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Our Roof Garden Among the Tenements by Jacob A. Riis


A year has gone since we built a roof garden on top of the gymnasium that took away our children's playground by filling up the yard. In many ways it has been the hardest of all the years we have lived through with our poor neighbors. Poverty, illness, misrepresentation, and the hottest and hardest of all summers for those who must live in the city's crowds—they have all borne their share. But to the blackest cloud there is somewhere a silver lining if you look long enough and hard enough for it, and ours has been that roof garden. It is not a very great affair—some of you readers would smile at it, I suppose. There are no palm trees and no “pergola,” just a plain roof down in a kind of well with tall tenements all about. Two big barrels close to the wall tell their own story of how the world is growing up toward the light. For they once held whisky and trouble and deviltry; now they are filled with fresh, sweet earth, and beautiful Japanese ivy grows out of them and clings lovingly to the wall of our house, spreading its soft, green tendrils farther and farther each season, undismayed by the winter's cold. And then boxes and boxes on a brick parapet, with hardy Golden Glow, scarlet geraniums, California privet, and even a venturesome Crimson Rambler.

When first we got window boxes and filled them with the ivy that looks so pretty and is seen so far, every child in the block accepted it as an invitation to help himself when and how he could. They never touch it nowadays. They like it too much. We didn't have to tell them. They do it themselves. When this summer it became necessary on account of the crowd to eliminate the husky boys from the roof garden and we gave them the gym instead to romp in, they insisted on paying their way. Free on the roof was one thing; this was quite another. They taxed themselves two cents a week, one for the house, one for the club treasury, and they passed this resolution that “any boy wot shoots craps or swears, or makes a row in the house or is disrespectful to Mr. Smith or runs with any crooks, is put out of the club.” They were persuaded to fine the offender a cent instead of expelling him, and it worked all right except with Sammy, who arose to dispute the equity of it all and to demand the organization of a club “where they don't put a feller out fer shootin' craps—wot's craps!”

But I was telling of the roof garden and what happened there. It was in the long vacation when it is open from early morning until all the little ones in the neighborhood are asleep and the house closes its doors. All through the day the children own the garden and carry on their play there. One evening each week our girls' club have an “at home” on the roof, and on three nights the boys bring their friends and smoke and talk. Wednesday and Friday are mothers' and children's nights. That was when they began it. The little ones had been telling stories of Cinderella and Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and before they themselves realized that they were doing it, they were acting them. The dramatic instinct is strong in these children. The “princess” of the fairy tales appeals irresistibly, Cinderella even more. The triumph of good over evil is rapturously applauded; the villain has to look out for himself—and indeed, he had better! Don't I know? Have I forgotten the time they put me out of the theater in Copenhagen for shrieking “Murder! Police!” when the rascal lover—nice lover, he!—was on the very point of plunging a gleaming knife into the heart of the beautiful maiden who slept in an armchair, unconscious of her peril. And I was sixteen; these are eight, or nine.

So the prince rode off with Cinderella in front of him on a fiery kindergarten chair, and the wicked sisters were left to turn green with envy; and another prince with black cotton mustache, on an even more impetuous charger, a tuft of tissue paper in his cap for a feather, galloped up to release Beauty with a kiss from her century of sleep; and Beauty awoke as naturally as if she had but just closed her eyes, amid volleys of applause from the roof and from the tenements, every window in which was a reserved seat.

Next the Bad Wolf strode into the ring, with honeyed speech to beguile little Red Riding Hood. The plays had rapidly become so popular that a regular ring had to be made on the roof for a stage. When the seats gave out, chalk lines took their place and the children and their mothers sat on them with all the gravity befitting the dress-circle. Red Riding Hood having happily escaped being eaten alive, Rebecca rode by with cheery smile and pink parasol, as full of sunshine as the brook on her home farm. The children shouted their delight.

“Where do you get it all?” asked one who did not know of our dog-eared library they grew up with before the Carnegie branch came and we put ours in the attic.

“We know the story—all we have to do is to act it,” was the children's reply. And act it they did, until the report went abroad that at the Riis House there was a prime show every Wednesday and Friday night. That was when the schools reopened and the recreation center at No. 1 in the next block was closed. Then its crowds came and besieged our house until the street was jammed and traffic impossible. For the first and only time in its history a policeman had to be placed on the stoop, or we should have been swamped past hope. But he is gone long ago. Don't let him deter you from calling.

The nights are cold now, and Cinderella rides no more on the prancing steed of her fairy prince. The children's songs have ceased. Beauty and the Beast are tucked away with the ivy and the bulbs and the green shrubs against the bright sunny days that are coming. The wolf is a bad memory, and the tenement windows that were filled with laughing faces are vacant and shut. But many a child smiles in its sleep, dreaming of the happy hours in our roof garden, and many a mother's heavy burden was lightened because of it and because of the children's joy. The garden was an afterthought—we had taken their playground in the yard, and there was the wide roof. It seemed as though it ought to be put to use. They said flowers wouldn't grow down in that hole, and that the neighbors would throw things, and anyway the children would despoil them. Well, they did grow, never better, and the whole block grew up to them. Their message went into every tenement house home. Not the crabbedest old bachelor ever threw anything on our roof to disgrace it; and as for the children, they loved the flowers. That tells it all. The stone we made light of proved the cornerstone of the building. There is nothing in our house, full as it is of a hundred activities to bring sweetening touch to weary lives, that has half the cheer in it which our roof garden holds in summer, nothing that has tenderer memories for us all the year round.

That is the story of the flowers in one garden as big as the average back yard, and of the girls who took them to their hearts. For, of course, it was the girls who did it. The boys—well! boys are boys in Henry Street as on Madison Avenue. Perhaps on ours there is a trifle less veneering. They had a party to end up with, and ice-cream, lots of it. But as the mothers couldn't come, it being washday or something, and they didn't want their sisters—they were hardly old enough to see the advantage of swapping them over—they had to eat it themselves, all of it. I am not even sure they didn't plan it so. The one redeeming feature was that they treated the workers liberally first. Else they might have died of indigestion. Whether they planned that, too, I wonder.


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