement furnishing contaminated air and frequent fires to its 100 to 150 inhabitants. The houses are not fireproof, though provided with fire escapes; and the almost constant use of kerosene, the darkness, the many children, the occupations in the houses, are causes of frequent fires. The fire department records show that in this third of the population of New York, the fires are more than one-half the whole number, and deaths and accidents are very frequent.

There are two so-called “model tenements” in the region we are describing, and in one part of this area, several houses occupied by single families, and at least two streets wide and favorably situated; but there are blocks almost entirely covered by buildings, one (brought up before the Tenement-Houses Commission of 1894) covering 93 percent of the total area, and a total area of thirty-four blocks showing 78 percent built upon.

The very small space between the houses, sometimes only 18 inches, is utilized for the drying of clothes and as a receptacle for refuse of all kinds. The narrow street-space is a jostling, shoving, pushcart market for the selling of over-ripe fruit, fish, vegetables, etc. The halls of the houses are so dark that groping is the method of movement in them, and the little girl described hers when she lost something and said: “Oh! I’ll find it at night when the gas is lighted.”

The nurses never overcome the fear of trampling on the children in the hall or on the street, a sound warning them when to tread carefully, or sometimes out of the darkness a tiny hand on the railing shocking suddenly with the sense of accident averted. It is not uncommon to go in daytime into the closet-room with candle in hand, in order to be able to see the patient at all. Nor is it uncommon to go at night and see ten or eleven people occupying two small rooms — people who have been working all day, freed for the night’s rest, stretched on the floor, one next to the other, dividing the pillows, different sexes, not always the same family, for there are “boarders,” who pay a small sum for shelter, among their own, the family glad of the hlep toward paying the rent. The price of rooms in the most wretched basement in the rear tenements is so high in comparison with the wage earned that it is for those who have employment based on something like regular income about one-fourth of the whole. But it must be remembered that few trades give employment all the year round. We hear more often than any other plaint that of the uncertainty of having a roof: the failure comes so often, and with it the “dispossess paper,” that the sight of the household effects on the sidewalk following its presentment is too common to collect a crowd, where crowds collect quickly.

During the hot months of July and August is the time to observe a crowded district at its worst. The vermin and the heat drive the people to the streets, which are crowded with these unfortunates the greater part of the night. Mothers sit on the curbstone with nursing babies, and the cool of the door-stone is coveted for a pillow, or the refreshment of sleep on the roof or in the courts between the houses is sought, unless, indeed, the odors of the closets there are worse than the vermin or the heat within. 

On the other hand, within these tenements are sometimes found the most scrupulously kept rooms; plants by the windows, happiness, and a real home; courtesy, devotion, and charity, such as one may seek for among the elect of the earth, and reverence; sufficient evidence of the original nobility of character, which can remain high despite all discouragements. 

But the more frequent picture is that of the overcrowded rooms, denying the privacy and sacredness of home-life. Outside the house there is almost no park or playground for the children — nothing but the sidewalks and streets. Games for the boys are of necessity reduced to “leap-frog,” “craps,” or tossing pennies.

School-time comes, and the population increases so rapidly that, with the best intentions, it seems impossible to provide place, with a less keen sense of responsibility, the worst occurs. An unlettered, indifferent parent, exhorted and then informed that education is compulsory, finally does exert himself to claim the place for his children in the school, to learn that compulsory education acts and truant officers are superfluous matters, since there is no place in the school for his children. There is considerable discrepancy in the figures giving the number of children out of school at present. To avoid inaccuracy, I will only state that there are many thousands — 400 in one school alone of the region I am making special reference to to-day.

The law says that the child must be in school until fourteen, that he or she may not be employed under that age; and as nothing more than the parent’s testimony is required to give the child to the shops, the temptation to perjury is apparent.

We now come to the sweat-shops, labor in which is the principal occupation of our neighbors. Where a “union” has been established and is strong, the work-day may be ten hours; where the trade is unorganized (and that is more likely to be among the unskilled, therefore the poor, therefore the least educated) the work-day is more often fourteen hours. Have you heard of the diseases most prevalent among people who work in contaminated air, and then go home to sleep under the same conditions? In the Nurses’ Settlement consumption is spoken of as the “tailors’ disease.”

Have you watched the drive, drive, drive of men and women at the machines, over cigar or cigarette making? Have you peeped down into the cellars, and seen the rags sorted, the shirts made, the washing done, shoes cobbled, cheese and bread made? Have you watched the making of the collars, passementerie, clothing, cloaks and artificial flowers, the curling of feathers, the streaming of hats, the manufacture of neckties and boxes, the production of the whole long list of necessaries and luxuries for other people? Have you watched where the workers were laboring under the indifference or absenteeism of the employer? — working, working, working, until the pain in watching the ceaseless strain becomes unendurable, and you cry out against the inhumanity of it all? Cry out because you can see how impossible it is for these men and women to have the leisure or the strength to rear their children into stalwart men and women, into citizens with intelligent reasoning of how to govern themselves or to choose their governors. 

I bring up again for the thousandth time in excuse for uncleanliness or a low standard of social or moral ethics, when such exist, no education, crowded, dark rooms for a home, no time or opportunities for proper cleanliness, no opportunities for healthful pleasures; grinding work and small pay; no work, and then the necessaries of life a gift. “Charity covers a multitude of sins,” but does not wipe them out. Anxiety lest ends might not meet excludes even conversation in the home. All negatives are shifts to make ends meet; laws are evaded, breeding a contempt for law and order. Finally, there is the dumb discontent provoked into loud resentment; the district of class, creating leaders of their own who know what they have not, who can comprehend what they want. There can be no denial that the poor are poorer, than what is called “class feeling” has been intensified. This last election made many people see for the first time that there was what one side called revolt, that a “campaign of education” seemed necessary to save our institutions. 

I am fully conscious of not bringing you a complete picture of even the small section of one city; there is too much to be said. Many dark pictures have been omitted. There has been no reference to the peddlers who have no trade, only the instinct of trade, many of whom, however are skilled workmen with no demand for their skill, obliged in dull seasons to do anything, and that means a basket, a box, or a push-cart, with some small outlay for stock; not that the occupation is desirable, but because that is all that is left, and work in the busy season has not paid enough to carry the family over. 

Also should I like to dwell upon the affection and sobriety of our neighbors; the gratitude for courtesies, and the response to efforts for education among the children; the honest return of money loaned to them; the eagerness to show their patriotism, as instanced when the Russian brought his violin to show us how well he had learned “our” national air, and forth played “After the ball is over” — he had come here three years ago, when that seemed the song of America — and the pride in having attained citizenship, when they do, framing and hanging the official testimony on the wall, thought he vaccination certificate has been thus honored also.

I would not be reporting the crowded district of any city unless the many philanthropic efforts for relief of actual physical suffering were brought up. So numerous are those efforts in this city that it would appear as if no thought or plan of charity had been omitted, until the wise administration of charity and the study of the people who prefer to receive gratuitously instead of to work, has become a profession. We see them from our East Side point of view the charities in operation, and their results, good or bad — good, if they are educational in any way (but this is a subject distinct in itself). You have not more than a suggestion of the features of life in a neighborhood. This avails nothing, however, if you do not seek for confirmation and elaboration of these suggestions; realize with me that a crowded district in its entirely is too great for single handling, too serious for dismissal in an afternoon paper.

I might appeal to your self-interests to recognize the close relationships between the crowded districts of great cities and the more fortunate regions; might prove that the danger of infected and unsanitary tenements are your direct affairs; tell of the things made in rooms where infectious diseases were or had been; — evidences of the dying consumptive working at cigarettes; of the filthy basement where the sick girl lay, and where candy was being made; of the felt slippers sewed in the room where scarlet-fever and diphtheria were; or of the servant-girl coming home to visit in similar circumstances and returning to the baby.

There is a higher juster appeal that your own sins of responsibility will make to you. If the homes are poor, build others; not as charities, but as investments, satisfied with a four per cent return, in planning which have the comfort and education of the tenants in view. The testimony of people here and elsewhere who have had practical experience proves that such investments pay in every way, and that almost all have given a satisfactory return upon the investment of money. Time and education, both of which are slow, are required to alter many things; but you can begin it for others and yourselves. You can help the labor difficulty by comprehending what a fair condition of labor is. If you have no “consumers’ league” to receive your pledge, pledge its principles to yourself. If there is a strike, try to discover both sides of the question, not only the one vulgarly holding your butter, but the other’s grievance also; not rejoicing in the workingman’s failure without understanding (if that is possible) what was behind the discontent. Be fair enough to help that workingman in his way, if you can see that his way is right. Listen to the cries that come from crowded districts. Their people are patient, and are not demanding overmuch. The respectable workingman, the father of the children, is wanting work, and when he does work, sufficient pay for it, to be sure of a roof and life-sustaining food and some leisure, to know a world that is not only working and eating and sleeping. Don’t you see how the lack of that must bring the begging letter, at first the shame-faced appeal for help that has not been earned, and then the indifference, and then the going-down and all the things debasing to manhood? It is work and sufficient pay for it that is the just demand. Last week a woman asked for some aid, and a few days later wrote that she would not require any, as God had sent her husband two days’ work.

Do all that you can to make public sentiment for fair play in work and pay. Carry the thought of the workers with you when you are shopping. If the cry from the crowded district is for food, you will give that; but in relieving, give wisely and adequately, and see if the cause of that cry can be removed.

Last of all, you would be helping the labor and the unemployed question by making domestic service desirable, recognizing the need here also of stated hours, freedom, and occasional privacy. There is often as great a distance between drawing-room and kitchen as between up-town and down-town.

Let me retire as witness now and ending, bring Phillips Brooks’ voice back to you for inspiration and right understanding of our mutual obligations; The universal blunder of this world is in thinking that there are certain persons put into the world to govern, and certain others to obey. Everyone is in this world to govern, and everybody to obey. Men are coming to see that beyond and above this individualism there is something higher — Mutualism. Don’t you see that in this Mutualism the world becomes an entirely different thing? Men’s dreams are after the perfect world of Mutualism; men will think of it in the midst of the deepest subjection to the false conditions under which they are now living. This is new life, where service is universal law.



Source: Proceedings of the First Convention of the National Council of Jewish Women, Held at New York, Nov. 15, 16, 17, 18 and 19, 1896  (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1897), pp. 258-268.