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The City's Heart by Jacob A. Riis


“Bosh!” said my friend, jabbing impatiently with his stick at a gaunt cat in the gutter, “all bosh! A city has no heart. It's incorporated selfishness; has to be. Slopping over is not business. City is all business. A poet's dream, my good fellow; pretty but moonshine!”

We turned the corner of the tenement street as he spoke. The placid river was before us, with the moonlight upon it. Far as the eye reached, up and down the stream, the shores lay outlined by rows of electric lamps, like strings of shining pearls; red lights and green fights moved upon the water. From a roofed-over pier near by came the joyous shouts of troops of children, and the rhythmic tramp of many feet to the strains of “Could you be true to eyes of blue if you looked into eyes of brown?” A “play-pier” in evening session.

I looked at my friend. He stood gazing out over the river, hat in hand, the gentle sea-breeze caressing the lock at his temple that is turning gray. Something he started to say had died on his lips. He was listening to the laughter of the children. What thoughts of days long gone, before the office and the market reports shut youth and sunshine out of his life, came to soften the hard lines in his face, I do not know. As I watched, the music on the pier died away in a great hush. The river with its lights was gone; my friend was gone. The years were gone with their burden. The world was young once more.

I was in a court-room full of men with pale, stern faces. I saw a child brought in, carried in a horse-blanket, at the sight of which men wept aloud. I saw it laid at the feet of the judge, who turned his face away, and in the stillness of that court-room I heard a voice raised claiming for the human child the protection men had denied it, in the name of the homeless cur of the street. And I heard the story of little Mary Ellen told again, that stirred the souls of a city and roused the conscience of a world that had forgotten. The sweet-faced missionary who found Mary Ellen was there, wife of a newspaper man—happy augury; where the gospel of faith and the gospel of facts join hands the world moves. She told how the poor consumptive in the dark slum tenement, at whose bedside she daily read the Bible, could not die in peace while “the child they called Mary Ellen” was beaten and tortured in the next flat; and how on weary feet she went from door to door of the powerful, vainly begging mercy for it and peace for her dying friend. The police told her to furnish evidence, prove crime, or they could not move; the societies said: “bring the child to us legally, and we will see; till then we can do nothing”; the charitable said, “it is dangerous to interfere between parent and child; better let it alone.” And the judges said that it was even so; it was for them to see that men walked in the way laid down, not to find it—until her woman's heart rebelled in anger against it all, and she sought the great friend of the dumb brute, who made a way.

“The child is an animal,” he said. “If there is no justice for it as a human being, it shall at least have the rights of the cur in the street. It shall not be abused.”

And as I looked I knew that I was where the first charter of the Children's rights was written under warrant of that made for the dog; for from that dingy court-room, whence a wicked woman went to jail, thirty years ago came forth the Children's Society, with all it has meant to the world's life. It is quickening its pulse to this day in lands and among peoples who never spoke the name of my city and Mary Ellen's. For her—her life has run since like an even summer stream between flowery shores. When last I had news of her, she was the happy wife of a prosperous farmer up-State.

The lights on the river shone out once more. From the pier came a chorus of children's voices singing “Sunday Afternoon” as only East Side children can. My friend was listening intently. Aye, well did I remember the wail that came to the Police Board, in the days that are gone, from a pastor over there. “The children disturb our worship,” he wrote; “they gather in the street at my church and sing and play while we would pray”; and the bitter retort of the police captain of the precinct: “They have no other place to play; better pray for sense to help them get one.” I saw him the other day—the preacher—singing to the children in the tenement street and giving them flowers; and I knew that the day of sense and of charity had swept him with it.

The present is swallowed up again, and there rises before me the wraith of a village church in the far-off mountains of Pennsylvania. It is Sunday morning at midsummer. In the pulpit a young clergyman is preaching from the text: “Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even the least, ye did it unto me.” The sun peeps through the windows, where climbing roses nod. In the tall maples a dove is cooing; the drowsy hum of the honey-bee is on the air. But he recks not of these, nor of the peaceful day. His soul has seen a vision of hot and stony streets, of squalid homes, of hard-visaged, unlovely childhood, of mankind made in His image twisted by want and ignorance into monstrous deformity: and the message he speaks goes straight to the heart of the plain farmers on the benches; His brethren these, and steeped in the slum! They gather round him after the service, their hearts burning within them.

I see him speeding the next day toward the great city, a messenger of love and pity and help. I see him return before the week's end, nine starved urchins clinging to his hands and the skirts of his coat, the first Fresh Air party that went out of New York twoscore years ago. I see the big-hearted farmers take them into their homes and hearts. I see the sun and the summer wind put back color in the wan cheek, and life in the shrunken and starved frame. I hear the message of one of the little ones to her chums left behind in the tenement: “I can have two pieces of pie to eat, and nobody says nothing if I take three pieces of cake”; and I know what it means to them. Laugh? Yes! laugh and be glad. The world has sorrow enough. Let in the sunshine where you can, and know that it means life to these, life now and a glimpse of the hereafter. I can hear it yet, the sigh of the tired mother under the trees on Twin Island, our Henry-street children's summer home: “If heaven is like this, I don't care how soon I go.”

For the sermon had wings; and whithersoever it went blessings sprang in its track. Love and justice grew; men read the brotherhood into the sunlight and the fields and the woods, and the brotherhood became real. I see the minister, no longer so young, sitting in his office in the “Tribune” building, still planning Fresh Air holidays for the children of the hot, stony city. But he seeks them himself no more. A thousand churches, charities, kindergartens, settlements, a thousand preachers and doers of the brotherhood, gather them in. A thousand trains of many crowded cars carry them to the homes that are waiting for them wherever men and women with warm hearts live. The message has traveled to the farthest shores, and nowhere in the Christian world is there a place where it has not been heard and heeded. Wherever it has, there you have seen the heart of man laid bare; and the sight is good.

“'Way—down—yonder—in—the—corn-field,” brayed the band, and the shrill chorus took up the words. At last they meant something to them. It was worth living in the day that taught that lesson to the children of the tenements. Other visions, new scenes, came trooping by on the refrain: the farm-homes far and near where they found, as the years passed and the new love grew and warmed the hearts, that they had entertained angels unawares; the host of boys and girls, greater than would people a city, that have gone out to take with the old folks the place of the lads who would not stay on the land, and have grown up sturdy men and women, good citizens, governors of States some of them, cheating the slum of its due; the floating hospitals that carry their cargoes of white and helpless little sufferers down the bay in the hot summer days, and bring them back at night sitting bolt upright at the supper-table and hammering it with their spoons, shouting for more; the new day that shines through the windows of our school-houses, dispelling the nightmare of dry-as-dust pedagoguery, and plants brass-bands upon the roof of the school, where the children dance and are happy under the stars; that builds play-piers and neighborhood parks in which never a sign “Keep off the Grass” shall stand to their undoing; that grows school-gardens in the steps of the kindergarten, makes truck-farmers on city lots of the toughs they would have bred, lying waste; that strikes the fetters of slavery from childhood in home and workshop, and breaks the way for a better to-morrow. Happy vision of a happy day that came in with the tears of little Mary Ellen. Truly they were not shed in vain.

There was a pause in the play on the pier. Then the strains of “America” floated down to us where we stood.

  “Long may our land be bright
  With Freedom's holy light,”

came loud and clear in the childish voices. They knew it by heart, and no wonder. To their fathers, freedom was but an empty name, a mockery. My friend stood bareheaded till the last line was sung:

  “Great God, our King!”

then he put on his hat and nodded to me to come. We walked away in silence. To him, too, there had come in that hour the vision of the heart of the great city; and before it he was dumb.


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