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- The Making of an American - 30/49 -
plan, and did so. "You see," was the good-by with which my colaborers left me, "we will never succeed." My campaign had collapsed.
But even then we were winning. Never was defeat in all that time that did not in the end turn out a step toward victory. This much the unceasing agitation had effected, though its humane purpose made no impression on the officials, that the accommodation for lodgers in the station-houses was sensibly shrunk. Where there had been forty that took them in, there were barely two dozen left. The demand for separate women's prisons with police matrons in charge, which was one of the phases the new demand for decency was assuming, bred a scarcity of house-room, and one by one the foul old dens were closed and not reopened. The nuisance was perishing of itself. Each time a piece of it sloughed off, I told the story again in print, "lest we forget." In another year reform came, and with it came Roosevelt. The Committee on Vagrancy, a volunteer body of the Charity Organization Society, of which Mrs. Lowell was the head and I a member, unlimbered its guns again and opened fire, and this time the walls came down. For Tammany was out.
We had been looking the police over by night, Roosevelt and I. We had inspected the lodging-rooms while I went over the long fight with him, and had come at last, at 2 A.M., to the Church Street Station. It was raining outside. The light flickered, cold and cheerless, in the green lamps as we went up the stone steps. Involuntarily I looked in the corner for my little dog; but it was not there, or any one who remembered it. The sergeant glanced over his blotter grimly, I had almost to pinch myself to make sure I was not shivering in a linen duster, wet to the skin. Down the cellar steps to the men's lodging-room I led the President of the Police Board. It was unchanged--just as it was the day I slept there. Three men lay stretched at full length on the dirty planks, two of them young lads from the country. Standing there, I told Mr. Roosevelt my own story. He turned alternately red and white with anger as he heard it.
[Illustration: The Church Street Station Lodging room in which I was robbed]
"Did they do that to you?" he asked when I had ended. For an answer I pointed to the young lads then asleep before him.
"I was like this one," I said.
He struck his clenched fists together. "I will smash them to-morrow."
He was as good as his word. The very next day the Police Board took the matter up. Provision was made for the homeless on a barge in the East River until plans could be perfected for sifting the tramps from the unfortunate; and within a week, on recommendation of the Chief of Police, orders were issued to close the doors of the police lodging-rooms on February 15, 1896, never again to be unbarred.
The battle was won. The murder of my dog was avenged, and forgiven, after twenty-five years. The yellow newspapers, with the true instinct that made them ever recognize in Roosevelt the implacable enemy of all they stood for, printed cartoons of homeless men shivering at a barred door "closed by order of T. Roosevelt"; but they did not, after all, understand the man they were attacking. That the thing was right was enough for him. Their shafts went wide of the mark, or fell harmless. The tramps for whom New York had been a paradise betook themselves to other towns not so discerning--went to Chicago, where the same wicked system was in operation until last spring, is yet for all I know--and the honestly homeless got a chance. A few tender-hearted and soft-headed citizens, of the kind who ever obstruct progress by getting some very excellent but vagrant impulses mixed up with a lack of common sense, wasted their sympathy upon the departing hobo, but soon tired of it. I remember the case of one tramp whose beat was in the block in Thirty-fifth Street in which Dr. Parkhurst lives. He was arrested for insolence to a housekeeper who refused him food. The magistrate discharged him, with some tearful remarks about the world's cruelty and the right of a man to be poor without being accounted a criminal. Thus encouraged, the tramp went right back and broke the windows of the house that had repelled him. I presume he is now in the city by the lake holding up people who offend him by being more industrious and consequently more prosperous than he.
For the general results of the victory so laboriously achieved I must refer to [Footnote: Now, "The Battle with the Slum."] "A Ten Years' War," in which I endeavored to sum up the situation as I saw it. They are not worked out yet to the full. The most important link is missing. That is to be a farm-school which shall sift the young idler from the heap of chaff, and win him back to habits of industry and to the world of men. It will come when moral purpose has been reestablished at the City Hall. I have not set out here to discuss reform and its merits, but merely to point out that the way of it, the best way of bringing it on--indeed, the only way that is always open--is to make the facts of the wrong plain. And, having said that, I have put the reporter where he belongs and answered the question why I have never wanted executive office and never will.
[Illustration: The Yellow Newspapers' Contribution.]
And now, in taking leave of this subject, of which I hope I may never hear again, for it has plagued me enough and had its full share of my life, is there not one ray of brightness that falls athwart its gloom? Were they all bad, those dens I hated, yes, hated, with the shame and the sorrow and hopeless surrender they stood for? Was there not one glimpse of mercy that dwells in the memory with redeeming touch? Yes, one. Let it stand as testimony that on the brink of hell itself human nature is not wholly lost. There is still the spark of His image, however overlaid by the slum. And let it forever wipe out the score of my dog, and mine. It was in one of the worst that I came upon a young girl, pretty, innocent--Heaven knows how she had landed there. She hid her head in her apron and wept bitterly with the shame of the thing. Around her half a dozen old hags, rum-sodden and foul, camped on the stone floor. As in passing I stooped over the weeping girl, one of them, thinking I was one of the men about the place, and misunderstanding my purpose, sprang between us like a tigress and pushed me back.
"Not her!" she cried, and shook her fist at me; "not her! It is all right with us. We are old and tough. But she is young, and don't you dare!"
I went out and stood under the stars, and thanked God that I was born. Only tramps! It had been dinned into my ears until I said it myself, God forgive me! Aye, that was what we had made of them with our infernal machinery of rum-shop, tenement, dive, and--this place. With Christian charity instead, what might they not have been?
THE BEND IS LAID BY THE HEELS
If there be any to whom the travail through which we have just come seems like a mighty tempest in a teapot, let him quit thinking so. It was not a small matter. To be sure, the wrong could have been undone in a day by the authorities, had they been so minded. That it was not undone was largely, and illogically, because no one had a word to say in its defence. When there are two sides to a thing, it is not difficult to get at the right of it in an argument, and to carry public opinion for the right. But when there is absolutely nothing to be said against a proposed reform, it seems to be human nature--American human nature, at all events--to expect it to carry itself through with the general good wishes but no particular lift from any one. It is a very charming expression of our faith in the power of the right to make its way, only it is all wrong: it will not make its way in the generation that sits by to see it move. It has got to be moved along, like everything else in this world, by men. That is how we take title to the name. That is what is the matter with half our dead-letter laws. The other half were just still-born. It is so, at this moment, with the children's playgrounds in New York. Probably all thinking people subscribe to-day to the statement that it is the business of the municipality to give its children a chance to play, just as much as to give them schools to go to. Everybody applauds it. The authorities do not question it; but still they do not provide playgrounds. Private charity has to keep a beggarly half-dozen going where there ought to be forty or fifty, as a matter of right, not of charity. Call it official conservatism, inertia, treachery, call it by soft names or hard; in the end it comes to this, I suppose, that it is the whetstone upon which our purpose is sharpened, and in that sense we have apparently got to be thankful for it. So a man may pummel his adversary and accept him as a means of grace at the same time. If there were no snags, there would be no wits to clear them away, or strong arms to wield the axe. It was the same story with the Mulberry Bend. Until the tramp lodging-houses were closed, until the Bend was gone, it seemed as if progress were flat down impossible. As I said, decency had to begin there, or not at all.
[Illustration: The Mulberry Bend as it was.]
Before I tackle the Bend, perhaps I had better explain how I came to take up photographing as a--no, not exactly as a pastime. It was never that with me. I had use for it, and beyond that I never went. I am downright sorry to confess here that I am no good at all as a photographer, for I would like to be. The thing is a constant marvel to me, and an unending delight. To watch the picture come out upon the plate that was blank before, and that saw with me for perhaps the merest fraction of a second, maybe months before, the thing it has never forgotten, is a new miracle every time. If I were a clergyman I would practise photography and preach about it. But I am jealous of the miracle. I do not want it explained to me in terms of HO(2) or such like formulas, learned, but so hopelessly unsatisfying. I do not want my butterfly stuck on a pin and put in a glass case. I want to see the sunlight on its wings as it flits from flower to flower, and I don't care a rap what its Latin name may be. Anyway, it is not its name. The sun and the flower and the butterfly know that. The man who sticks a pin in it does not, and never will, for he knows not its language. Only the poet does among men. So, you see, I am disqualified from being a photographer. Also, I am clumsy, and impatient of details. The axe was ever more to my liking than the graving-tool. I have lived to see the day of the axe and enjoy it, and now I rejoice in the coming of the men and women who know; the Jane Addamses, who to heart add knowledge and training, and with gentle hands bind up wounds which, alas! too often I struck. It is as it should be. I only wish they would see it and leave me out for my sins.
But there! I started out to tell about how I came to be a photographer, and here I am, off on the subject of philanthropy
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