What the Christmas Sun Saw in the Tenements
by Jacob A. Riis
The December sun shone clear and cold upon the city. It shone upon
rich and poor alike. It shone into the homes of the wealthy on the
avenues and in the up-town streets, and into courts and alleys hedged
in by towering tenements down town. It shone upon throngs of busy
holiday shoppers that went out and in at the big stores, carrying
bundles big and small, all alike filled with Christmas cheer and kindly
messages from Santa Claus.
It shone down so gayly and altogether cheerily there, that wraps and
overcoats were unbuttoned for the north wind to toy with. My, isn't it
a nice day? said one young lady in a fur shoulder cape to a friend,
pausing to kiss and compare lists of Christmas gifts.
Most too hot, was the reply, and the friends passed on. There was
warmth within and without. Life was very pleasant under the Christmas
sun up on the avenue.
Down in Cherry Street the rays of the sun climbed over a row of tall
tenements with an effort that seemed to exhaust all the life that was
in them, and fell into a dirty block, half choked with trucks, with ash
barrels and rubbish of all sorts, among which the dust was whirled in
clouds upon fitful, shivering blasts that searched every nook and
cranny of the big barracks. They fell upon a little girl, barefooted
and in rags, who struggled out of an alley with a broken pitcher in her
grimy fist, against the wind that set down the narrow slit like the
draught through a big factory chimney. Just at the mouth of the alley
it took her with a sudden whirl, a cyclone of dust and drifting ashes,
tossed her fairly off her feet, tore from her grip the threadbare shawl
she clutched at her throat, and set her down at the saloon door
breathless and half smothered. She had just time to dodge through the
storm-doors before another whirlwind swept whistling down the street.
My, but isn't it cold? she said, as she shook the dust out of her
shawl and set the pitcher down on the bar. Gimme a pint, laying down
a few pennies that had been wrapped in a corner of the shawl, and
mamma says make it good and full.
All'us the way with youse kidswant a barrel when yees pays fer a
pint, growled the bartender. There, run along, and don't ye hang
around that stove no more. We ain't a steam-heatin' the block fer
The little girl clutched her shawl and the pitcher, and slipped out
into the street where the wind lay in ambush and promptly bore down on
her in pillars of whirling dust as soon as she appeared. But the sun
that pitied her bare feet and little frozen hands played a trick on old
Boreasit showed her a way between the pillars, and only just her
skirt was caught by one and whirled over her head as she dodged into
her alley. It peeped after her halfway down its dark depths, where it
seemed colder even than in the bleak street, but there it had to leave
It did not see her dive through the doorless opening into a hall
where no sun-ray had ever entered. It could not have found its way in
there had it tried. But up the narrow, squeaking stairs the girl with
the pitcher was climbing. Up one flight of stairs, over a knot of
children, half babies, pitching pennies on the landing, over wash-tubs
and bedsteads that encumbered the nexthouse-cleaning going on in that
flat; that is to say, the surplus of bugs was being turned out with
petroleum and a featherup still another, past a half-open door
through which came the noise of brawling and curses. She dodged and
quickened her step a little until she stood panting before a door on
the fourth landing that opened readily as she pushed it with her bare
A room almost devoid of stick or rag one might dignify with the name
of furniture. Two chairs, one with a broken back, the other on three
legs, beside a rickety table that stood upright only by leaning against
the wall. On the unwashed floor a heap of straw covered with dirty
bedtick for a bed; a foul-smelling slop-pail in the middle of the room;
a crazy stove, and back of it a door or gap opening upon darkness.
There was something in there, but what it was could only be surmised
from a heavy snore that rose and fell regularly. It was the bedroom of
the apartment, windowless, airless, and sunless, but rented at a price
a millionnaire would denounce as robbery.
That you, Liza? said a voice that discovered a woman bending over
the stove. Run 'n' get the childer. Dinner's ready.
The winter sun glancing down the wall of the opposite tenement, with
a hopeless effort to cheer the back yard, might have peeped through the
one window of the room in Mrs. McGroarty's flat, had that window not
been coated with the dust of ages, and discovered that dinner party in
action. It might have found a score like it in the alley. Four unkempt
children, copies each in his or her way of Liza and their mother, Mrs.
McGroarty, who did washing for a living. A meat bone, a cut from
the butcher's at four cents a pound, green pickles, stale bread and
beer. Beer for the four, a sup all round, the baby included. Why not?
It was the one relish the searching ray would have found there.
Potatoes were there, toopotatoes and meat! Say not the poor in the
tenements are starving. In New York only those starve who cannot get
work and have not the courage to beg. Fifty thousand always out of a
job, say those who pretend to know. A round half-million asking and
getting charity in eight years, say the statisticians of the Charity
Organization. Any one can go round and see for himself that no one need
starve in New York.
From across the yard the sunbeam, as it crept up the wall, fell
slantingly through the attic window whence issued the sound of
hammer-blows. A man with a hard face stood in its light, driving nails
into the lid of a soap box that was partly filled with straw. Something
else was there; as he shifted the lid that didn't fit, the glimpse of
sunshine fell across it; it was a dead child, a little baby in a white
slip, bedded in straw in a soap box for a coffin. The man was hammering
down the lid to take it to the Potter's Field. At the bed knelt the
mother, dry-eyed, delirious from starvation that had killed her child.
Five hungry, frightened children cowered in the corner, hardly daring
to whisper as they looked from the father to the mother in terror.
There was a knock on the door that was drowned once, twice, in the
noise of the hammer on the little coffin. Then it was opened gently,
and a young woman came in with a basket. A little silver cross shone
upon her breast. She went to the poor mother, and, putting her hand
soothingly on her head, knelt by her with gentle and loving words. The
half-crazed woman listened with averted face, then suddenly burst into
tears and hid her throbbing head in the other's lap.
The man stopped hammering and stared fixedly upon the two; the
children gathered around with devouring looks as the visitor took from
her basket bread, meat, and tea. Just then, with a parting wistful look
into the bare attic room, the sun-ray slipped away, lingered for a
moment about the coping outside, and fled over the housetops.
As it sped on its winter-day journey, did it shine into any cabin in
an Irish bog more desolate than these Cherry Street homes? An army of
thousands, whose one bright and wholesome memory, only tradition of
home, is that poverty-stricken cabin in the desolate bog, are herded in
such barracks to-day in New York. Potatoes they have; yes, and meat at
four centseven seven. Beer for a relishnever without beer. But
home? The home that was home, even in a bog, with the love of it that
has made Ireland immortal and a tower of strength in the midst of her
sufferingwhat of that? There are no homes in New York's poor
Down the crooked path of the Mulberry Street Bend the sunlight
slanted into the heart of New York's Italy. It shone upon bandannas and
yellow neckerchiefs; upon swarthy faces and corduroy breeches; upon
black-haired girlsmothers at thirteen; upon hosts of bow-legged
children rolling in the dirt; upon pedlers' carts and rag-pickers
staggering under burdens that threatened to crush them at every step.
Shone upon unnumbered Pasquales dwelling, working, idling, and gambling
there. Shone upon the filthiest and foulest of New York's tenements,
upon Bandit's Roost, upon Bottle Alley, upon the hidden byways that
lead to the tramps' burrows. Shone upon the scene of annual infant
slaughter. Shone into the foul core of New York's slums that was at
last to go to the realm of bad memories because civilized man might not
look upon it and live without blushing.
It glanced past the rag-shop in the cellar, whence welled up
stenches to poison the town, into an apartment three flights up that
held two women, one young, the other old and bent. The young one had a
baby at her breast. She was rocking it tenderly in her arms, singing in
the soft Italian tongue a lullaby, while the old granny listened
eagerly, her elbows on her knees, and a stumpy clay pipe, blackened
with age, between her teeth. Her eyes were set on the wall, on which
the musty paper hung in tatters, fit frame for the wretched,
poverty-stricken room, but they saw neither poverty nor want; her aged
limbs felt not the cold draught from without, in which they shivered;
she looked far over the seas to sunny Italy, whose music was in her
O dolce Napoli, she mumbled between her toothless jaws, O suol
The song ended in a burst of passionate grief. The old granny and
the baby woke up at once. They were not in sunny Italy; not under
southern, cloudless skies. They were in The Bend, in Mulberry Street,
and the wintry wind rattled the door as if it would say, in the
language of their new home, the land of the free: Less music! More
work! Root, hog, or die!
Around the corner the sunbeam danced with the wind into Mott Street,
lifted the blouse of a Chinaman and made it play tag with his pigtail.
It used him so roughly that he was glad to skip from it down a
cellar-way that gave out fumes of opium strong enough to scare even the
north wind from its purpose. The soles of his felt shoes showed as he
disappeared down the ladder that passed for cellar steps. Down there,
where daylight never came, a group of yellow, almond-eyed men were
bending over a table playing fan-tan. Their very souls were in the
game, every faculty of the mind bent on the issue and the stake. The
one blouse that was indifferent to what went on was stretched on a mat
in a corner. One end of a clumsy pipe was in his mouth, the other held
over a little spirit-lamp on the divan on which he lay. Something
fluttered in the flame with a pungent, unpleasant smell. The smoker
took a long draught, inhaling the white smoke, then sank back on his
couch in senseless content.
Upstairs tiptoed the noiseless felt shoes, bent on some house
errand, to the household floors above, where young white girls from
the tenements of The Bend and the East Side live in slavery worse, if
not more galling, than any of the galley with ball and chainthe
slavery of the pipe. Four, eight, sixteen, twenty odd such homes in
this tenement, disgracing the very name of home and family, for
marriage and troth are not in the bargain.
In one room, between the half-drawn curtains of which the sunbeam
works its way in, three girls are lying on as many bunks, smoking all.
They are very young, under age, though each and every one would
glibly swear in court to the satisfaction of the police that she is
sixteen, and therefore free to make her own bad choice. Of these, one
was brought up among the rugged hills of Maine; the other two are from
the tenement crowds, hardly missed there. But their companion? She is
twirling the sticky brown pill over the lamp, preparing to fill the
bowl of her pipe with it. As she does so, the sunbeam dances across the
bed, kisses the red spot on her cheek that betrays the secret her
tyrant long has known,though to her it is hidden yet,that the pipe
has claimed its victim and soon will pass it on to the Potter's Field.
Nell, says one of her chums in the other bunk, something stirred
within her by the flash, Nell, did you hear from the old farm to home
since you come here?
Nell turns half around, with the toasting-stick in her hand, an ugly
look on her wasted features, a vile oath on her lips.
To hell with the old farm, she says, and putting the pipe to her
mouth inhales it all, every bit, in one long breath, then falls back on
her pillow in drunken stupor.
That is what the sun of a winter day saw and heard in Mott Street.
It had travelled far toward the west, searching many dark corners
and vainly seeking entry to others; had gilded with equal impartiality
the spires of five hundred churches and the tin cornices of thirty
thousand tenements, with their million tenants and more; had smiled
courage and cheer to patient mothers trying to make the most of life in
the teeming crowds, that had too little sunshine by far; hope to
toiling fathers striving early and late for bread to fill the many
mouths clamoring to be fed.
The brief December day was far spent. Now its rays fell across the
North River and lighted up the windows of the tenements in Hell's
Kitchen and Poverty Gap. In the Gap especially they made a brave show;
the windows of the crazy old frame-house under the big tree that sat
back from the street looked as if they were made of beaten gold. But
the glory did not cross the threshold. Within it was dark and dreary
and cold. The room at the foot of the rickety, patched stairs was
empty. The last tenant was beaten to death by her husband in his
drunken fury. The sun's rays shunned the spot ever after, though it was
long since it could have made out the red daub from the mould on the
Upstairs, in the cold attic, where the wind wailed mournfully
through every open crack, a little girl sat sobbing as if her heart
would break. She hugged an old doll to her breast. The paint was gone
from its face; the yellow hair was in a tangle; its clothes hung in
rags. But she only hugged it closer. It was her doll. They had been
friends so long, shared hunger and hardship together, and now
Her tears fell faster. One drop trembled upon the wan cheek of the
doll. The last sunbeam shot athwart it and made it glisten like a
priceless jewel. Its glory grew and filled the room. Gone were the
black walls, the darkness, and the cold. There was warmth and light and
joy. Merry voices and glad faces were all about. A flock of children
danced with gleeful shouts about a great Christmas tree in the middle
of the floor. Upon its branches hung drums and trumpets and toys, and
countless candles gleamed like beautiful stars. Farthest up, at the
very top, her doll, her very own, with arms outstretched, as if
appealing to be taken down and hugged. She knew it, knew the
mission-school that had seen her first and only real Christmas, knew
the gentle face of her teacher, and the writing on the wall she had
taught her to spell out: In His name. His name, who, she had said,
was all little children's friend. Was He also her dolly's friend, and
would He know it among the strange people?
The light went out; the glory faded. The bare room, only colder and
more cheerless than before, was left. The child shivered. Only that
morning the doctor had told her mother that she must have medicine and
food and warmth, or she must go to the great hospital where papa had
gone before, when their money was all spent. Sorrow and want had laid
the mother upon the bed he had barely left. Every stick of furniture,
every stitch of clothing on which money could be borrowed, had gone to
the pawnbroker. Last of all, she had carried mamma's wedding-ring to
pay the druggist. Now there was no more left, and they had nothing to
eat. In a little while mamma would wake up, hungry.
The little girl smothered a last sob and rose quickly. She wrapped
the doll in a threadbare shawl as well as she could, tiptoed to the
door, and listened a moment to the feeble breathing of the sick mother
within. Then she went out, shutting the door softly behind her, lest
she wake her.
Up the street she went, the way she knew so well, one block and a
turn round the saloon corner, the sunset glow kissing the track of her
bare feet in the snow as she went, to a door that rang a noisy bell as
she opened it and went in. A musty smell filled the close room.
Packages, great and small, lay piled high on shelves behind the worn
counter. A slovenly woman was haggling with the pawnbroker about the
money for a skirt she had brought to pledge.
Not a cent more than a quarter, he said, contemptuously, tossing
the garment aside. It's half worn out it is, dragging it back and
forth over the counter these six months. Take it or leave it. Hallo!
What have we here? Little Finnegan, eh? Your mother not dead yet? It's
in the poorhouse ye will be if she lasts much longer. What the
He had taken the package from the trembling child's handthe
precious dolland unrolled the shawl. A moment he stood staring in
dumb amazement at its contents. Then he caught it up and flung it with
an angry oath upon the floor, where it was shivered against the
Get out o' here, ye Finnegan brat, he shouted; I'll tache ye to
come a-guyin' o' me. I'll
The door closed with a bang upon the frightened child, alone in the
cold night. The sun saw not its home-coming. It had hidden behind the
night clouds, weary of the sight of man and his cruelty.
Evening had worn into night. The busy city slept. Down by the
wharves, now deserted, a poor boy sat on the bulwark, hungry,
foot-sore, and shivering with cold. He sat thinking of friends and
home, thousands of miles away over the sea, whom he had left six months
before to go among strangers. He had been alone ever since, but never
more so than that night. His money gone, no work to be found, he had
slept in the streets for nights. That day he had eaten nothing; he
would rather die than beg, and one of the two he must do soon.
There was the dark river rushing at his feet; the swirl of the
unseen waters whispered to him of rest and peace he had not known
sinceit was so coldand who was there to care, he thought bitterly.
No one would ever know. He moved a little nearer the edge, and listened
A low whine fell on his ear, and a cold, wet face was pressed
against his. A little crippled dog that had been crouching silently
beside him nestled in his lap. He had picked it up in the street, as
forlorn and friendless as himself, and it had stayed by him. Its touch
recalled him to himself. He got up hastily, and, taking the dog in his
arms, went to the police station near by, and asked for shelter. It was
the first time he had accepted even such charity, and as he lay down on
his rough plank he hugged a little gold locket he wore around his neck,
the last link with better days, and thought with a hard sob of home. In
the middle of the night he awoke with a start. The locket was gone. One
of the tramps who slept with him had stolen it. With bitter tears he
went up and complained to the Sergeant at the desk, and the Sergeant
ordered him to be kicked out into the street as a liar, if not a thief.
How should a tramp boy have come honestly by a gold locket? The doorman
put him out as he was bidden, and when the little dog showed its teeth,
a policeman seized it and clubbed it to death on the step.
* * * * *
Far from the slumbering city the rising moon shines over a wide
expanse of glistening water. It silvers the snow upon a barren heath
between two shores, and shortens with each passing minute the shadows
of countless headstones that bear no names, only numbers. The breakers
that beat against the bluff wake not those who sleep there. In the deep
trenches they lie, shoulder to shoulder, an army of brothers, homeless
in life, but here at rest and at peace. A great cross stands upon the
lonely shore. The moon sheds its rays upon it in silent benediction and
floods the garden of the unknown, unmourned dead with its soft light.
Out on the Sound the fishermen see it flashing white against the
starlit sky, and bare their heads reverently as their boats speed by,
borne upon the wings of the west wind.