"An East-Side Ramble"

William Dean Howells Impressions and Experiences (New York: Harpers & Brothers, 1896): 127-149.
William Dean Howells was one the best known and probably the most influential advocates of realism in literature. He believed that authors had a duty to inform their readers. "It is one of my heresies that comfort should be constantly reminded of misery by the sight of it. Comfort is so forgetful." As Editor of @u[Harper's Magazine] he advanced the careers of writers who realistically depicted life in America. Abraham Cahan, Stephen Crane, Hamlin Garland, and Frank Norris benefited from his friendship and his assistance in publishing their early works. Howells had a special interest in the Lower East Side and its people from whom he hoped a voice would emerge. "Very possibly there may be at this moment a Russian or Polish Jew born or bred on our East Side, who shall burst from his parental Yiddish, and from the local hydrants, as from the wells of English undefiled, slake our drouth of imaginative literature. . . . They have the precious gift of humor, the vision of those who behold themselves from within as others behold them from without; they have above everything the blessing of reality, of truth to the thing that is. Pity haunts their laughter, and something like an indignant sense of the fineness and tenderness qualifying the vulgarity of the more obvious racial traits in their characters wins our admiration and reverence in their work."(1)

In this article, Howells describes a tour he took through the tenements of the East Side in 1896. He draws interesting contrasts between the American, Irish, and Hebrew quarters, depicts the poverty, and reports on some of the attitudes, institutions, and practices that characterized the area.

The New Yorkers, following the custom of Europe, often fence themselves about with a great deal of ceremony in social matters, even such small social matters as making calls.

Some ladies have days when they receive calls; others have no specified day, and then you take your chance of being turned from the door without seeing them, of if you find them, of finding them reluctant and preoccupied. A friend of mine says he has often felt as if he had been admitted through the error of the man or the maid who opened the door to him at such houses, and who returned, after carrying up his name, to say, with a frightened air, that the lady would be down in a moment.

But when there are days there is never any misgiving about letting you in. The door is whisked open before you have had time to ring, sometimes by a servant who has the effect of not belonging to the house, but hired for the afternoon. Then you leave your card on a platter of some sort in the hall to attest the fact of your visit, and at the simpler houses find your way into the drawing-room unannounced, though the English custom of shouting your name before you is very common and is always observed where there is any pretense to fashion. Certain ladies receive once a week throughout the season; others receive on some day each week of December or January or February, as the case may be. When there is this limit to a month, the reception insensibly takes on the character of an afternoon tea, and, in fact, it varies from that only in being a little less crowded. There is tea or chocolate or mild punch and a table spread with pastries and sweets, which hardly any one touches. A young lady dedicates herself to the service of each urn and offers you the beverage that flows from it. There is a great air of gayety, a very excited chatter of female voices, a constant flutter of greeting and leave-taking and a general sense of amiable emptiness and bewildered kindness when you come away. The genius of these little affairs is supposed to be informality, but at some houses where you enjoy such informalities you find two men in livery on the steps outside, a third opens the door for you, a fourth takes your hat and stick, a fifth receives your overcoat and a sixth catches at your name and miscalls it into the drawing room.


But I must not give too exclusive an impression of ceremony in the New-Yorkers. I made some calls about Christmas-time last year in a quarter of the city where the informalities are real and where the hospitalities, such as they were, I thought as sincere as in the houses where the informalities are more apparent. The sort of calls I made were rather fashionable some years ago, but are so no longer. It was a fad to make them, and the fad, like all really nice fads, came from England, and perhaps it has now died out here because it has died out there. At any rate, it seems certain that there is now less interest, less curiosity, concerning the home life of the poor than there was then among the comfortable people. I do not say there is less sympathy--there must be still a good deal of sympathy--but I should say there was less hope with the well-to-do of bettering the condition of the ill-to-do; some philosophers even warn us against indulging a feeling of commiseration, lest it should encourage the poor to attempt themselves to better their condition.

Yet there are no signs of rebellion on the part of the poor, whom I found as tame and peaceful, apparently, when I went the rounds of their unceremonious at-homes as the most anxious philosopher could desire. My calls were by no means of the nature of a perquisition, but they left very little unknown to me, I fancy, of the way the poor live, so frank and simple is their life. They included some tenements of the American quarter, near the point of the island, on the West Side, and a rather greater number on the East Side, in the heart of the district abandoned chiefly to the Russian Jews, though there are no doubt other nationalities to be found there. It is said to be more densely populated than any other area in the world, or at least in Christendom, for within a square mile there are more than three hundred and fifty thousand men, women and children. One can imagine from this fact alone how they are housed and what their chances of the comforts and decencies of life may be. But I must not hurry to the region of these homes before I have first tried to show the interiors of that quarter called American, where I found the Americans represented, as they are so often, by Irish people. The friend who went with me on my calls led me across the usual surface tracks, under the usual elevated tracks, and suddenly dodged before me into an alleyway about two feet wide. This crept under houses fronting on the squalid street we had left and gave into a sort of court some ten or twelve feet wide by thirty or forty feet long. The buildings surrounding it were low and very old. One of them was a stable, which contributed its stench to the odors that rose from the reeking pavement and from the closets filling an end of the court, with a corner left beside them for the hydrant that supplied the water of the whole inclosure. It is from this court that the inmates of the tenements have their sole chance of sun and air. What the place must be in summer I had not the heart to think, and on the wintry day of my visit I could not feel the fury of the skies which my guide said would have been evident to me if I had seen it in August. I could better fancy this when I climbed the rickety stairs within one of the houses and found myself in a typical New York tenement. Then I almost choked at the thought of what a hot day, what a hot night, must be in such a place, with the two small windows inhaling the putrid breath of the court and transmitting it, twice fouled by the passage through the living-room, to the black hole in the rear, where the whole family lay on the heap of rags that passed for a bed.

We had our choice which door to knock at on the narrow landing, a yard wide at most, which opened into such tenements to the right and left, as many stories up as the stairs mounted. We stood at once in the presence of the hostess; there was no ceremony of sending in our cards here, or having our names called to her. In one case we found her over the washtub, with her three weeks' babe bundled in a chair beside it. A table, with a half-eaten loaf, that formed her breakfast, on it, helped, with the cooking-stove, to crowd the place past any possibility of sitting down, if there had been chairs to sit in; so we stood, as people do at an afternoon tea. At sight of us the woman began to cry and complain that her man had been drunk and idle for a month and did nothing for her; though in these times he might have been sober and idle and done as little. Some good soul was paying the rent for her, which was half as great as would have hired a decent flat in a good part of the town; but how her food came or the coal for her stove remained a mystery which we did not try to solve. She wiped her tears at the exhibition of a small coin, which she had perhaps dimly foreseen through them from the moment they began to flow. It was wrong, perhaps, to give her money, but it was not very wrong, perhaps, for the money was not very much, and if it pauperized her it could not have been said that she was wholly unpauperized before she took it. These are very difficult cases, but all life is a hopeless tangle, and the right is something that does not show itself at once, especially in economical affairs.

In another tenement we found a family as gay and hopeful as this was dismal and desperate. An Irish lady with a stylish fringe of red hair decorating her forehead, welcomed us with excuses for the state of the apartment, which in the next breath she proved herself very proud of, for she said that if people were not comfortable in their houses it was because they were slovenly and untidy. I could not see that she was neater than her neighbor on the landing below. She had a florid taste in pictures, and half a dozen large colored prints went far to hide the walls, which she said, the landlord had lately had whitewashed, though to eyes less fond than hers they showed a livid blue. The whitewashing was the sole repairs which had been put upon her tenement since she came into it, but she seemed to think it quite enough; and her man, who sat at leisure near the stove, in the three days' beard which seems inseparable from idle poverty, was quite boastful of its advantages. He said that he had lived in the court for thirty years and there was no such air anywhere else in this world. I could readily believe him, being there to smell it and coming away with the taste of it in my mouth. Like other necessaries of life, it must have been rather scanty in that happy home, especially at night, when the dark fell outside and a double dark thickened in the small bin which stood open to our gaze at the end of the room. The whitewash seemed not to have penetrated to this lair, where a frowzy mattress showed itself on a rickety bedstead. The beds in these sleeping-holes were never made up; they were rounded into a heap and seemed commonly of a coarse brown sacking. They had always a horrible fascination for me. I fancied them astir with a certain life which, if there had been a consensus of it to that effect, might have walked off with them.

All the tenements here were of this size and shape--a room with windows opening upon the court and at the rear the small black bin or pen for the bed. The room was perhaps twelve feet square and the bin was six, and for such a dwelling the tenant pays six dollars a month. If he fails to pay it he is evicted, and some thirty thousand evictions have taken place in the past year. But an eviction is by no means the dreadful hardship the reader would perhaps imagine it. To be sure, it means putting the tenant on the sidewalk with his poor household gear in any weather and at any hour; but if it is very cold or very wet weather, the evicted family is seldom suffered to pass the night there. The wretched neighbors gather about and take them in, and their life begins again on the old terms; or the charities come to their aid, and they are dispersed into the different refuges until the father or mother can find another hole for them to crawl into. Still, natural as it all is, I should think it must surprise an Irishman, who supposed he had left eviction behind him in his native land, to find it so rife in the country of his adoption.


My friend asked me if I would like to go into any other tenements, but I thought that if what I had seen was typical, I had seen enough in that quarter. The truth is, I had not yet accustomed myself to going in upon people in that way, though they seemed accustomed to being gone in upon without any ceremony but the robust "Good-morning!" my companion gave them by way of accounting for our presence, and I wanted a little interval to prepare myself for further forays. The people seemed quite ready to be questioned, and answered us as persons in authority. They may have taken us for detectives, or agents of benevolent societies, or journalists in search of copy. In any case, they had nothing to lose and they might have something to gain; so they received us kindly and made us much at home among them as they knew how. It may have been that in some instances they supposed that we were members of the Board of Health and were their natural allies against their landlords.

I had not realized before how much this noble institution can befriend the poor, so potently sustained as it is in the discharge of its duties by the popular sentiment in a land where popular sentiment is so often so weak. It has full power, in the public interest, to order repairs and betterments necessary for the general health in any domicile, rich or poor, in the city, and no man's pleasure of profit may hinder it. In cases of contagion or infection, it may isolate the neighborhood or vacate the premises, or, in certain desperate conditions, destroy them. As there are always pestilences of some sort preying upon the poor (as if their poverty were not enough), my companion could point out a typhus quarter, which the Board had shut up and which we must not approach. Such minor plagues as small pox, scarlet-fever, and diphtheria are quickly discovered and made known, and the places that they have infested are closed till they can be thoroughly purified. Any tenant believing his premises to be in an unwholesome or dangerous state may call in the Board, and from its decision the landlord has no appeal. He must make the changes the Board ordains, and he must make them at his own cost, though no doubt, when the tenant can pay, he contrives somehow to make him pay in the end. The landlord, especially if he battens on the poorer sort of tenants, is always in fear of the Board, and the tenant is in love with it, for he knows that, in a community otherwise delivered over to the pursuit of self or pleasure, it stands his ready friend, whose mandate private interest obeys as it obeys no other. It seems to have more honor than any other institution among us, and, amid the most frightful corruption of every kind, to remain incorruptible. Very likely the landlord may sometimes think that it abuses its power, but the tenant never thinks so, and the public seems always to agree with the tenant. The press, which is so keen to scent out paternalism in municipal or national affairs, has not yet perceived any odor of it in the Board of Health, and stands its constant friend, though it embodies in the most distinctive form the principle that, in a civilized community, the collective interest is supreme. Even if such an extension of its powers were not in the order of evolution, it would not be so illogical for the Board of Health to command the abatement of poverty when the diseases that flow from poverty cannot be otherwise abated. I should not like to prophesy that it will ever do so, but stranger things have happened through the necessity that knows no law, not even the law of demand and supply--the demand of Moloch and the supply of Misery.


I do not know whether the Hebrew quarter, whenI began to make my calls there, seemed any worse than the American quarter or not. But I noticed presently a curious subjective effect in myself, which I offer for the reader's speculation.

There is something in a very little experience of such places that blunts the perception, so that they do not seem so dreadful as they are; and I should feel as if I were exaggerating if I recorded my first impression of their loathsomeness. I soon came to look upon the conditions as normal, not for me, indeed, or for the kind of people I mostly consort with, but for the inmates of the dens and lairs about me. Perhaps this was partly their fault; they were uncomplaining, if not patient, in circumstances where I believe a single week's sojourn, with no more hope of a better lot than they could have, would make anarchists of the best people in the city. Perhaps the poor people themselves are not so thoroughly persuaded that there is anything very unjust in their fate, as the compassionate think. They at least do not know the better fortune of others, and they have the habit of passively enduring their own. I found them usually cheerful in the Hebrew quarter, and they had so much courage as enabled them to keep themselves noticeably clean in an environment where I am afraid their betters would scarcely have had heart to wash their faces and comb their hair. There was even a decent tidiness in their dress, which I did not find very ragged, though it often seemed unseasonable and insufficient. But here again, as in many other phases of life, I was struck by men's heroic superiority to their fate, if their fate is hard; and I felt anew that if prosperous and comfortable people were as good in proportion to their fortune as these people were they would be as the angels of light, which, I am afraid they now but faintly resemble.

One of the places we visited was a court somewhat like that we had already seen in the American quarter, but rather smaller and with more the effect of a pit, since the walls around it were so much higher. There was the same row of closets at one side and the hydrant next to them, but there the hydrant was bound up in rags to keep it from freezing, apparently, and the wretched place was by no means so foul under foot. To be sure there was no stable to contribute its filth, but we learned that a suitable stench was not wanting from a bakery in one of the basements, which a man in good clothes and a large watch-chain told us rose from it in suffocating fumes at a certain hour, when the baker was doing some unimaginable thing to the bread. This man seemed to be the employer of labor in one of the rooms above, and he said that when the smell began they could hardly breathe. He caught promptly at the notion of the Board of Health, and I dare say that the baker will be duly abated. None of the other people complained, but that was perhaps because they had only their Yiddish to complain in, and knew that it would be wasted on us. They seemed neither curious nor suspicious concerning us; they let us go everywhere, as if they had no thought of hindering us. One of the tenements we entered had just been vacated; but there was a little girl of ten there, with some much smaller children, amusing them in the empty space. Through a public-spirited boy, who had taken charge of us form the beginning and had a justly humorous sense of the situation, we learned that this little maid was not the sister but the servant of the others, for even in these low levels society makes its distinctions. I dare say that the servant was not suffered to eat with the others when they had anything to eat, and that when they had nothing her inferiority was somehow brought home to her. She may have been made to wait and famish after the others had hungered some time. She was a cheerful and friendly creature and her small brood were kept tidy like herself.

The basement under this vacant tenement we found inhabited, and though it was a most preposterous place for people to live, it was not as dirty as one would think. To be sure, it was not very light and all the dirt may not have been visible. One of the smiling women who were there made their excuses, "Poor people; cannot keep very nice," and laughed as if she had said a good thing. There was nothing in the room but a table and a few chairs and a stove, without fire, but they were all contentedly there together in the dark, which hardly let them see one another's faces. My companion struck a match and held it to the cavernous mouth of an inner cellar half as large as the room we were in, where it winked and paled so soon that I had only a glimpse of the bed, with the rounded heap of bedding on it; but out of this hole, as if she had been a rat, scared from it by the light, a young girl came, rubbing her eyes and vaguely smiling, and vanished up-stairs somewhere.


I found no shape or size of tenement but this. There was always the one room, where the inmates lived by day, and the one den, where they slept by night, apparently all in the same bed, though probably the children were strewn about the floor. If the tenement were high up the living-room had more light and air than if it were low down; but the sleeping hole never had any light or air of its own. My calls were made on one of the mild days which fell before last Christmas, and so I suppose I saw these places at their best; but what they must be when the summer is seven times heated without, as it often is in New York, or when the arctic cold has pierced these hapless abodes and the inmates huddle together for their animal heat, the reader must imagine for himself. The Irish-Americans had flaming stoves, even on that soft day, but in the Hebrew tenements I found no fire. They were doubtless the better for this, and it is one of the comical anomalies of the whole affair that they are singularly healthy. The death rate among them is one of the lowest in the city, though whether for their final advantage it might not better be the highest, is one of the things one must not ask one's self. In their presence I should not dare to ask it, even in my deepest thought. They are then so like other human beings and really so little different from the best, except in their environment, that I had to get away from this before I could regard them as wild beasts.

I suppose there are and have been worse conditions of life, but if I stopped short of savage life I found it hard to imagine them. I did not exaggerate to myself the squalor that I saw, and I do not exaggerate it to the reader. As I have said, I was so far from sentimentalizing it that I almost immediately reconciled myself to it, as far as its victims were concerned. Still, it was squalor of a kind which, it seemed to me, it could not be possible to outrival anywhere in the life one commonly calls civilized. It is true that the Indians who formerly inhabited this island were no more comfortably lodged in their wigwams of bark and skins than these poor New-Yorkers in their tenements. But the wild men pay no rent, and if they are crowded together upon terms that equally forbid decency and comfort in their shelter, they have the freedom of the forest and the prairie about them; they have the illimitable sky and the whole light of day and the four winds to breathe when they issue into the open air. The New York tenement dwellers, even when they leave their lairs, are still pent in their high-walled streets and inhale a thousand stenches of their own and others' making. The street, except in snow and rain, is always better than their horrible houses, and it is doubtless because they pass so much of their time in the street that the death rate is so low among them. Perhaps their domiciles can be best likened for darkness and discomfort to the dugouts or sod huts of the settlers on the great plains. But these are only temporary shelters, while the tenement dwellers have no hope of better housing; they have neither the prospect of a happier fortune through their own energy as the settlers have, nor any chance from the humane efforts and teachings of missionaries, like the savages. With the tenement dwellers it is from generation to generation, if not for the individual, then for the class, since no one expects that there will not always be tenement dwellers in New York as long as our present economical conditions endure.


When I first set out on my calls I provided myself with some small silver, which I thought I might fitly give, at least to the children, and in some of the first places I did this. But presently I began to fancy an unseemliness in it, as if it were an indignity added to the hardship of their lot, and to feel that unless I gave all my worldly wealth to them I was in a manner mocking their misery. I could not give everything for then I should have had to come upon charity myself, and so I mostly kept my little coins in my pocket; but when we mounted into the court again from that cellar apartment and found an old, old woman there, wrinkled and yellow, with twinkling eyes and a toothless smile, waiting to see us, as if she were as curious in her way as we were in ours, I was tempted. She said in her Yiddish, which the humorous boy interpreted, that she was eighty years old, and she looked a hundred, while she babbled unintelligibly but very cheerfully on. I gave her a piece of twenty-five cents and she burst into a blessing, that I should not have thought could be bought for money. We did not stay to hear it out, but the boy did, and he followed to report it to me, with a gleeful interest in its beneficent exaggerations. If it is fulfilled I shall live to be a man of many and prosperous years, and I shall die possessed of wealth that will endow a great many colleges and found a score of libraries. I do not know whether the boy envied me or not, but I wish I could have left that benediction to him, for I took a great liking to him, his shrewd smile, his gay eyes, his promise of a Hebrew nose, and his whole wise little visage. He said that he went to school and studied reading, writing, geography and everything. All the children we spoke to said that they went to school, and they were quick and intelligent. They could mostly speak English, while most of their elders knew only Yiddish.

The sound of this was around us on the street we issued into, and which seemed from end to end a vast bazaar, where there was a great deal of selling, whether there was much buying or not. The place is humorously called the pig-market by the Christians, because everything in the world but pork is to be found there. To me its activity was a sorrowfully amusing satire upon the business ideal of our plutocratic civilization. These people were desperately poor, yet they preyed upon one another in their commerce, as if they could be enriched by selling dear or buying cheap. So far as I could see they would only impoverish each other more and more, but they trafficked as eagerly as if there were wealth in every bargain. The sidewalks and the roadways were thronged with peddlers and purchasers, and everywhere I saw splendid types of that old Hebrew world which had the sense if not the knowledge of God when all the rest of us lay sunk in heathen darkness. There were women with oval faces and olive tints, and clear, dark eyes, relucent as evening pools, and men with long beards of jetty black or silvery white, and the noble profiles of their race. I said to myself that it was among such throngs that Christ walked, it was from such people that he chose his Disciples and his friends; but I looked in vain for him in Hester street. Probably he was at that moment in Fifth Avenue.


After all, I was loath to come away. I should have liked to stay and live awhile with such as they, if the terms of their life had been possible, for there were phases of it that were very attractive. That constant meeting and that neighborly intimacy were superficially at least of a very pleasant effect, and though the whole place seemed abandoned to mere trade, it may have been a necessity of the case, for I am told that many of these Hebrews have another ideal, and think and vote in the hope that the land of their refuge shall yet some day keep its word to the world, so that men shall be equally free in it to the pursuit of happiness. I suppose they are mostly fugitives from the Russian persecution, and that from the cradle their days must have been full of fear and care, and from the time they could toil that they must have toiled at whatever their hands found to do. Yet they had not the look of a degraded people; they were quiet and orderly, and I saw none of the drunkenness or the truculence of an Irish or low American neighborhood among them. There were no policemen in sight, and the quiet behavior that struck me so much seemed not to have been enforced. Very likely they may have moods different from that I saw, but I only tell of what I saw, and I am by no means ready yet to preach poverty as a saving grace. Though they seemed so patient and even cheerful in some cases, I do not think it is well for human beings to live whole families together in one room with a kennel out of it, where modesty may survive, but decency is impossible. Neither do I think they can be the better men and women for being insufficiently clothed and fed, though so many of us appear none the better for being housed in palaces and clad in purple and fine linen and faring sumptuously every day.

I have tried to report simply and honestly what I saw of the life of our poorest people that day. One might say it was not so bad as it is painted, but I think it is quite as bad as it appeared; and I could not see that in itself or in its conditions it held the promise or the hope of anything better. If it is tolerable, it must endure; if it is intolerable, still it must endure. Here and there one will release himself from it, and doubtless numbers are always doing this, as in the days of slavery there were always fugitives; but for the great mass the captivity remains. Upon the present terms of leaving the poor to be housed by private landlords, whose interest it is to get the greatest return of money for the money invested, the very poorest must always be housed as they are now. Nothing but public control in some form or other can secure them a shelter fit for human beings.

(1) Harper's Magazine, CXXX (May, 1915): 957-958.
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