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- The Making of an American - 40/49 -

from his own figures that not only had there been no increase, but that there could not be without criminally overcrowding the wretched old prison, in which already every cell had two inmates, and some three. The exhibit was so striking that the Commissioner and his bookkeeper retired in confusion. It was just the power of the facts again. I wanted to have the horrid old pile torn down, and had been sitting up nights acquainting myself with all that concerned it. Now it is gone, and a good riddance to it.

[Illustration: Gotham Court.]

The other computation was vastly more involved. It concerned the schools, about which no one knew anything for certain. The annual reports of the Department of Education were models of how to say a thing so that no one by any chance could understand what it was about. It was possible to prove from them that, while there was notoriously a dearth of school accommodation, while children knocked vainly for admission and the Superintendent clamored for more schools, yet there were ten or twenty thousand seats to spare. But it was not possible to get the least notion from them of what the real need was. I tried for many months, and then set about finding out for myself how many children who ought to be in school were drifting about the streets. The truant officers, professionally discreet, thought about 800. The Superintendent of Schools guessed at 8000. The officers of the Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor, with an eye on the tenements, made it 150,000. I canvassed a couple of wards from the truant officers' reports, and Dr. Tracy compared the showing with the statistics of population. From the result I reasoned that there must be about 50,000. They scorned me at the City Hall for it. It was all guess-work they said, and so it was. We had first to have a school census, and we got one, so that we might know where we were at. But when we had the result of that first census before us, behold! it showed that of 339,756 children of school age in the city, 251,235 were accounted for on the roster of public or private schools, 28,452 were employed, and 50,069 on the street or at home. So that, if I am not smart at figuring, I may reasonably claim to be a good guesser.

The showing that a lack of schools which threw an army of children upon the street went hand in hand with overcrowded jails made us get up and demand that something be done. From the school executive came the helpless suggestion that the thing might be mended by increasing the classes in neighborhoods where there were not enough schools from sixty to seventy-five. Forty or forty-five pupils is held to be the safe limit anywhere. But the time had passed for such pottering. New York pulled itself together and spent millions in building new schools while "the system" was overhauled; we dragged in a truant school by threatening the city authorities with the power of the State unless they ceased to send truants to institutions that received child criminals. But a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still; we shall have to do that all over again next. My pet scheme was to have trained oculists attached to the public schools, partly as a means of overcoming stupidity--half of what passes for that in the children is really the teacher's; the little ones are near-sighted; they cannot see the blackboard--partly also that they might have an eye on the school buildings and help us get rid of some where they had to burn gas all day. That was upset by the doctors, who were afraid that "private practice would be interfered with." We had not quite got to the millennium yet. It was so with our bill to establish a farm school to win back young vagrants to a useful life. It was killed at Albany with the challenge that we "had had enough of reform in New York." And so we had, as the events showed. Tammany came back.

But not to stay. We had secured a hold during those three years which I think they little know of. They talk at the Wigwam of the "school vote," and mean the men friends and kin of the teachers on whom the machine has a grip, or thinks it has; but there is another school vote that is yet to be heard from, when the generation that has had its right to play restored to it comes to the polls. That was the great gain of that time. It was the thing I had in mind back of and beyond all the rest. I was bound to kill the Bend, because it was bad. I wanted the sunlight in there, but so that it might shine on the children at play. That is a child's right, and it is not to be cheated of it. And when it is cheated of it, it is not the child but the community that is robbed of that beside which all its wealth is but tinsel and trash. For men, not money, make a country great, and joyless children do not make good men.

[Illustration: A Tenement House Air-shaft]

So when the Legislature, urged by the Tenement House Commission, made it law that no public school should ever again be built in New York without an outdoor playground, it touched the quick. Thereafter it was easy to rescue the small parks from the landscape gardener by laying them under the same rule. It was well we did it, too, for he is a dangerous customer, hard to get around. Twice he has tried to steal one of the little parks we laid out, the one that is called Seward Park, from the children, and he "points with pride" almost to the playground in the other, which he laid out so badly that it was a failure from the start. However, we shall convert him yet; everything in its season.

The Board of Education puzzled over its end of it for a while. The law did not say how big the playground should be, and there was no precedent. No, there was not. I found the key to that puzzle, at least one that fitted, when I was Secretary of the Small Parks Committee. It was my last act as agent of the Good Government clubs to persuade Major Strong to appoint that committee. It made short work of its task. We sent for the police to tell us where they had trouble with the boys, and why. It was always the same story: they had no other place to play in than the street, and there they broke windows. So began the trouble. It ended in the police-station and the jail. The city was building new schools by the score. We got a list of the sites, and as we expected, they were where the trouble was worst. Naturally so; that was where the children were. There, then, was our field as a playground committee. Why not kill two birds with one stone, and save money by making them one? By hitching the school and the boys' play together we should speedily get rid of the truant. He was just there as a protest against the school without play.

We asked the Board of Education to make their school playgrounds the neighborhood recreation centres. So they would not need to worry over how big they should be, but just make them as big as they could, whether on the roof or on the ground. They listened, but found difficulties in "the property." Odd, isn't it, this disposition of the world to forever make of the means the end, to glorify the establishment! It was the same story when I asked them to open the schools at night and let in the boys to have their clubs there. The saloon was bidding for them, and bidding high, but the School Board hesitated because a window might be broken or a janitor want extra pay for cleaning up. Before a reluctant consent was given I had to make a kind of promise that I would not appear before the Board again to argue for throwing the doors wider still. But it isn't going to keep me from putting in the heaviest licks I can, in the campaign that is coming, for turning the schools over to the people bodily, and making of them the neighborhood centre in all things that make for good, including trades-union meetings and political discussions. Only so shall we make of our schools real corner-stones of our liberties. So, also, we shall through neighborhood pride restore some of the neighborhood feeling, the _home_ feeling that is now lacking in our cities to our grievous loss. Half the tenement-house population is always moving, and to the children the word "home" has no meaning. Anything that will help change that will be a great gain. And that old Board is gone long since, anyhow.

The club prevailed in the end. At least one school let it in, and though the boys did break a window-pane that winter with a ball, they paid for it like men, and that ghost was laid. The school playground holds aloof yet from the neighborhood except in the long vacation. But that last is something, and the rest is coming. It could not be coming by any better road than the vacation schools, which are paving the way for common sense everywhere. "Everything takes ten years." said Abram S. Hewitt, when he took his seat as the chairman of the Small Parks Committee. Ten years before, when he was Mayor, he had put through the law under which the Mulberry Bend had been at last wiped out. We held our meetings at the City Hall, where I had been spurned so often. All things come to those who wait--and fight for them. Yes, fight! I say it advisedly. I have come to the time of life when a man does not lay about him with a club unless he has to. But--eternal vigilance is the price of liberty! To be vigilant is to sit up with a club. We, as a people, have provided in the republic a means of fighting for our rights and getting them, and it is our business to do it. We shall never get them in any other way. Colonel Waring was a wise man as well as a great man. His declaration that he cleaned the streets of New York, all prophecies to the contrary notwithstanding, by "putting a man instead of a voter behind every broom," deserves to be put on the monument we shall build by and by to that courageous man, for it is the whole gospel of municipal righteousness in a nutshell. But he never said anything better than when he advised his fellow-citizens to fight, not to plead, for their rights. So we grow the kind of citizenship that sets the world, or anyhow our day, ahead. We will all hail the day when we shall be able to lay down the club. But until it comes I do not see that we have any choice but to keep a firm grip on it.



That which I have described as "sitting up with a club" in a city like New York is bound to win your fight if you sit up long enough, for it is to be remembered that the politicians who oppose good government are not primarily concerned about keeping you out of your rights. They want the things that make for their advantage; first of all the offices through which they can maintain their grip. After that they will concede as many of the things you want as they have to, and if you are not yourself out for the offices, more than otherwise, though never more than you wring out of them. They really do not care if you do have clean streets, good schools, parks, playgrounds, and all the things which make for good citizenship because they give the best part of the man a chance, though they grudge them as a sad waste of money that might be turned to use in "strengthening the organization," which is the sum of all their self-seeking, being their means of ever getting more and more. Hence it is that a mere handful of men and women who rarely or never had other authority than their own unselfish purpose, have in all times, even the worst, been able to put their stamp upon the community for good. I am thinking of the Felix Adlers, the Dr. Rainsfords, the Josephine Shaw Lowells, the Robert Ross McBurneys, the R. Fulton Cuttings, the Father Doyles, the Jacob H. Schiffs, the Robert W.

The Making of an American - 40/49

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