How the Poor Make Their Beds on Roofs and Fire Escapes 1903

"Can anybody tell why it is that the tenement district of this torrid town are ten times hotter than the streets half a dozen blocks away, where live the people who board up their city homes from June until October?"

The tired Settlement worker drawled the question from the great chair into which she had dropped literally dropped for she had not energy left to simply sit down. All the afternoon she had been toiling up and down long, hot stairways reeking with unhealthy odors. She had listened to a score of hot spell stories, from as many wearied, fretted women. Her handkerchief was still wet from the soaking she had given it in a fruitless effort to cool the head of a dying babe. Everything had gone wrong. It was the sort of day that made her threaten to give up the work in which she was so interested.

For a moment none of the young women in the comfortable living room of the Settlement answered her. Then spoke the head worker, a fine looking woman, with a heart as big as a house:

"It hardly seems right, does it, for these poor things to suffer so? Oh! if only we could send all the little ones to the country."

"I must call up the Weather Bureau," said the tired worker. "Unless there is a shower this evening the night will be simply unbearable. The Tonjes twins will never live through it without ice for their poor little heads, and I must try to get Mrs. Goldenkranz into a hospital."

The Settlement was in one of the crowded quarters, where the Jew and Italian, the poorest of both, are packed like eggs into boxlike tenement houses.

If one can judge by the complaints which come to the ears of charity and Settlement workers, the Jews as a race suffer more from the heat than other dwellers among the "submerged tenth." Many of the Italians are heat hardened, as it were, coming from Southern Italy, where the sun often makes it as hot as it ever is in Mulberry street. Yet this is not the chief reason given for their less degree of suffering. The Italian has a more cheerful disposition than the East Side Jew, and he is, after his own fashion, a happy-go-lucky fellow. Contrast the babies of the two predominating races, for example. On an extremely hot day the Yiddish baby will fret and cry and moan. Nothing will take its mind off its suffering. As like as not, the Italian babe will begin to cry, but give him a string of beads to play with, a bright ball to toss about, or even a finger to hold, and he quiets down.

On the hottest day of last week a Tribune reporter passing through West Thirty-second-street came into one of the many negro quarters of the city. It was sizzling with heat, but no one seemed to mind it. The women went on with their usual work, and they sang as they worked. The children played just as hard as ever, and took no particular care to stay on the shady side of the street. In the gutter, snuggled close to the curb, full in the glaring sun, lay the tiniest, blackest pickaninny one ever looked at. It seemed as though some "little mother" was neglecting her duty and that the baby was in a fair way to sunstroke or par-boiling.

"Look here!" he cried to a crowd of children half way down the block. "Who is taking care of this young one?"

A little queen of spades, with woolly pigta is sticking out of her head, came running up, all breathless.

"I is, mistah. What am de mattah?" she asked.

"Matter! Why, this hot sun will kill the child. Put it in the shade."

The little queen of spades went off into a perfect storm of laughter, with mouth wide open, head thrown back and teeth shining like ivory.

"De sun will kill de chile!" and as she repeated the words she laughed again. "Sun! For de lan's sakes, dat chile just love de sun, mistah. Why, him cry all time it rains. Sun'll no hurt hinm." She refused to move it into the shade, and the little one was kicking up his bare black feet as though it made no difference anyway.

If the nights are cool, it does not matter much to slum dwellers how warm the days are. But when New York nights are stifling the poor take refuge in various ingenious methods of wooing sleep. The roofs and the fire escapes are the most obvious retreats for heat sufferers, and they have not been backward in utilizing them. But when twenty or thirty families live in one house they cannot all find room on its roof. To let the top floor families claim it would be unfair, so in most houses an allotment system has been worked out. it is the janitor who divides up the sleeping area. He figures out that the roof will comfortably hold so many men, women and children. Generally he can care for not more than four families each night. The space is divided into two portions by a curtain of some cheap material, the men taking one side, the women and children the other. As soon as the sun sets, the families carry pillows or quilts or some other articles of bedding, and climb to the roof. They start early in order to take advantage of every minute of darkness. There is no need of alarm clocks in the morning. The sun beats down on them all too early, and with its coming they take up the burdens of another day. Under this arrangement it is possible for each family to reach the roof one night in a week. Cool nights do not count.

The capacity of the fire escape landings are doubled by an ingenious double decking arrangement, which is known from the upper Bronx to the Armenian quarter, near the Battery. It involves fastening a flat board half way up the railing. Sometimes holes are dug into the brick every three or four inches, into which iron pins are inserted to from shelf like beds. The floor of the fire escape is sufficient for three or four youngsters, and if the "double decker," sometimes known as the "double grid-iron," is stoutly swung, the father or mother can sleep above. It is not so cool as the roof, but is many degrees less warm than the poorly ventilated rooms.

There are many and many examples which show how the East Side children can lessen the woes of poverty, but none are more striking than their fanning system. In their efforts to steal some sleep on hot nights, they have applied the first principles of co-operation. The coolest place often available is the sidewalk in front of their tenement home. Here four or five children will gather, one standing on watch and fanning while the others sleep. A term of two hours is the usual shift, and no one shirks. The fan is in constant motion. These little ones realize that if one fails, the whole scheme falls to pieces, and no one gets a good night's rest.

The action of the Park Commissioners this summer in throwing the parks open to the poor as sleeping quarters has been greatly appreciated. Thousands took advantage of the opportunity, especially in the little parks on the East side.

In some of the parks families herded together in a friendly way, and many brought pillows and blankets to make their rest easier. The police had no difficulty in keeping order, though they say that the use of parks as sleeping p laces is a departure for New York.

Website: The History
Article Name: How the Poor Make Their Beds on Roofs and Fire Escapes 1903
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


 The New York Tribune August 9, 1903; Page: 5
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