A MAN stood at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Fourteenth Street the other day, looking gloomily at the carriages that rolled by, carrying the wealth and fashion of the avenues to and from the big stores down town. He was poor, and hungry, and ragged. This thought was in his mind: "They behind their well-fed teams have no thought for the morrow; they know hunger only by name, and ride down to spend in an hours shopping what would keep me and my little ones from want a whole year." There rose up before him the picture of those little ones crying for bread around the cold and cheerless hearth--then he sprang into the throng and slashed about him with a knife, blindly seeking to kill, to revenge. The man
|was arrested, of course, and locked up. Today he is probably in a mad-house, forgotten. And the carriages roll by to and from the big stores with their gay throng of shoppers. The world forgets easily, too easily, what it does not like to remember.
Nevertheless the man and his knife had a mission.
They spoke in their ignorant, impatient way
the warning one of the most conservative, dispassionate
of public bodies had sounded only a little while before: "Our only fear is that reform
may come in a burst of public indignation destructive
to property and to good morals."  They represented one solution of the problem of ignorant
poverty versus ignorant wealth
that has come down to us unsolved, the danger-cry
of which we have lately heard in the shout that never
should have been raised on American soil--the shout
of ''the masses against the classes"--the solution
There is another solution, that of justice. The choice
is between the two. Which shall it be?
"Well!" say some well-meaning people; "we
don't see the need of putting it in that way. We have
been down among the tenements, looked them over. There
are a good many people there; they are not comfortable,
perhaps. What would you have? They are poor. And their
houses are not such hovels as we have seen and read
of in the slums of the Old World. They are decent
in comparison. Why, some of them have brown-stone
fronts. You will own at least that they make a decent
Yes! that is true. The worst tenements in New York
do not, as a rule, look bad. Neither
Hell's Kitchen, nor Murderers' Row bears its true
character stamped on the front. They are not quite
old enough, perhaps. The same is true of their tenants.
The New York tough may be ready to kill where his
London brother would do little more than scowl; yet,
as a general thing he is less repulsively brutal in
looks. Here again the reason may be the same: the
breed is not so old. A few generations more in the
slums, and all that will be changed. To get at the
pregnant facts of tenement-house life one must look
beneath the surface. Many an apple has a fair skin
and a rotten core. There is a much better argument
for the tenements in the assurance of the Registrar
of Vital Statistics that the death-rate of these houses
has of late been brought below the general death-rate
of the city, and that it is lowest in the biggest
houses. This means two things: one, that the almost
exclusive attention given to the tenements by the
sanitary authorities in twenty years has borne some
fruit, and that the newer tenements are better than
the old--there is some hope in that; the other, that
the whole strain of tenement-house dwellers has been
bred down to the conditions under which it exists,
that the struggle with corruption has begotten the
power to resist it. This is a familiar law of nature,
necessary to its first and strongest impulse of self-preservation.
To a certain extent, we are all creatures of the conditions
that surround us, physically and morally. But is the
knowledge reassuring? In the light of what we have
seen, does not the question arise: what sort of creature,
then, this of the tenement? I tried to draw his likeness
from observation in telling the story of the "tough."
Has it nothing to suggest the man with the knife?
I will go further. I am not willing even to admit
it to be an unqualified advantage that our New York
tenements have less of the slum look than those of
older cities. It helps to delay the recognition of
their true character on the part of the well-meaning,
but uninstructed, who are always in the majority.
The "dangerous classes" of New York long
ago compelled recognition. They are dangerous less
because of their own crimes than because of the criminal
ignorance of those who are not of their kind. The
danger to society comes not from the poverty of the
tenements, but from the ill-spent wealth that reared
them, that it might earn a usurious interest from
a class from which "nothing else was expected."
That was the broad foundation laid down, and the edifice
built upon it corresponds to the groundwork. That
this is well understood on the "unsafe"
side of the line that separates the rich from the
poor, much better than w those who have all the advantages
of discriminating education, is good cause for disquietude.
In it a keen foresight may again dimly discern the
shadow of the man with the knife.
Two years ago a great meeting was held at Chickening
Hall--I have spoken of it before--a meeting that discussed
for days and nights the question how to banish this
spectre; how to lay hold with good influences of this
enormous mass of more than a million people, who were
drifting away faster and faster from the safe moorings
of the old faith. Clergymen and laymen from all the
Protestant denominations took part in the discussion;
nor was a good word forgotten for the brethren of
the other great Christian fold who labor among the
poor. Much was said that was good and true, and ways
were found of reaching the spiritual needs of the
tenement population that promise success. But
at no time throughout the conference was the
real key-note of the situation so boldly struck
as has been done by a few far-seeing business
men, who had listened to the cry of that Christian
builder: "How shall the love of God be
understood by those who have been nurtured in
sight only of the greed of man?" Their
practical programme of "Philanthropy and
five per cent." has set examples in tenement
building that show, though they are yet few
and scattered, what
|| may in time be accomplished
even with such poor opportunities as New York
offers to-day of undoing the old wrong. This
is the gospel of justice, the solution that
must be sought as the one alternative to the
man with the knife.
"Are you not looking too much to the material
condition of these people," said a good
minister to me after a lecture in a Harlem church
last winter, "and forgetting the inner
man?" I told him, "No! for you cannot
expect to find an inner man to appeal to in
the worst tenement-house surroundings. You must
first put the man where he can respect himself.
To reverse the argument of the apple: you cannot
expect to find a sound core in a rotten fruit."
|Go to Chapter
| Forty-fourth Annual Report
of the Association for Improving the Condition of
the Poor. 1887.