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THE TENEMENT-HOUSE PROBLEM.
The tenement problem includes the question of what shall be done for the very lowest class of the degraded poor, and reformers are at once met with the objection, "Why, these people are not suffering as you suppose they are. You project your. self, with your tastes and habits, into their environment, and fancy what you would suffer in such surroundings. But they are not suffering like that. They will not care enough about your better tenements to move into them, even at the rents they pay now. They are wedded to filth and misery. They don't want you to do anything for them."
The embarrassing part of this objection is that it is true. The degraded poor are not suffering from a keen sense of degradation; they do not desire either your sympathy or your interference. Attempt to deny this, and proceed loftily to relieve an oppressed class suffering bitterly and ready to worship you as their benefactor, and you will be discouraged at the very first step. Of course, this is not asserting that no poor people are suffering. There is a large number of poor people who do suffer, but they are not the degraded creatures of the very lowest class. They are, as a rule, nouveaux pauvres, not absolutely poor perhaps, but poor in their own estimation because they are a little poorer than they were yesterday. The nouveaux pauvres are suffering; but it is les misérables whom we are chiefly considering in the tenement problem, and the most awful part of the misery of les misérables is that their misery does not bring with it any great sense of degradation.
No, we may not assert that the degraded poor are anxious to be improved. But that should not discourage effort. On the contrary it should intensify it a hundred-fold. Do you suppose that Philanthropy will shut her purse, and turn away her eyes, and go quietly home again, because you tell her the tenement poor are satisfied to be left as they are? I think she will open her eyes a little wider, and say with increased emphasis, "You tell me that they are satisfied as they are. What, then, have you been doing to these people for generations past, that they have learned to be satisfied with so little ? How did they become acquainted with the filth and misery to which you say they are now wedded ?”
The assertion that it is the tenants that determine the condition of a tenement, not the landlord or the architect, is in a sense justified. There are, in one quarter of New York, two tenements built alike, in the same neighborhood, and yielding the same rents. One is a den unfit to live in, the other is a decent and respectable house. The difference is due to the habits of the tenants. But analyze this, and what have you? You have a class of tenants made what they are by their original surroundings. True, we are not at fault for those original surroundings. But this does not excuse the landlord. He may not be compelling these people to live so, but at any rate he is allowing them to live so. We ascribe the evils of tenement life largely to the close herding together of so many human beings; but objectors will at once remind us that out on the western prairie, where a man builds his own house, and can put in it as many rooms as he pleases, and can have all the land he wants, you will still find what is one of the great evils of the tenement question in crowded cities: a man and his wife and eleven children living, cooking, eating, washing, and sleeping in one room. But what does this prove? Merely that the tenement evil spreads beyond its native habitat. “But if you drive the degraded poor out of the bad tenements," say the objectors," they will only go off to herd in worse places.” That is the point under discussion ; there should be no "worse places." We are supposed to be dealing with the tenement problem at its lowest terms.
I have said that Philanthropy will not be discouraged by the objection that the tenants do not care for reform; but the true court of appeal to decide the matter is not even Philanthropy. The popular idea of the tenement problem is this: "There are in the community a class of people very, very poor, who can afford to live only in the most squalid surroundings; now cannot we club together and arrange to do something for them ?" That is not the problem at all. The problem is this: “There are in the community a class of people who, it is true, are poor, yet who are paying enough to have decent, even comfortable, surroundings. But they are not getting their money's worth. They are crowded into dens where they are getting used to dirt-mental, physical, and moral. Shall this thing be allowed to go on?” This is a question not of benevolence, but of self-preservation. It means not merely discomfort to the suffering few, but danger to the state.
The tenement problem is not a question of what tenants de sire, or even of what it would be nice for them to have; it is a moral situation, to be considered without any regard to what the tenants may think about it. Our own children do not want to have their faces washed, but we wash them. No child, even with the finest pedigree, the most favorable surroundings, the best examples, is born into this world with any overwhelming desire to be clean. Until the lad is ten or twelve, we must in. sist on washing his face; for three or four years more, we must see that he does it himself. By the time our boy is sixteen, however, the task will be done. The vis inertice of cleanliness will have been established.
Nothing is more astonishing, in investigating the slums, than the discovery of the enormous prices the poor are paying for the most wretched accommodations. One man boasts that he draws 33 per cent on his tenement investments. Mr. Alfred White's experiments with improved tenements have been carried on for ten years, and have been made in the city which is third in size in the United States, so that he has certainly had to grapple with all the problems presented by a large city; and he states that for $1.50 a week you can give tenants two light, airy rooms, with separate sink, scullery, and arrangements for coal, and draw six per cent on your investment; yet you will find families paying $6 a week for two rooms, with right to use the hallway for some of their “things;" and in the same house a woman with three children paying $2 a week for one room in the basement, where she cooks, eats, and does washing for a living, with a dark closet and one bed where she and the three children sleep. In a semicircle of sheds occupied by rag-pickers one woman pays $1 a week for the end of one shed.
More than half the population of the city of New York live in tenement houses. There are 30,000 of these tenements, 2,000 of them reported in the official statistics as “very bad.” In one block on the east side there are as many people as you would find in a country village stretching over several hundred acres of land. Between two avenues and two streets in the same district are 3,000 or 4,000 souls. This in itself is not objectionable; for the same space, if built up with "apartment houses," such as we see in other quarters of the city, might afford to a much larger number of persons even luxurious privacy; but these tenements are only ordinary houses. In some rooms you will, in the daytime, see mattresses piled up till they touch the ceiling; at night, when the “boarders " stream in from their day's work, these mattresses are taken down and spread over the floor, touching each other. Forty-five people sometimes sleep in one
You will return from your first visit to the slums with two very strong impressions : one, of the utter hopelessness of trying to do anything; the other, of the necessity for doing something immediately, lest the heavens fall. Perhaps you have evolved in your boudoir some beautiful scheme of amelioration; it has occurred to you that if ten rich men of the city could be persuaded to give $100,000 apiece, not as a charity, but as an investment, to build ten tenements, each to accommodate seventy families, it would be a great and glorious thing. But, as you stand in the “Bend” in Mulberry Street and gaze about you, it will be to say in despair, "$1,000,000, ten tenements, seven hundred families! Of what possible use to plan such an infinitesimal oasis of relief in this universe of misery and degradation ?" You bave never seen people so hived before. Above you, below you, behind you, in front of you, to the right, to the left, in the rear, in the distance, crowded against each other, behind each other, above each other, are human beings. They swarm on the sidewalks, they are entering and issuing from the doorways, they lean out of the windows. You have always supposed that in the homes of the very poor you would be filled with pity for the hard work you would be seeing them do: women bending over washtubs or ironing-tables, cobblers cobbling, tailors sewing, seamstresses running machines, tinkers mending, children weeping bitterly as they, too, turn a machine, or try to make a shoe; everybody toiling for dear life, for a mouthful of bread, too busy to look up, even, as you pass. But the very first impression made upon you in the slums is that of a horrible leisure. What are these people doing? Nothing. What do they want to do? Nothing. What are they capable of doing? Nothing. What do they want you to do for them? Nothing. What can you do for them? Nothing.
And finally the great question, Wbat is the remedy? Does the outcry against tenements mean that there should be no tenements ? Not at all. The problem of homes for the poor in great cities can be solved only by tenements. Indeed, there is not the slightest objection to a home with others in an improved tenement. There are certain advantages in one large building : it is more comfortable in winter, and in summer such improvements as a general laundry prevent much discomfort in the individual living rooms. Let there be a good building, in a decent locality, with a conscientious landlord and a janitor, and a thousand souls may live under one roof comfortably and in decency. The janitor is quite as essential as the conscientious landlord. He must be there day and night, to see that forty-five boarders do not straggle in to spend the night with the family on the third floor, and to enforce the rules which at first your tenants will not care to obey.
The obvious query is, “Why do not these people move into the suburbs, or the country, where they can have so much better homes at so little cost?” But you may as well face at once this difficulty in the case : that the poor will not go into the country. There are limits to what we can dictate. We can say they shall not live as they do in the Mulberry Bend, but we cannot say they shall live in Harlem or at Staten Island. So great is their dread of the country that the children sent out by the freshair funds are almost invariably wretchedly homesick for the slums for several days. A little girl taken from one of the poor