When, not too long before we were to leave for a beach in Delaware to spend a few days this past summer, an extra family member was added to our party, it was said that the place we would be staying was not really big enough for all of us (my wife, myself, my daughter-in-law, our three grandsons), that it would he too crowded, etc. But, the person was added. We all went.
The place we stayed was one, big, two-story room. Downstairs it had a small kitchen with a small eating table, a living room with two couches (one of which made into a double bed) and another eating table, a remote control color TV (with cable). We also had, of course, indoor plumbing (a bathroom tub and shower) with a washer-dryer in the bathroom. Upstairs was one large room with a double bed and a couch where a small child could sleep. The place was super-clean, brightly-lit and nicely furnished.
Once settled, early the next morning, I went out on the town to look for (what else?) a good used book store. I found one. One of the books I bought was How The Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements Of New York (Dover, 1971), featuring 100 photographs by Jacob A. Riis, one of the few men who took pictures of these slums at the turn of this century when as many as 300,000 people per square mile were crowded into the Big Apple’s Lower East Side. A summary on the back of this book says of these tenements, where rents were substantially higher than in the better sections of the city: “The filth and degradation made the area a hell for the immigrants forced to live there.” And this is no exaggeration.
The book begins with a photo of a place called “Bottle Alley, Mulberry Bend,” which looks like a garbage dump. We then see a 1910 tenement where a man, his wife and four children all live, obviously, in one room, the wood stove just a few feet from a bed. Next, we see a wooden shack on a Bleecker Street back lot. This shack is right on the edge of a huge excavation and looks as if it could slide into it at any moment.
Another photo, like every other, in stark black-and-white, shows a filthy man holding a metal hammer resting on the heel of a shoe across his lap. His left hand is almost totally black. Two of the knuckles on his right hand are enlarged. His long underwear, sleeves rolled above the elbow, is filthy. He looks like a zombie. Nearby is a bunk bed with filthy pillows on it. The picture is captioned: “Shoemaker, Broome Street, early 1890s.” Another photo (“Greek children in Gotham Court”) shows a young boy and girl. The front of the boy’s right shoe is split wide open with his sock-clad toes touching the ground. Next, we see “Baxter Street alley, Rag-Picker’s Row.” It shows two young girls in the foreground who look as if they might he about 9 or 10 years old. A few men are in the background with huge bags of rags.
On “Jersey Street” we see a forlorn, extremely-tired, worn-out looking woman holding a heavily-wrapped baby in her arms. Perhaps it is winter, or just cold in there all the time. Her apron is filthy. Large washtubs and buckets are in the room. A folded mattress is on top of a barrel to her left and behind her. A short ladder to her right leads up to somewhere. We cannot see. We are told that this is the “home” of this “Italian rag-picker.”
Another place we see is called “Bandits Roost” where, I guess, toughs and criminals openly hung out. One man looking into the camera is carrying what looks like a shotgun. We see “lodgers” in a crowded Bayard Street tenement where they pay “five cents a spot.” On a top bunk, two men sleep, one laying all the way back, his visible bare feet black as coal. The man beside him sleeps sitting up. Two more men sleep below in this two-story bed which looks about five feet wide. On the floor, to the right, two more men sleep on the floor, sitting upright, leaning against the wall.
We see a dark, dingy low-ceiling room full of men drunk at “an all-night two-cent restaurant” in a place called “the Bend.” We see a “tramp” living somewhere on a roof. We see some men known as “police station lodgers” (on Madison Street) lying, awake and asleep, on wide flat boards on a concrete floor. Standing up, in the background, is a man, smoking a corncob pipe. His feet are wrapped in rags. A photo of empty “bunks” in another “lodging house” (this one seven cents a night, on Pell Street) shows that these “bunks” are nothing more than strips of cloth hung between 4x4 wooden beams. The strips look to be about two feet wide.
On a bare wooden floor we see more “police station lodgers” (on West 47th Street, in the early 1890s). There are five women gathered around a pot-belly wood stove. One is curled up on the floor, her right arm her pillow. Wash is hung out on indoor lines. In China Town, we see men passed out after using drugs. We see ice hanging on a burned-out tenement after firemen douse it in the dead of winter. In what looks like a home, we see what may be a family cutting out “knee-pants” at 45 cents a dozen. Another photo shows a 12-year-oid boy (who had sworn he was 16) pulling threads in a “sweat shop,” about 1889.
One of the most haunting pictures is captioned “Sabbath Eve in a coal cellar, Ludlow Street, early 1890s.” The man is dressed all in black. His hands are filthy. He has a full, bushy black heard. His eyes are glazed over. On the table in front of him is what appears to be a large loaf of home-made bread — which is filthy.
We see another family, a Bohemian man, his wife and two young sons, making cigars in their tenement. Their monthly rent is $12.25. For making a thousand cigars they receive $3.75. Together, they can make 3,000 cigars a week. We see a smiling, beautiful young woman, outside, sitting under a small tent. Snow is all around her. This picture is captioned: “Fighting tuberculosis on the roof.”
A young man is shown half sitting up, his eyes bleary, staring, vacantly, into the camera. He’s wrapped tightly in a black blanket. He’s lying on a straw mattress, folded almost double, the mattress resting on a wide board held up by two big barrels. It is said that this man, about 1890, slept in this cellar for four years.
Black, filth, black, filth, black, filth.
Almost everything in most of these photos is black, filthy, dark, dingy, gloomy. I n “Poverty Gap” on West 28th Street, we see the “home” of an “English coal-heaver.” The father’s hat, shirt, pants, beard, face and boots are black. The young daughter on his lap is filthy. The mattress on the floor is filthy. The floor is filthy. We see a line-up of fourteen young boy “waifs of the city’s slums” in a “Foundling Asylum.” Three of them have no shoes, only bare feet. In another photo, we see almost twenty young children (maybe five years old), on their knees, in white sleeping gowns, hands together, praying, ready to go to bed. And they are clean! — hands and faces. The caption: “Prayer-time in the nursery — Five Points House of Industry” — run by Christian missionaries.
Not all children are so blessed, however. The next picture shows “Street Arabs in sleeping quarters,” a church corner on Mulberry Street. We see three young boys, sleeping on a cement sidewalk. Their feet are bare. One sleeps propped up in a corner. Another sleeps with his head in a second boy’s lap. Two more young boys, also barefoot, are, literally, dressed in rags. Their shirts and pants ripped, torn. Again, the vacant stares. The caption: “Didn’t live nowhere.” Three more young boys, all barefoot, are asleep on a grating. One is hugging another, his head on his shoulder. Black and white men and women are shown drinking and drunk in “rum houses.”
The “Short Tail Gang,” about 1889, are shown, under a pier, getting drunk, on Jackson Street, later Corlears Hook Park. Even though poor, and under a pier, all are wearing black derby hats. Members of another gang are shown re-enacting, proudly, how they “did the trick” and robbed a drunk. A young woman and an old woman are seen “sewing and starving” in an attic on Elizabeth Street. Two old sisters, on Vandam Street, sit, in torn, filthy dresses, their hands gnarled by extreme arthritis. The woman on the right looks shell-shocked, her eyes wide open but expressionless. She looks dead, embalmed, stuffed. The face of the woman on the left is blurred, the photo here fuzzy, making the picture even more bizarre looking. We see a blind beggar, his right hand holding an open cigar box for money; in his left hand a hunch of pencils, I think, or maybe cigars. Ironically, he’s one of the most dignified-looking people in this book. He wears a black derby, a long coat to the knees. His shirt is clean, the top button buttoned. He’s standing ramrod-straight. We see a man in the worse, filthiest picture of all, living “under the dump,” about 1890, on Rivington Street. The next photo, almost as bad, shows an elderly woman, maybe in her 70s, eyes closed, severely twisted arthritic hands, standing, slumped, an “Ancient lodger” at the Eldridge Street police station, about 1890.
Needless to say, when the place we are all staying at the beach is compared and contrasted with what I see in these hideous, heart-breaking photographs, it is as if we were all staying in Heaven. At the earliest possible moment, I sit down with my three grandsons —John D. Lofton IV (“Bud”) who is 11, Matthew Daniel (8) and Calvin Michael (6). We go through this book page-by-page, as I explain it. The boys are horrified. They cannot believe what they see, particularly the kids they see, their ages, with no homes, no place to live. Among the things I tell them is how blessed we are to have what we have. I try to impress on them how, every day, God gives us new blessings and mercies. And we must never, ever take these for granted. They listen intently. I hope they believe me. Because what I tell them is true.
- John Lofton
John Lofton (1941 – 2014), called himself a “recovering Republican,” and worked as a journalist for much of his life.