Making A Way Out of the Slum by Jacob A. Riis
One stormy night in the winter of 1882, going across from my office
to the Police Headquarters of New York City, I nearly stumbled over an
odd couple that crouched on the steps. As the man shifted his seat to
make way for me, the light from the green lamp fell on his face, and I
knew it as one that had haunted the police office for days with a mute
appeal for help. Sometimes a woman was with him. They were Russian
Jews, poor immigrants. No one understood or heeded them. Elbowed out of
the crowd, they had taken refuge on the steps, where they sat silently
watchful of the life that moved about them, but beyond a swift, keen
scrutiny of all who came and went, having no share in it.
That night I heard their story. Between what little German they knew
and such scraps of their harsh jargon as I had picked up, I found out
that they were seeking their lost childlittle Yette, who had strayed
away from the Essex Street tenement and disappeared as utterly as if
the earth had swallowed her up. Indeed, I often thought of that in the
weeks and months of weary search that followed. For there was
absolutely no trace to be found of the child, though the tardy police
machinery was set in motion and worked to the uttermost. It was not
until two years later, when we had long given up the quest, that little
Yette was found by the merest accident in the turning over of the
affairs of an orphan asylum. Some one had picked her up in the street
and brought her in. She could not tell her name, and, with one given to
her there, and garbed in the uniform of the place, she was so
effectually lost in the crowd that the police alarm failed to identify
her. In fact, her people had no little trouble in proving property,
and but for the mother love that had refused to part with a little
gingham slip her lost baby had worn, it might have proved impossible.
It was the mate of the one which Yette had on when she was brought into
the asylum, and which they had kept there. So the child was restored,
and her humble home made happy.
That was my first meeting with the Russian Jew. In after years my
path crossed his often. I saw him herded with his fellows like cattle
in the poorest tenements, slaving sullenly in the sweat-shop, or rising
in anger against his tyrant in strikes that meant starvation as the
price of his vengeance. And always I had a sense of groping in the
memories of the past for a lost key to something. The other day I met
him once more. It was at sunset, upon a country road in southern New
Jersey. I was returning with Superintendent Sabsovich from an
inspection of the Jewish colonies in that region. The cattle were
lowing in the fields. The evening breathed peace. Down the sandy road
came a creaking farm wagon loaded with cedar posts for a vineyard hard
by. Beside it walked a sunburned, bearded man with an axe on his
shoulder, in earnest conversation with his boy, a strapping young
fellow in overalls. The man walked as one who is tired after a hard
day's work, but his back was straight and he held his head high. He
greeted us with a frank nod, as one who meets an equal.
The superintendent looked after him with a smile. To me there came
suddenly the vision of the couple under the lamp, friendless and
shrinking, waiting for a hearing, always waiting; and, as in a flash, I
understood. I had found the key. The farmer there had it. It was the
Jew who had found himself.
It is eighteen years since the first of the south Jersey colonies
was started. There had been a sudden, unprecedented immigration of
refugees from Russia, where Jew-baiting was then the orthodox pastime.
They lay in heaps in Castle Garden, helpless and penniless, and their
people in New York feared prescriptive measures. What to do with them
became a burning question. To turn those starving multitudes loose on
the labor market of the metropolis would make trouble of the gravest
kind. The alternative of putting them back on the land, and so of
making producers of them, suggested itself to the Emigrant Aid Society.
Land was offered cheap in south Jersey, and the experiment was made
with some hundreds of families.
[Footnote 4: This was written in 1900.]
It was well meant; but the projectors experienced the not unfamiliar
fact that cheap land is sometimes very dear land. They learned, too,
that you cannot make farmers in a day out of men who have been denied
access to the soil for generations. That was the set purpose of Russia,
and the legacy of feudalism in western Europe, which of necessity made
the Jew a trader, a town dweller. With such a history, a man is not
logically a pioneer. The soil of south Jersey is sandy, has to be
coaxed into bearing paying crops. The colonists had not the patient
skill needed for the task. Neither had they the means. Above all, they
lacked the market where to dispose of their crops when once raised.
Discouragements beset them. Debts threatened to engulf them. The
trustees of the Baron de Hirsch Fund, entering the field eleven years
later, in 1891, found of three hundred families only two-thirds
remaining on their farms. In 1897, when they went to their relief,
there were seventy-six families left. The rest had gone back to the
city and to the Ghetto. So far, the experiment had failed.
The Hirsch Fund people had been watching it attentively. They were
not discouraged. In the midst of the outcry that the Jew could not be
made a farmer, they settled a tract of unbroken land in the northwest
part of Cape May County, within easy reach of the older colonies. They
called their settlement Woodbine. Taught by the experience of the older
colonists, they brought their market with them. They persuaded several
manufacturing firms to remove their plants from the city to Woodbine,
agreeing to furnish their employees with homes. Thus an industrial
community was created to absorb the farmer's surplus products. The
means they had in abundance in the large revenues of Baron de Hirsch's
princely charity, which for all purposes amounts to over $6,000,000.
There was still lacking necessary skill at husbandry, and this they set
about supplying without long delay. In the second year of the colony, a
barn built for horses was turned into a lecture-hall for the young men,
and became the nucleus of the Hirsch Agricultural School, which to-day
has nearly a hundred pupils. Woodbine, for which the site was cleared
half a dozen years before in woods so dense that the children had to be
corralled and kept under guard lest they should be lost, was a thriving
community by the time the crisis came in the affairs of the older
The settlers were threatened with eviction. The Jewish Colonization
Association, upon the recommendation of the Hirsch Fund trustees, and
with their coöperation, came to their rescue. It paid off the mortgages
under which they groaned, brought out factories, and turned the tide
that was setting back toward the cities. The carpenter's hammer was
heard again, after years of silence and decay, in Rosenhayn, Alliance,
and Carmel. They built new houses there. Nearly $500,000 invested in
the villages was paying a healthy interest, where before general ruin
was impending. As for Woodbine, Jewish industry had raised the town
taxes upon its 5300 acres of land from $72 to $1800, and only the slow
country ways kept it from becoming the county-seat, as it is already
the county's centre of industrial and mental activity.
It was to see for myself what the movement of which this is the
brief historical outline was like that I had gone down from
Philadelphia to Woodbine, some twenty-five miles from Atlantic City. I
saw a straggling village, hedged in by stunted woods, with many freshly
painted frame-houses lining broad streets, some of them with gardens
around in which jonquil and spiderwort were growing, and the peach and
gooseberry budding into leaf; some of them standing in dreary, unfenced
wastes, in which the clay was trodden hard between the stumps of last
year's felling. In these lived the latest graduates from the slum. I
had just come from the clothing factory hard by the depot, in which a
hundred of them or more were at work, and had compared the bright,
clean rooms with the traditional sweat-shop of the city, wholly to the
disadvantage of the latter. I had noticed the absence of the sullen
looks that used to oppress me. Now as I walked along, stopping to chat
with the women in the houses, it interested me to class the settlers as
those of the first, the second, and the third year's stay and beyond.
The signs were unmistakable. The first year was, apparently, taken up
in contemplation of the house. The lot had no possibilities. In the
second, it was dug up. A few potato-vines were planted, perhaps a peach
tree. There were the preliminary signs of a fence. In the third, under
the stimulus of a price offered by the management, a garden was
evolved, with, necessarily, a fence. At this point the potato became
suddenly an element. It had fed the family the winter before without
other outlay than a little scratching of the ground. Its possibilities
loomed large. The garden became a farm on a small scale. Its owner
applied for more land and got it. That was the very purpose of the
A woman, with a strong face and shrewd, brown eyes, rose from an
onion bed she had been weeding to open the gate.
Come in, she said, and be welcome. Upon a wall of the best room
hung a picture of Michael Bakounine, the nihilist. I found it in these
colonies everywhere side by side with Washington's, Lincoln's, and
Baron de Hirsch's. Mrs. Breslow and her husband left home for cause. He
was a carpenter. Nine months they starved in a Forsyth Street tenement,
paying $15 a month for three rooms. This cottage is their own. They
have paid for it ($800) since they came out with the first settlers.
The lot was given to them, but they bought the adjoining one to raise
Gott sei dank, says the woman, with shining eyes, we owe
nothing and pay no rent, and are never more hungry.
Down the street a little way is the cottage of one who received the
first prize for her garden last year. Fragrant box hedges in the plot.
A cow with crumpled horn stands munching corncobs at the barn. Four
hens are sitting in as many barrels, eying the stranger with
half-anxious, half-hostile looks. A topknot, tied by the leg to the
fence, struggles madly to escape. The children bring dandelions and
clover to soothe its captivity.
The shadows lengthen. The shop gives up its workers. There is no
overtime here. A ten-hour day rules. Families gather upon porchesthe
mother with the sleeping babe at her breast, the grandfather smoking a
peaceful pipe, while father and the boys take a turn tending the
garden. Theirs is not paradise. It is a little world full of hard work,
but a world in which the work has ceased to be a curse. Ludlow Street,
with its sweltering tenements, is but a few hours' journey away. For
these, at all events, the problem of life has been solved.
Strolling over the outlying farms, we came to one with every mark of
thrift and prosperity about it. The vineyard was pruned and trimmed,
the fields ready for their crops, the outbuildings well kept, and the
woodpile stout and trim. A girl with a long braid of black hair came
from the house to greet us. An hour before, I had seen her sewing on
buttons in the factory. She recognized me, and looked questioningly at
the superintendent. When he spoke my name, she held out her hand with
frank dignity, and bade me welcome on her father's farm. He was a
clothing-cutter in New York, explained my guide as we went our way, but
tired of the business and moved out upon the land. His thirty-acre farm
is to-day one of the finest in that neighborhood. The man is on the
road to substantial wealth.
Labor or lumberboth, perhapsmust be cheaper even than land in
south Jersey. This five-room cottage, one of half a hundred such, was
sold to the tenant for $500; the Hirsch Fund taking a first mortgage of
$300, the manufacturer, or the occupant, if able, paying the rest The
mortgage is paid off in monthly instalments of $3.75. Even if he had
not a cent to start with, by paying less than one-half the rent for the
Forsyth Street flat of three cramped rooms, dark and stuffy, the tenant
becomes the absolute owner of his home in a little over eight years. I
looked in upon a score of them. The rooms were large by comparison, and
airy; oil-painted, clean. The hopeless disorder, the discouragement of
the slum, were nowhere. The children were stout and rosy. They played
under the trees, safe from the shop till the school gives up its claim
to them. Superintendent Sabsovich sees to it that it is not too early.
He is himself a school trustee, elected after a fight on the Woodbine
ticket, which gave notice to the farmers of the town that the aliens
of that settlement are getting naturalized to the point of demanding
their rights. The opposition retaliated by nicknaming the leader of the
victorious faction the Czar of Woodbine. He in turn invited them to
hear the lectures at the Agricultural School. His text went home.
The American is wasteful of food, energiesof everything, he
said. We teach here that farming can be made to pay by saving
expenses. They knew it to be true. The Woodbine farm products, its
flowers and chickens, took the prizes at the county fair. Yet in
practice they did not compete. The Woodbine milk was dearer than the
neighboring farmers'. If in spite of that it was preferred because it
was better, that was their lookout. The rest must come up to it then.
So with the output of the hennery, the apiary, the blacksmith-shop in
the place. On that plan Woodbine has won the respect of the
neighborhood. The good-will will follow, says its Czar, confidently.
He, too, was a nihilist, who dreamed with the young of his people
for a better day. He has lived to see it dawn on a far-away shore.
Concerning his task, he has no illusions. There is no higher education,
no frills, at Woodbine. Its scheme is intensely practical. It is to
make, if possible, a Jewish yeomanry fit to take their place with the
native tillers of the soil, as good citizens as they. With that end in
view, everything is for present purposes, with an eye on the future.
The lad is taught dairying with scientific precision, because on that
road lies the profit in keeping cows. He is taught the commercial value
of extreme cleanliness in handling milk and making butter. He learns
the management of the poultry-yard, of bees, of pigeons, and of field
crops. He works in the nursery, the greenhouse, and the
blacksmith-shop. If he does not get to know the blacksmith's trade, he
learns how to mend a broken farm wagon and save expense. So he shall
be able to make farming pay, to keep his grip on the land. His native
shrewdness will teach him the rest.
The vineyards were budding, and the robins sang joyously as we drove
over the twenty-four-mile stretch through the colonies of Carmel,
Rosenhayn, Alliance, and Brotmansville. Everywhere there were signs of
reawakened thrift. Fields and gardens were being got ready for their
crops; fence-corners were being cleaned, roofs repaired, and houses
painted. In Rosenhayn they were building half a dozen new houses. A
clothing factory there that employs seventy hands brought out
twenty-four families from New York and Philadelphia, for whom shelter
had to be found. Some distance beyond the village we halted to inspect
the forty-acre farm of a Jew who some years ago kept a street stand in
Philadelphia. He bought the land and went back to his stand to earn the
money with which to run it. In three years he moved his family out.
I couldn't raise the children in the city, he explained. A son and
two daughters now run the adjoining farm. Two boys were helping him
look after a berry patch that alone would make expenses this year.
The wife minded the seven cows. The farm is free and clear save for
$400 lent by the Hirsch people to pay off an onerous mortgage. Some
comment was made upon the light soil. The farmer pointed significantly
to the barnyard.
I make him good, he said. Across the road was a large house with a
pretentious dooryard and evergreen hedges. A Gentile farmer with many
acres lived in it. The lean fields promised but poor crops. The
neighborhood knew that he never paid anything on his mortgage; claimed,
in fact, that he could not.
Ah! said Mr. Sabsovich, emerging from a wrangle with his client
about matters agricultural, he has not learned to 'make him good.'
Come over to the school, and I will show you stock. You can't afford to
keep poor cows. They cost too much.
The other shook his head energetically. Them's the seven finest
cows in the country, he yelled after us as we started. The
superintendent laughed a little.
You see what they arestubborn; will have their way in an
argument. But that fellow will be over to Woodbine before the week is
out, to see what he can learn. He is not going to let me crow if he can
help it. Not to be driven, they can be led, though it is not always
easy. Suspicious, hard at driving a bargain as the Russian Jew is, I
sometimes think I can see his better nature coming out already.
As we drove along, I thought so, too, more than once. From every
farm and byway came men to have a word with the superintendent. For me
they had a sidelong look, and a question, put in Hebrew. To the answer
they often shook their heads, demanding another. After such a
conference, I asked what it was about.
You, said Mr. Sabsovich. They are asking, 'Who is he?' I tell
them that you are not a Jew. This is the answer they give: 'I don't
care if he is a Jew. Is he a good man?'
Over the supper table that night, I caught the burning eyes of a
young nihilist fixed upon me with a look I have not yet got over. I had
been telling of my affection for the Princess Dagmar, whom I knew at
Copenhagen in my youth. I meant it as something we had in common; she
became Empress of Russia in after years. I forgot that it was by virtue
of marrying Alexander III. I heard afterward that he protested
vehemently that I could not possibly be a good man. Well for me I did
not tell him my opinion of the Czar himself! It was gleaned from
Copenhagen, where they thought him the prince of good fellows.
At Carmel I found the hands in the clothing factory making from $10
to $13 a week at human hours, and the population growing. Forty
families had come from Philadelphia, where the authorities were helping
the colonies by rigidly enforcing the sweat-shop ordinances. Inquiries
I made as to the relative cost of living in the city and in the country
brought out the following facts: A contractor with a family of eight
paid shop rent in Sheriff Street, New York, $20 per month; for four
rooms in a Monroe Street tenement, $15; household expenses, $60. Here
he pays shop rent (whole house), $6; dwelling on farm, $4; household,
$35. This family enjoys greater comfort in the country for $50 a month
less. A working family of eight paid $11 for three rooms in an Essex
Street tenement, $35 for the household; here the rent is $5, and the
household expenses $24better living for $17 less a month.
Near the village a Jewish farmer who had tracked us from one of the
other villages caught up with us to put before Mr. Sabsovich his
request for more land. We halted to debate it in the road beside a
seven-acre farm worked by a Lithuanian brickmaker. The old man in his
peaked cap and sheepskin jacket was hoeing in the back lot. His wife,
crippled and half blind, sat in the sunshine with a smile upon her
wrinkled face, and listened to the birds. They came down together, when
they heard our voices, to say that four of the seven acres were worked
up. The other three would come. They had plenty, and were happy. Only
their boy, who should help, was gone.
It was the one note of disappointment I heard: the boys would not
stay on the farm. To the aged it gave a new purpose, new zest in life.
There was a place for them, whereas the tenement had none. The young
could not be made to stay. It was the old story. I had heard it in New
England in explanation of its abandoned farms; the work was too hard,
was without a break. The good sense of the Jew recognizes the issue and
meets it squarely. In Woodbine strenuous efforts were being made to
develop the social life by every available means. No opportunity is
allowed to pass that will give the boy a chance. Here on the farms
there were wiser fathers than the Lithuanian. Let one of them speak for
His was one of a little settlement of fifteen families that had
fought it out alone, being some distance from any of the villages. In
the summer they farmed, and in the winter tailoring for the
Philadelphia shops helped them out. Radetzky was a presser in the city
ten years. There were nine in his house. Seven to work on the farm,
said the father, proudly, surveying the brown, muscular troop, but the
two little ones are good in summer at berry-picking. They had just
then come in from the lima-bean field, where they had planted poles.
Even the baby had helped.
I put two beans in a hill instead of four. I tell you why, said
the farmer; I wait three days, and see if they come up. If they do
not, I put down two more. Most of them come up, and I save two beans. A
farmer has got to make money on saving expenses.
The sound of a piano interrupted him. It is my daughter, he said.
They help me, and I let them have in turn what young people
wantpiano, music lessons, a good horse to drive. It pays. They are
all here yet. In the beginning we starved together, had to eat corn
with the cows, but the winter tailoring pulled us through. Now I want
to give it up. I want to buy the next farm. With our 34 acres, it will
make 60, and we can live like men, and let those that need the
tailoring get it. I wouldn't exchange this farm for the best property
in the city.
His two eldest sons nodded assent to his words.
Late that night, when we were returning to Woodbine, we came
suddenly upon a crowd of boys filling the road. They wore the uniform
of the Hirsch School. It was within ten minutes of closing-time, and
they were half a mile from home. The superintendent pulled up and asked
them where they were going. There was a brief silence, then the
It is a surprise party.
Mr. Sabsovich eyed the crowd sharply and thought awhile.
Oh, he said, remembering all at once, it is Mr. Billings and his
new wife. Go ahead, boys!
To me, trying vainly to sleep in the village hotel in the midnight
hour with a tin-pan serenade to the newly married teacher going on
under the window, there came in a lull, with the challenge of the
loudest boy, Mr. Billings! If you don't come down, we will never go
home, an appreciation of the Woodbine system of discipline which I had
lacked till then. It was the Radetzky plan over again, of giving the
boys a chance, to make them stay on the farm.
If it is difficult to make the boy stay, it is sometimes even harder
to make the father go. Out of a hundred families picked on New York's
East Side as in especial need of transplanting to the land, just seven
consented when it came to the journey. They didn't relish the society
of the stumps. The Jews' colonies need many things before they can
hope to rival the attraction of the city to the man whom the slum has
robbed of all resources. They sum themselves up in the social life of
which the tenement has such unsuspected stores in the closest of touch
with one's fellows. The colonies need business opportunities to boom
them, facilities for marketing produce in the cities,
canning-factories, store cellars for the product of the vineyardsall
of which time must supply. Though they have given to hundreds the
chance of life, it cannot be said for them that they have demonstrated
yet the Jews' ability to stand alone upon the land, backed as they are
by the Hirsch Fund millions. In fact, I have heard no such claim
advanced. But it can at least be said that for these they have solved
the problem of life and of the slum. And that is something!
Nor is it all. Because of its being a concerted movement, this of
south Jersey, it has been, so to speak, easier to make out. But
already, upon the experience gained there, 700 families, with some
previous training and fitness for farming, have been settled upon New
England farms and are generally doing well. More than $2,000,000 worth
of property in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and their sister states is
owned by Jewish husbandmen. They are mostly dairy-farmers, poultrymen,
sheep breeders. The Russian Jew will not in this generation be fit for
what might be called long-range farming. He needs crops that turn his
money over quickly. With that in sight, he works hard and faithfully.
The Yankee, as a rule, welcomes him. He has the sagacity to see that
his coming will improve economic conditions, now none too good. As
shrewd traders, the two are well matched. The public school brings the
children together on equal terms, levelling out any roughness that
If the showing that the Jewish population of New England has
increased in 17 years from 9000 to 74,000 gives anybody pause, it is
not at least without its compensation. The very need of the immigrant
to which objection is made, plus the energy that will not let him sit
still and starve, make a way for him that opens it at the same time for
others. In New York he made the needle industry, which he
monopolized. He brought its product up from $30,000,000 to $300,000,000
a year, that he might live, and founded many a great fortune by his
midnight toil. In New England, while peopling its abandoned farms, in
self-defence he takes up on occasion abandoned manufacturing plants to
make the work he wants. At Colchester, Connecticut, 120 Jewish families
settled about the great rubber-works. The workings of a trust shut it
down after 40 years' successful operation, causing loss of wages and
much suffering to 1500 hands. The Christian employees, who must have
been in overwhelming majority, probably took it out in denouncing
trusts. I didn't hear that they did much else, except go away, I
suppose, in search of another job. The Jews did not go away. Perhaps
they couldn't. They cast about for some concern to supply the place of
the rubber-works. At last accounts I heard of them negotiating with a
large woollen concern in Leeds to move its plant across the Atlantic to
Colchester. How it came out, I do not know.
The attempt to colonize Jewish immigrants had two objects: to
relieve the man and to drain the Ghetto. In this last it failed. In 18
years 1200 families had been moved out. In five months just before I
wrote this 12,000 came to stay in New York City. The number of
immigrant Jews during those months was 15,233, of whom only 3881 went
farther. The population of the Ghetto passed already 250,000. It was
like trying to bail out the ocean. The Hirsch Fund people saw it and
took another tack. Instead of arguing with unwilling employees to take
the step they dreaded, they tried to persuade manufacturers to move out
of the city, depending upon the workers to follow their work.
They did bring out one, and built homes for his hands. The argument
was briefly that the clothing industry makes the Ghetto by lending
itself most easily to tenement manufacture. The Ghetto, with its crowds
and unhealthy competition, makes the sweat-shop in turn, with all the
bad conditions that disturb the trade. To move the crowds out is at
once to kill the Ghetto and the sweat-shops, and to restore the
industry to healthy ways. The argument is correct. The economic gains
by such an exodus are equally clear, provided the philanthropy that
starts it will maintain a careful watch to prevent the old slum
conditions being reproduced in the new places and unscrupulous
employers from taking advantage of the isolation of their workers. With
this chance removed, strikes are not so readily fomented by
home-owners. The manufacturer secures steady labor, the worker a steady
job. The young are removed from the contamination of the tenement. The
experiment was interesting, but the fraction of a cent that was added
by the freight to the cost of manufacture killed it. The factory moved
back and the crowds with it.
Very recently, the B'nai B'rith has taken the lead in a movement
that goes straight to the heart of the matter. It is now proposed to
head off the Ghetto. Places are found for the immigrants all over the
country, and they are not allowed to stop in New York on coming over,
but are sent out at once. Where they go others follow instead of
plunging into the city maelstrom and being swallowed up by it. Soon, it
is argued, a rut will have been made for so much of the immigration to
follow to the new places, and so much will have been diverted from the
cities. To that extent, then, a real way out of the slum will have