"Problem of the Poor: A Record of Quiet Work in Unquiet Places" - Helen Campbell - Sunday Afternoon
To one approaching Water street either from the upper portion of New York or by way of Fulton Ferry from Brooklyn, it is difficult to believe that the word "slums" can be applicable. On week days the whirl of business life; the hurrying masses of preoccupied-looking men; the constant stream of drays and heavy wagons, and the bales and piles of goods of every description, from rolls of leather and towers of paper boxes up to sugar hogsheads and enormous boilers, indicate only the American devotion to its god, the dollar. And on Sunday the utter absence of all ordinary sights and sounds; the deserted streets and silent warehouses, would seem to evidence the most careful keeping of the fourth commandment. For two or three blocks, stoves and boilers are sole proprietors of the deserted thoroughfare, and only as Peck Slip is passed does a suggestion of what is to come suddenly dawn upon one, as the whole character suddenly changes, and the sound of music from a sailors' boarding house is heard. With Dover street and the great pier of the East River bridge ends the dominion of trade in its higher forms, and a new trade, old as the foundations of the world—the trade in men's souls—takes its place. In a former article the general feeling of the locality was given, but on Sunday a special effort seems to be made to enhance the attractions of the vile dens, thick set for blocks, till warehouses again take their place.
The Bix-story tenement house, while less shaky than the one we had just left, was equally odorous, and how human beings lived through such pulling upon all the vital forces, I could not see. We passed familiar faces on two of the landings, and I found this house had gradually been filled by the "regulars" at the mission, and though a liquor saloon still continued below, hid thus altogether lost its former character as one of the most brawling, disorderly houses in the block. Up to the fourth floor, and a front room, overlooking the street; a room of tolerable size, but intolerable dirt, where four little children sat on the floor eating bread and molasses, while a man in the corner sat smoking. He nodded surlily, but said nothing, and I followed into an inner room; a dark bedroom, where no sunshine could ever reach, and which had the same heavy, oppressive smell I had noticed in the other house; a fog of human exhalations. Propped up in bed, for easier breathing was a woman in the last stages of consumption; a deep, red spot on each cheek, and her frame the merest skeleton.
"Civilization! Oh, how I detest that word!" said the Bachelor of the company, throwing away his paper and marching up and down the room. "Here is this report from the Board of Health, and I defy you to find in the darkest of the dark ages anything worse than the condition of the tenement houses of this city. I believe the peasant of the thirteenth century to have been incomparably better off than the man of the same social grade to-day. Suppose he did live in a windowless hut with an earth floor. At least the air of heaven could find its way in. Is there anything in the imaginations of either Milton or Swedenborg, fouler or more pestilential than the sewage and sink exhalations surrounding and permeating those horrible structures. Leave thorn, however, and take this very one we are in."
"One hundred and eighty-two people in that one house 1 Where do they put them ? " I said. " I know there are ninety where the O'Brien's live, and that is crowded. This is no larger?""No. They're the same, but I'll tell you how they do it," said Mrs. McAuley's quiet voice. " You've seen a good deal, but you haven't been in it as we have. Now I'll tell you what I know about every one of those floors, and there's six with the basement. To begin with, there's four families to a floor. They're packed because they have to be. The men get little work and have nothing to pay for better rooms. The topfloor has a family for every room, that is if you choose to call it a family. They're rag pickers mostly. Four men and three women live together in one of them and pay four dollars a month. Married? Oh, no ! There's one widow on that floor. She has a back-room and takes seven boarders. I've seen the floor thick with them at night."
"We're going home, we're going home, We're going home to-morrow!" Now these words, sung intermittently, and each note as if pumped out by an exceedingly active little high-pressure steamengine, meant work, and hard work too. Down the dark and creaking stairs, and through all the smells and sounds of the tall tenement-house, their ring seemed to call one on, and the crippled boy at the door of the back room on the third floor beat time with his crutch as he stood, and forgot to scowl as I passed. Up one more flight and in at the open door, and this is what I saw: a room, like all the rooms in these great houses, with low ceiling, dirty walls, rough floor, opening at the back into a dark bedroom; if of the better class, into two or three, but all depending for sunshine and air upon the two windows in the front. In this case there was but one bedroom, and the sick, heavy smell of unwashed bedding and equally unwashed human beings made a sort of fog, which with the steam from the little clothes-boiler on the stove filled the rooms and the hall as well.
"It seems a hundred years ago that I was a little fellow at home," he began, still looking up to the strip of sky, and his slender hands clasped about one knee. " You can judge for yourself that I did not come of the same stock as most of the men here. My father was a lawyer in H; a stern, hard man, deep in his business from morning till night, and paying little attention to me one way or another. My mother was very gentle and delicate and sad; loving me passionately, as she had loved my father till his coldness and hardness made her concentrate it all on me. I suppose she spoiled me, and yet it is through her that I am here to-day. At any rate, I know that any freedom or indulgence always had to be coupled with the words: 'We won't say anything about it before father, Max; he might not like it.' The most reasonable thing was always hedged round with this warning, and we both shook when he came near us unexpectedly. He was a very religious man in his own fashion, but not much of the real thing as you get it here. His God liked best to roast sinners, and I heard very little from him but threats of dropping into hell, if I went a hair's-breadth out of the way. He had been brought up so, and stood it, and he could not see why the same thing did not fit me. So I was either scared to death or reckless, and ended with being the last, pretty much all the time. I was bright enough, and father had me study Latin when I was only seven. At ten he sent me to boarding-school, and that pretty nearly killed mother. She had been a good deal of an invalid, but then she went to bed, and staid there mostly except when I came home for vacations."