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Midwinter New York by Jacob A. Riis


The very earliest impression I received of America's metropolis was through a print in my child's picture-book that was entitled “Winter in New York.” It showed a sleighing party, or half a dozen such, muffled to the ears in furs, and racing with grim determination for some place or another that lay beyond the page, wrapped in the mystery which so tickles the childish fancy. For it was clear to me that it was not accident that they were all going the same way. There was evidently some prize away off there in the waste of snow that beckoned them on. The text gave me no clew to what it was. It only confirmed the impression, which was strengthened by the introduction of a half-naked savage who shivered most wofully in the foreground, that New York was somewhere within the arctic circle and a perfect paradise for a healthy boy, who takes to snow as naturally as a duck takes to water. I do not know how the discovery that they were probably making for Gabe Case's and his bottle of champagne, which always awaited the first sleigh on the road, would have struck me in those days. Most likely as a grievous disappointment; for my fancy, busy ever with Uncas and Chingachgook and Natty Bumppo, had certainly a buffalo hunt, or an ambush, or, at the very least, a big fire, ready at the end of the road. But such is life. Its most cherished hopes have to be surrendered one by one to the prosy facts of every-day existence. I recall distinctly how it cut me to the heart when I first walked up Broadway, with an immense navy pistol strapped around my waist, to find it a paved street, actually paved, with no buffaloes in sight and not a red man or a beaver hut.

However, life has its compensations also. At fifty I am as willing to surrender the arctic circle as I was hopeful of it at ten, with the price of coal in the chronic plight of my little boy when he has a troublesome hitch in his trousers: “O dear me! my pants hang up and don't hang down.” And Gabe Case's is a most welcome exchange to me for the ambush, since I have left out the pistol and the rest of the armament. I listen to the stories of the oldest inhabitant, of the winters when “the snow lay to the second-story windows in the Bowery,” with the fervent wish that they may never come back, and secretly gloat over his wail that the seasons have changed and are not what they were. The man who exuberantly proclaims that New York is getting to have the finest winter-resort climate in the world is my friend, and I do not care if I never see another snowball. Alas, yes! though Deerslayer and I are still on the old terms, I fear the evidence is that I am growing old.

In the midst of the rejoicing comes old Boreas, as last winter, for instance, and blows down my house of cards. Just when we thought ourselves safe in referring to the great blizzard as a monstrous, unheard-of thing, and were dwelling securely in the memory of how we gathered violets in the woods out in Queens and killed mosquitoes in the house in Christmas week, comes grim winter and locks the rivers and buries us up to the neck in snow, before the Thanksgiving dinner is cold. Then the seasons when Gabe's much-coveted bottle stood unclaimed on the shelf in its bravery of fine ribbons till far into the New Year, and was won then literally “by a scratch” on a road hardly downy with white, seem like a tale that is told, and we realize that latitude does not unaided make temperature. It is only in exceptional winters, after all, that we class for a brief spell with Naples. Greenland and the polar stream are never long in asserting their claim and Santa Claus's to unchecked progress to our hearths.

And now, when one comes to think of it, who would say them nay for the sake of a ton of coal, or twenty? If one grows old, he is still young in his children. There is the smallest tot at this very moment sliding under my window with shrieks of delight, in the first fall of the season, though the November election is barely a week gone, and snowballing the hired girl in quite the fashion of the good old days, with the grocer's clerk stamping his feet at the back gate and roaring out his enjoyment at her plight in a key only Jack Frost has in keeping. A hundred thousand pairs of boys' eyes are stealing anxious glances toward school windows to-day, lest the storm cease before they are let out, and scant attention is paid to the morning's lessons, I will warrant. Who would exchange the bob-sled and the slide and the hurricane delights of coasting for eternal summer and magnolias in January? Not I, for one—not yet. Human nature is, after all, more robust than it seems at the study fire. I never declared in the board of deacons why I stood up so stoutly for the minister we called that winter to our little church,—with deacons discretion is sometimes quite the best part of valor,—but I am not ashamed of it. It was the night when we were going home, and neighbor Connery gave us a ride on his new bob down that splendid hill,—the whole board, men and women,—that I judged him for what he really was—that resolute leg out behind that kept us on our course as straight as a die, rounding every log and reef with the skill of a river pilot, never flinching once. It was the leg that did it; but it was, as I thought, an index to the whole man.

Discomfort and suffering are usually the ideas associated with deep winter in a great city like New York, and there is a deal of it—discomfort to us all and suffering among the poor. The mere statement that the Street-Cleaning Department last winter carted away and dumped into the river 1,679,087 cubic yards of snow at thirty cents a yard, and was then hotly blamed for leaving us in the slush, fairly measures the one and is enough to set the taxpayer to thinking. The suffering in the tenements of the poor is as real, but even their black cloud is not without its silver lining. It calls out among those who have much as tender a charity as is ever alive among those who have little or nothing and who know one another for brothers without needing the reminder of a severe cold snap or a big storm to tell them of it. More money was poured into the coffers of the charitable societies in the last big cold snap than they could use for emergency relief; and the reckless advertising in sensational newspapers of the starvation that was said to be abroad called forth an emphatic protest from representatives of the social settlements and of the Charity Organization Society, who were in immediate touch with the poor. The old question whether a heavy fall of snow does not more than make up to the poor man the suffering it causes received a wide discussion at the time, but in the end was left open as always. The simple truth is that it brings its own relief to those who are always just on the verge. It sets them to work, and the charity visitor sees the effect in wages coming in, even if only for a brief season. The far greater loss which it causes, and which the visitor does not see, is to those who are regularly employed, and with whom she has therefore no concern, in suspending all other kinds of outdoor work than snow-shovelling.

Take it all together, and I do not believe even an unusual spell of winter carries in its trail in New York such hopeless martyrdom to the poor as in Old World cities, London for instance. There is something in the clear skies and bracing air of our city that keeps the spirits up to the successful defiance of anything short of actual hunger. There abides with me from days and nights of poking about in dark London alleys an impression of black and sooty rooms, and discouraged, red-eyed women blowing ever upon smouldering fires, that is disheartening beyond anything I ever encountered in the dreariest tenements here. Outside, the streets lay buried in fog and slush that brought no relief to the feelings.

Misery enough I have seen in New York's tenements; but deep as the shadows are in the winter picture of it, it has no such darkness as that. The newsboys and the sandwich-men warming themselves upon the cellar gratings in Twenty-third Street and elsewhere have oftener than not a ready joke to crack with the passer-by, or a little jig step to relieve their feelings and restore the circulation. The very tramp who hangs by his arms on the window-bars of the power-house at Houston Street and Broadway indulges in safe repartee with the engineer down in the depths, and chuckles at being more than a match for him. Down there it is always July, rage the storm king ever so boisterously up on the level. The windows on the Mercer Street corner of the building are always open—or else there are no windows. The spaces between the bars admit a man's arm very handily, and as a result there are always on cold nights as many hands pointing downward at the engineer and his boilers as there are openings in the iron fence. The tramps sleep, so suspended the night long, toasting themselves alternately on front and back.

The good humor under untoward circumstances that is one of the traits of our people never comes out so strongly as when winter blocks river and harbor with ice and causes no end of trouble and inconvenience to the vast army of workers which daily invades New York in the morning and departs again with the gathering twilight. The five-minute trip across sometimes takes hours then, and there is never any telling where one is likely to land, once the boat is in the stream. I have, on one occasion, spent nearly six hours on an East River ferry-boat, trying to cross to Fulton Street in Brooklyn, during which time we circumnavigated Governor's Island and made an involuntary excursion down the bay. It was during the Beecher trial, and we had a number of the lawyers on both sides on board, so that the court had to adjourn that day while we tried the case among the ice-floes. But though the loss of time was very great, yet I saw no sign of annoyance among the passengers through all that trip. Everybody made the best of a bad bargain.

Many a time since, have I stood jammed in a hungry and tired crowd on the Thirty-fourth Street ferry for an hour at a time, watching the vain efforts of the pilot to make a landing, while train after train went out with no passengers, and have listened to the laughter and groans that heralded each failure. Then, when at last the boat touched the end of the slip and one man after another climbed upon the swaying piles and groped his perilous way toward the shore, the cheers that arose and followed them on their way, with everybody offering advice and encouragement, and accepting it in the same good-humored way!

In the two big snow-storms of a recent winter, when traffic was for a season interrupted, and in the great blizzard of 1888, when it was completely suspended, even on the elevated road, and news reached us from Boston only by cable via London, it was laughing and snowballing crowds one encountered plodding through the drifts. It was as if real relief had come with the lifting of the strain of our modern life and the momentary relapse into the slow-going way of our fathers. Out in Queens, where we were snow-bound for days, we went about digging one another out and behaving like a lot of boys, once we had made sure that the office would have to mind itself for a season.

It is, however, not to the outlying boroughs one has to go if he wishes to catch the real human spirit that is abroad in the city in a snow-storm, or to the avenues where the rich live, though the snow to them might well be a real luxury; or even to the rivers, attractive as they are in the wild grandeur of arctic festooning from mastheads and rigging; with incoming steamers, armored in shining white, picking their way as circumspectly among the floes as if they were navigating Baffin's Bay instead of the Hudson River; and with their swarms of swift sea-gulls, some of them spotless white, others as rusty and dusty as the scavengers whom for the time being they replace ineffectually, all of them greedily intent upon wresting from the stream the food which they no longer find outside the Hook. I should like you well enough to linger with me on the river till the storm is over, and watch the marvellous sunsets that flood the western sky with colors of green and gold which no painter's brush ever matched; and when night has dropped the curtain, to see the lights flashing forth from the tall buildings in story after story until it is as if the fairyland of our childhood's dreams lay there upon the brooding waters within grasp of mortal hands.

Beautiful as these are, it is to none of them I should take you, nevertheless, to show you the spirit of winter in New York. Not to “the road,” where the traditional strife for the magnum of champagne is waged still; or to that other road farther east upon which the young—and the old, too, for that matter—take straw-rides to City Island, there to eat clam chowder, the like of which is not to be found, it is said, in or out of Manhattan. I should lead you, instead, down among the tenements, where, mayhap, you thought to find only misery and gloom, and bid you observe what goes on there.

All night the snow fell steadily and silently, sifting into each nook and corner and searching out every dark spot, until when the day came it dawned upon a city mantled in spotless white, all the dirt and the squalor and the ugliness gone out of it, and all the harsh sounds of mean streets hushed. The storekeeper opened his door and shivered as he thought of the job of shovelling, with the policeman and his “notice” to hurry it up; shivered more as he heard the small boy on the stairs with the premonitory note of trouble in his exultant yell, and took a firmer grip on his broom. But his alarm was needless. The boy had other feuds on hand. His gang had been feeding fat an ancient grudge against the boys in the next block or the block beyond, waiting for the first storm to wipe it out in snow, and the day opened with a brisk skirmish between the opposing hosts. In the school the plans for the campaign were perfected, and when it was out they met in the White Garden, known to the directory as Tompkins Square, the traditional duelling-ground of the lower East Side; and there ensued such a battle as Homer would have loved to sing.

Full many a lad fell on the battlements that were thrown up in haste, only to rise again and fight until a “soaker,” wrung out in the gutter and laid away to harden in the frost, caught him in the eye and sent him to the rear, a reeling, bawling invalid, but prouder of his hurt than any veteran of his scars, just as his gang carried the band stand by storm and drove the Seventh-streeters from the Garden in ignominious flight. That night the gang celebrated the victory with a mighty bonfire, while the beaten one, viewing the celebration from afar, nursed its bruises and its wrath, and recruited its hosts for the morrow. And on the next night, behold! the bonfire burned in Seventh Street and not in Eleventh. The fortunes of war are proverbially fickle. The band stand in the Garden has been taken many a time since the police took it by storm in battle with the mob in the seventies, but no mob has succeeded that one to clamor for “bread or blood.” It may be that the snow-fights have been a kind of safety-valve for the young blood to keep it from worse mischief later on. There are worse things in the world than to let the boys have a fling where no greater harm can befall than a bruised eye or a strained thumb.

In the corner where the fight did not rage, and in a hundred back yards, smaller bands of boys and girls were busy rolling huge balls into a mighty snow man with a broom for a gun and bits of purloined coal for eyes and nose, and making mock assaults upon it and upon one another, just as the dainty little darlings in curls and leggings were doing in the up-town streets, but with ever so much more zest in their play. Their screams of delight rose to the many windows in the tenements, from which the mothers were exchanging views with next-door neighbors as to the probable duration of the “spell o' weather,” and John's or Pat's chance of getting or losing a job in consequence. The snow man stood there till long after all doubts were settled on these mooted points, falling slowly into helpless decrepitude in spite of occasional patching. But long before that time the frost succeeding the snow had paved the way for coasting in the hilly streets, and discovered countless “slides” in those that were flat, to the huge delight of the small boy and the discomfiture of his unsuspecting elders. With all the sedateness of my fifty years, I confess that I cannot to this day resist a “slide” in a tenement street, with its unending string of boys and girls going down it with mighty whoops. I am bound to join in, spectacles, umbrella, and all, at the risk of literally going down in a heap with the lot.

There is one over on First Avenue, on the way I usually take when I go home. It begins at a hydrant, which I suspect has had something to do in more than one way with its beginning, and runs down fully half a block. If some of my dignified associates on various committees of sobriety beyond reproach could see me “take it” not once, but two or three times, with a ragged urchin clinging to each of the skirts of my coat, I am afraid—I am afraid I might lose caste, to put it mildly. But the children enjoy it, and so do I, nearly as much as the little fellows in the next block enjoy their “skating on one” in the gutter, with little skids of wood twisted in the straps to hold the skate on tight.

In sight of my slide I pass after a big storm between towering walls of snow in front of a public school which for years was the only one in the city that had an outdoor playground. It was wrested from the dead for the benefit of the living, by the condemnation of an old burying-ground, after years of effort. The school has ever since been one of the brightest, most successful in town. The snowbanks exhibit the handiwork of the boys, all of them from the surrounding tenements. They are shaped into regular walls with parapets cunningly wrought and sometimes with no little artistic effect. One winter the walls were much higher than a man's head, and the passageways between them so narrow that a curious accident happened, which came near being fatal. A closed wagon with a cargo of ginger-beer was caught between them and upset. The beer popped, and the driver's boy, who was inside and unable to get out, was rescued only with much trouble from the double peril of being smothered and drowned in the sudden flood.

But the coasting! Let any one who wishes to see real democratic New York at play take a trip on such a night through the up-town streets that dip east and west into the great arteries of traffic, and watch the sights there when young America is in its glory. Only where there is danger from railroad crossings do the police interfere to stop the fun. In all other blocks they discreetly close an eye, or look the other way. New York is full of the most magnificent coasting-slides, and there is not one of them that is not worked overtime when the snow is on the ground. There are possibilities in the slopes of the “Acropolis” and the Cathedral Parkway as yet undeveloped to their full extent; but wherever the population crowds, it turns out without stint to enjoy the fun whenever and as soon as occasion offers.

There is a hill over on Avenue A, near by the East River Park, that is typical in more ways than one. To it come the children of the tenements with their bob-sleds and “belly-whoppers” made up of bits of board, sometimes without runners, and the girls from the fine houses facing the park and up along Eighty-sixth Street, in their toboggan togs with caps and tassels, and chaperoned by their young fellows, just a little disposed to turn up their noses at the motley show. But they soon forget about that in the fun of the game. Down they go, rich and poor, boys and girls, men and women, with yells of delight as the snow seems to fly from under them, and the twinkling lights far up the avenue come nearer and nearer with lightning speed. The slide is lined on both sides with a joyous throng of their elders, who laugh and applaud equally the poor sled and the flexible flyer of prouder pedigree, urging on the returning horde that toils panting up the steep to take its place in the line once more. Till far into the young day does the avenue resound with the merriment of the people's winter carnival.

On the railroad streets the storekeeper is still battling “between calls” with the last of the day's fall, fervently wishing it may be the last of the season's, when whir! comes the big sweeper along the track, raising a whirlwind of snow and dirt that bespatters him and his newly cleaned flags with stray clods from its brooms, until, out of patience, and seized at last, in spite of himself, by the spirit of the thing, he drops broom and shovel and joins the children in pelting the sweeper in turn. The motorman ducks his head, humps his shoulders, and grins. The whirlwind sweeps on, followed by a shower of snowballs, and vanishes in the dim distance.

One of the most impressive sights of winter in New York has gone with so much else that was picturesque, in this age of results, and will never be seen in our streets again. The old horse-plough that used to come with rattle and bang and clangor of bells, drawn by five spans of big horses, the pick of the stables, wrapped in a cloud of steam, and that never failed to draw a crowd where it went, is no more. The rush and the swing of the long line, the crack of the driver's mighty whip and his warning shouts to “Jack” or “Pete” to pull and keep step, the steady chop-chop thud of the sand-shaker, will be seen and heard no more. In the place of the horse-plough has come the electric sweeper, a less showy but a good deal more effective device.

The plough itself is gone. It has been retired by the railroads as useless in practice except to remove great masses of snow, which are not allowed to accumulate nowadays, if it can be helped. The share could be lowered only to within four or five inches of the ground, while the wheel-brooms of the sweeper “sweep between every stone,” making a clean job of it. Lacking the life of the horse-plough, it is suggestive of concentrated force far beyond anything in the elaborate show of its predecessor.

The change suggests, not inaptly, the evolution of the old ship of the line under full canvas into the modern man-of-war, sailless and grim, and the conceit is strengthened by the warlike build of the electric sweeper. It is easy to imagine the iron flanges that sweep the snow from the track to be rammers for a combat at close quarters, and the canvas hangers that shield the brushes, torpedo-nets for defence against a hidden enemy. The motorman on the working end of the sweeper looks like nothing so much as the captain on the bridge of a man-of-war, and he conducts himself with the same imperturbable calm under the petty assaults of the guerillas of the street.

From the moment a storm breaks till the last flake has fallen, the sweepers are run unceasingly over the tracks of the railroads, each in its own division, which it is its business to keep clear. The track is all the companies have to mind. There was a law, or a rule, or an understanding, nobody seems to know exactly which, that they were to sweep also between the tracks, and two feet on each side, in return for their franchises; but in effect this proved impracticable. It was never done. Under the late Colonel Waring the Street-Cleaning Department came to an understanding with the railroad companies under which they clear certain streets, not on their routes, that are computed to have a surface space equal to that which they would have had to clean had they lived up to the old rule. The department in its turn removes the accumulations piled up by their sweepers, unless a providential thaw gets ahead of it.

Removing the snow after a big storm from the streets of New York, or even from an appreciable number of them, is a task beside which the cleaning of the Augean stables was a mean and petty affair. In dealing with the dirt, Hercules's expedient has sometimes been attempted, with more or less success; but not even turning the East River into our streets would rid them of the snow. Though in the last severe winter the department employed at times as many as four thousand extra men and all the carts that were to be drummed up in the city, carting away, as I have said, the enormous total of more than a million and a half cubic yards of snow, every citizen knows, and testified loudly at the time, that it all hardly scratched the ground. The problem is one of the many great ones of modern city life which our age of invention must bequeath unsolved to the dawning century.

In the Street-Cleaning Department's service the snow-plough holds yet its ancient place of usefulness. Eleven of them are kept for use in Manhattan and the Bronx alone. The service to which they are put is to clear at the shortest notice, not the travelled avenues where the railroad sweepers run, but the side streets that lead from these to the fire-engine and truck-houses, to break a way for the apparatus for the emergency that is sure to come. Upon the paths so made the engines make straight for the railroad tracks when called out, and follow these to the fire.

A cold snap inevitably brings a “run” of fires in its train. Stoves are urged to do their utmost all day, and heaped full of coal to keep overnight. The fire finds at last the weak point in the flue, and mischief is abroad. Then it is that the firemen are put upon their mettle, and then it is, too, that they show of what stuff they are made. In none of the three big blizzards within the memory of us all did any fire “get away” from them. During the storm of 1888, when the streets were nearly impassable for three whole days, they were called out to fight forty-five fires, any one of which might have threatened the city had it been allowed to get beyond control; but they smothered them all within the walls where they started. It was the same in the bad winter I spoke of. In one blizzard the men of Truck 7 got only four hours' sleep in four days. When they were not putting out fires they were compelled to turn in and shovel snow to help the paralyzed Street-Cleaning Department clear the way for their trucks. Their plight was virtually that of all the rest.

What Colonel Roosevelt said of his Rough Riders after the fight in the trenches before Santiago, that it is the test of men's nerve to have them roused up at three o'clock in the morning, hungry and cold, to fight an enemy attacking in the dark, and then have them all run the same way,—forward,—is true of the firemen as well, and, like the Rough Riders, they never failed when the test came. The firemen going to the front at the tap of the bell, no less surely to grapple with lurking death than the men who faced Mauser bullets, but with none of the incidents of glorious war, the flag, the hurrah, and all the things that fire a soldier's heart, to urge them on,—clinging, half naked, with numb fingers to the ladders as best they can while trying to put on their stiff and frozen garments,—is one of the sights that make one proud of being a man. To see them in action, dripping icicles from helmet and coat, high upon the ladder, perhaps incased in solid ice and frozen to the rungs, yet holding the stream as steady to its work as if the spray from the nozzle did not fall upon them in showers of stinging hail, is very apt to make a man devoutly thankful that it is not his lot to fight fires in winter. It is only a few winters since, at the burning of a South Street warehouse, two pipemen had to be chopped from their ladder with axes, so thick was the armor of ice that had formed about and upon them while they worked.

The terrible beauty of such a sight is very vivid in my memory. It was on the morning when Chief Bresnan and Foreman Rooney went down with half a dozen of their men in the collapse of the roof in a burning factory. The men of the rank and file hewed their way through to the open with their axes. The chief and the foreman were caught under the big water-tank, the wooden supports of which had been burned away, and were killed. They were still lying under the wreck when I came. The fire was out. The water running over the edge of the tank had frozen into huge icicles that hung like a great white shroud over the bier of the two dead heroes. It was a gas-fixture factory, and the hundreds of pipes, twisted into all manner of fantastic shapes of glittering ice, lent a most weird effect to the sorrowful scene. I can still see Chief Gicquel, all smoke-begrimed, and with the tears streaming down his big, manly face,—poor Gicquel! he went to join his brothers in so many a hard fight only a little while after,—pointing back toward the wreck with the choking words, “They are in there!” They had fought their last fight and won, as they ever did, even if they did give their lives for the victory. Greater end no fireman could crave.

Winter in New York has its hardships and toil, and it has its joys as well, among rich and poor. Grim and relentless, it is beautiful at all times until man puts his befouling hand upon the landscape it paints in street and alley, where poetry is never at home in summer. The great city lying silent under its soft white blanket at night, with its myriad of lights twinkling and rivalling the stars, is beautiful beyond compare. Go watch the moonlight on forest and lake in the park, when the last straggler has gone and the tramp of the lonely policeman's horse has died away under the hill; listen to the whisper of the trees, all shining with dew of Boreas's breath: of the dreams they dream in their long sleep, of the dawn that is coming, the warm sunlight of spring, and say that life is not worth living in America's metropolis, even in winter, whatever the price of coal, and I shall tell you that you are fit for nothing but treason, stratagem, and spoils; for you have no music in your soul.


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