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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 child—little 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.[4] 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 colonies.

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 colony.

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 truck in.

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 porches—the 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 lumber—both, perhaps—must 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, energies—of 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 are—stubborn; 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 $24—better 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 himself.

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 want—piano, 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 hesitating answer:—

“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 vineyards—all 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 might remain.

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 been found.

 
 
 

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