The Tenement Dwellers 1909 Part II
 

 
 

The undesirable class that should be abolished is the criminal, the vagrant, the beggar, the pauper, the man who works only when the job is easy and agreeable, and the man who insists upon working himself and his family to death in the sweat-shops. If these could be forbidden -the city, a large percentage of the misery, vice, and disease of the present tenement would be done away with at once. But how is it to be accomplished?

If there is any virtue in our boasted home rule of municipalities, then a city should be able, by law, to exclude the vagrant and the pauper classes. It might not be possible to do this by a threat of prosecution, as sometimes criminals are driven out by the police ; but it could be done, perhaps by taxation. In Berlin, for instance, the stranger finds, after a ten days' or a two weeks' stop in the city, that he is visited by a tax-collector, who insists upon his contributing to the municipal purse. This is direct taxation, which cannot be levied by our United States government, but may be levied by our state or city governments. A small specific
sum for each person coming to live in the city (say, ten dollars or more a head, payable upon entrance and punishable by imprisonment and deportation if evaded) would not exclude the worthy, the capable, and the industrious, but would shut out practically the criminal, the vagrant, and the pauper classes which now make the slums, and sow the city with plague spots, and burden the tax-payer for their support. Again, it might be possible through the Health Department to regard the tenements as public nuisances, and thus cause their abatement; or by regarding them as a menace to the public health, to insist that there be only so many people allowed on each city "block," or in each house, or on each floor of a house. There is already some prescription
of the number of cubic feet of air that each tenement-occupant must have; but it is almost impossible to prevent its evasion. As soon as the inspector's back is turned, the rooms fill up again with " boarders" or "relatives"; and the old crowding goes on, even in the newest and most improved tenements. Still, it should be possible for the modern city to rid itself of its criminal and vagrant classes. As a measure of self-protection it is being forced upon the consideration more and more each day. New York is not bound, either in law or in common humanity, to feed, clothe, and harbor all the undesirables that steamship lines bring to it from abroad.
And it is the duty of Congress to lend a hand by stopping such people from coming into the country in the first place.

We are now nearer to the gist of the matter. Congress with its suicidal laissez-faire policy as regards immigration, by permitting Europe to send us any kind of immigrants it pleases, is directly responsible for the overcrowded tenements of the city. In round numbers, a million immigrants a year arrive at the port of New York. Of these fully three-quarters (750,000) are of very questionable desirability, to say the least. They are Russians, Poles, Bohemians, Lithuanians, Greeks, Rumanians, Slovaks, Armenians, Sicilians. They are the class that do not go to the farm, but to the city ; and if they work at all it is in the sweat-shop, the factory,and the mine. They benefit the steamship lines that bring them here by some twenty dollars a head; they furnish a cheap unskilled labor for the manufacturer and the mine operator ; and they burden and render miserable whatever city or community they settle in. Naturally, the poorest and most worthless of the 750,000 never get any farther than their port of entry New York. They go over to the East Side and help on the misery there. Each year as the crowding increases Charity girds its loins and sends forth an extra appeal ; the bread lines are extended until the police are forced to break them up ; socialism and anarchy parade, talk, importune, and threaten ; and the torrent of woe in the tenements grows wider and deeper.

Mr. Hunter and others, in intimate touch with conditions, state that most of the poverty-stricken in the cities are foreigners, that ninety-five per cent of the slum-dwellers are of foreign birth, and again that over fifty per cent of the paupers and the insane are foreign-born.The settlement workers practically unite in testimony to the effect that the most incorrigible slummers, paupers, and vagrants are the Italians and the Jews. The United Hebrew Charities keeps reporting something over one hundred thousand Jews in New York who are unable to supply themselves with the immediate necessaries of life. The report if made for the other nationalities
put down among the undesirables would not be essentially different. And on one point all the settlement workers are once more practically united. The American-born of this foreign parentage is the most vicious criminal of them all.

So it seems that the city is supporting, not alone its own indigent and poverty-stricken, not alone its own paupers and vagrants, but those of other countries that are dumped upon New York docks by devil-may-care steamship companies. "We have Russia's poverty, Poland's poverty, Italy's poverty, Hungary's poverty, Bohemia's poverty and what other nations have we not?" How shall the
city ever improve the East Side and its tenements with yearly a heavier influx than before of just this element? How shall the police cope with crime when it keeps increasing with the continued coming of these foreign hordes? Once more, it is the plain duty of Congress to stop this immigration, or else assume the responsibility for it instead of putting it on the shoulders of New York. The undesirables should be turned back at the entrance of the harbor, if not earlier, by United States law. Failing in that, the city should close its door and open it only on the payment of an admission fee (a suitable tax) that would prohibit the worthless element
from entering.

But what are the unfortunates without the gates to do ? Where are they to go? They do not like living in the country, they are not farmers, they are not even mechanics or good ordinary day-laborers. They have always been used to the city and city life. What are they to do ? Fortunately, so long as these people remain without the gates, New York does not have to answer those questions. It can ignore them. And if it chose to fling back savagely, "Go to the farms and small villages and work there, or go back to the country from which you came," no one could gainsay either the frankness nor the justness of the answer. Why should the beggar be such a chooser of what he likes or dislikes? Those who made the United States and those who are now upholding the country, native and foreign alike, have not asked about the work before them whether they liked it or not ; they have taken hold of it and done it. No man in this western world does exactly as he pleases except this same pauper, vagrant, and criminal. It is perhaps
time he was compelled to do his duty rather than allowed to do his pleasure.

And a measure of compulsion would do no harm to the same class already within the city. There has been perhaps too much charity, too much help. Humanity s that strange contrary animal which, if one seeks to lift it up, will insist upon getting down; and if pushed down, it will insist upon getting up. The pauper and the vagrant would not only be a surprise to himself, but a benefit perhaps to the town if he were arbitrarily set to work on the public streets. Getting for him comfortable and convenient jobs, encouraging him to work, helping him along by advice, example, and praise how many, many times the settlement workers have reported the futility of this ! Why not take a leaf from the experience of Berlin? Why not use some compulsion?

All of which sounds harsh in judgment and seems wanting in sympathy. But why should not one's sympathy go out to the just as well as to the unjust? Why not sympathize with the city rather than with those who would ruin it ? There is no under-dog in the fight. That simile is almost always misleading. The only person who is holding down the vagrant is himself. Putting him upon his feet and giving him a shoulder to lean upon have failed most lamentably. Other nations have compelled him, out of his own strength, to get upon his feet and stand there. There are no such slums as ours in German cities; there are no East Sides in Stockholm; there are no beggars or vagrants in Switzerland. We might profit by their experience.

Such at least is the feeling of the average person who turns this tenement question over and over, seeking an answer. It seems almost impossible to help or improve conditions by kindness or charity, and one wonders if there might not be some virtue in resisting them. A city must protect itself or suffer the consequences of neglect. New York must do something with its East Side. It is not merely an objectionable spot to municipal art societies_something that mars the beauty of the city_or an item of expense to the tax-payer and the charitably disposed; it is a menace to the public health, a prolific source of contagion. Worst of all, it is a sink of crime and immorality. It is not creditable to New York. It is one of the city's most hideous features, one of its most violent and forbidding contrasts.

 

Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: The Tenement Dwellers 1909 Part II
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina

Source:

BIBLIOGRAPHY: The New New York, A Commentary on the Place and the People by John C. Van Dyke; The
Macmillan Company-New York 1909
Time & Date Stamp: