It was the Tenement House Committee of 1894 and the Small Parks
Commission that administered the death blow to some of New York's
most sodden slums. These, though only phases of the agitation
extending over many years for slum regeneration, proved to be the
final weapons for those who would wipe out festering spots. What was
sought to be accomplished began after this committee and this
commission had handed up their recommendations and had mapped out
their work. It is not to be contended, indeed, that all slums have
disappeared in New York, though the metropolis shares with nearly
every other municipality in this country and in Europe the honor for
the fact that there has been a decrease in the number and a
contraction in the size of its regions of crime that stalks nakedly
and causes extreme suffering. But the worst have gone. Beneath the
vigorous strokes of dealers in secondhand building materials, the
grimy, ancient, disease-filled structures have vanished. A round
half dozen of the localities famed malodorously in police annals and
in the records of the Health Board from 1870 on are no more.
If the old slum sites have not become places of beauty, they are at
least nowadays spots of comfort. No disease lurks in them; there are
no shadowy haunts and recesses for the plotting and committing of
crime. The regeneration has been effective and has left little
behind it but memories. Memories there will always be. The
traditions of the old sites are not likely to be forgotten or lost.
Nevertheless, the younger generation of today, visiting these
localities, will find it hard to realize what they once were, with
the herding together, the noisy revelry, the wickedness, and the
dirt of years. Indeed, they will never be able to realize it, for,
save on a few occasions, the worst was never told. A tour through
some of these slums, a revisiting of the sites of the old plague
spots, has deep interest for one who remembers somewhat of their
days of crime. What might be called the building regeneration of
these localities is now complete. Where slums once stood there is
here a park, there an open yard, here a business structure, there a
street. Absolutely and definitely the old fester has been cut out of
the municipality, making in spots almost a new New York.
THE MULBERRY BEND PARK.
With the sunlight shining brightly upon its sweep of green, its
well-washed asphalt, and its glistening white pavilion, Mulberry
Bend Park, a breathing place these days for thousands of Italians,
is a remarkable change from the old "Bend" that was the abode of
vileness. Not an iota of picturesqueness has been sacrificed, for
the scene now reminds one irresistibly of a bit of an Italian city.
The row of dwelling houses and shops in Mulberry Street, east of the
park, shows a long range of quaint and foreign fronts. Even the
Baxter Street buildings at the west stand out more artistically and
seem less commonplace because of their new setting. This "Little
Italy" New York has at least three "Italies" has not lost in any
manner in the change. It has gained unreservedly, for the crime and
dirt of the "Bend" more than counterbalanced all its ancient-quarter
There are many filthy tenements in the adjoining streets, but with
the abolition of the real "Bend" the most frightful have
disappeared. Here, where the beautiful park now extends, is the
exact site where some years ago Lady Henry Somerset, in company with
Jacob A. Riis, most expert of slum guides, discovered the first
thoroughly drunken and bestial woman in the city.
Mr. Riis described this in an article written just at the time the
"Bend" was vanishing:
"Into every place made vacant by an Irishman moved an Italian and a
tramp, and when the transformation was completed the 'Bend' held
two or three times as many tenants as before .... Lady Henry
Somerset found some of them burrowing in their underground dens, the
stale beer dives, when she went the rounds of the 'Bend' in the
small hours of the morning with the writer. She had been
congratulating New York upon its freedom from drunken women until
she went down there and changed her mind.
"The police sometimes took as many as seventy or one hundred men and
women tramps out of the stale beer dives of the 'Bend' alleys at a
single raid. On such nights every window in the Elizabeth Street
station stood open all night, and the policemen smoked the strongest
cigars to be got by way of disinfecting the house."
That was the old Mulberry Bend, of which police tradition recalls
that there were nearly six hundred ways, by actual count, by which a
desperate criminal or petty thief, pursued by officers, could
escape. All the ramshackle, aged buildings communicated with one
another, above, below, in cellars, and over roofs. There were scores
of grim, underground passages and a dozen or so winding alleys
piercing the block. When the Italians came, herding two or three
families to a small room, armed with pistol and knife, prepared to
settle their difficulties by stealthy stabs instead of by
application to the courts, it was indescribably bad.
"RAGPICKER'S ROW" AND "BOTTLE ALLEY."
Added to all this there were Jews of the lowest type on the Baxter
Street side. Here was "Ragpicker's Row," "Bottle Alley," which held
the city's record for fights for many a long year, was one of the
chief inlets from Mulberry Street. Another byway led to Bandits'
Roost, the refuge of real bandit mountaineers from Italy. Dirty
stable lanes hemmed it in, as, indeed they did every spot. What the
famous fights were is too long a story to tell here.
"The Bend" went the way of the older Five Points four years ago.
Park building is slow work. It was not until last summer that
Mulberry Park began to show its real charm and to stamp itself a
success. This year the grass has come out velvety, the seats are
filled day and evening, and after the colony has finished its supper
huge crowds congregate here. Though these Italians are growing
gradually Americanized, this is not evident in their costumes. As a
military band plays in the pavilion, the scene is deliciously
picturesque. Not one single reminder lingers of the old slum. Even
the Mulberry Street houses opposite the park, now thrust into the
broad light of day, have been forced to be cleaner than before.
From the "Bend" to Cherry Hill is a long walk through Chinatown, the
lower end of the Jewish quarters, and the haunts of the few Irish
yet left on the far southeast side of New York. Turning down from
Roosevelt Street into Cherry Street, one comes across a big yard in
the midst of the block. Blocks of sidewalk stones are stored there,
huge piles of worm-eaten, dirty lumber wagons stand out in what
might be called the roadway. In one corner there is a tottering shed
made to serve the purposes of a stable for two old horses.
The yard is certainly not prepossessing. It is utterly uninteresting
- a junk shop in the open air. But at least the four winds of heaven
can blow over it and purify it, which was not the case until two
years ago. Until then the fresh air only filtered in, losing all its
purity and becoming vitiated before it had gone a dozen feet. In the
old days the air that struck the famous Oak Street Police Station
was laden with horrible odors, telling the nose only too plainly
that here were crowding people who were little better than brutes,
perhaps worse. For this was Double Alley and Single Alley, the
Gotham Court of an earlier day, and Mullin's Alley where the "Swamp
Angels" of years ago rioted, stole, fought policemen, committed
murders, and, when followed, hid in the great sewer beneath Double
Alley, crouching on the coping safe in ten cases out of ten from the
iron hand of the law.
New York never had a worse slum than Double, Single Alley and
Mullin's alleys. The overcrowding may be judged from the fact that
dwellers on opposite sides of these alleys could, by leaning a
little from their windows, shake hands across. Not that they ever
wanted to shake hands under any circumstances, for war reigned
between all the households. In Single Alley two men could hardly
walk abreast comfortably. In Double Alley it was a little better.
Heaps of rotting refuse were in every corner of the courts, and the
odor of stale beer arose above all.
THE ITALIANS CAME LAST.
The story never changes; each filthy slum of New York always comes
to Italians for tenants. The last lessee of these alleys bundled out
what Irish there were remaining. Why should he not? It meant to him
at least 50 per cent more rents. The Italians merely accepted the
situation. They were getting their rents close to nothing, for each
of the small rooms now came to be occupied by two or three families,
where one Irish household had found it a tight squeeze for
themselves alone. At a bound the population of this slum came near
to doubling. There were fewer fights now that Italy was installed
here, the police reserves did not have to tumble out of bed and rush
around at the double quick so often, but the filth and immorality
increased, and even with the "Swamp Angels" dead and gone, these
alleys had dropped a peg lower.
Why they were left standing so long is one of the city's mysteries.
The rear tenement agitation waxed and waned, and yet Single Alley
and Double Alley remained. Their deathblow came two years ago this
spring on an order of the Board of Health. And yet even now the old
slum is not entirely demolished. The dirty tenement of Single Alley
has been left, though it now faces on the open, broad yard. With
nearly every window gone and everything that could be torn away out
of it, there is to be seen still an Italian family or two in some of
the rooms. But the air can now get a chance at the gloomy, shallow
building for the first time in its history.
It is understood that a big warehouse will rise eventually on this
site, blotting out finally and thoroughly all traces of one of the
vilest of plague spots. Meantime, however, the wood and stone yard
does well. It has laid to rest for all time the ghosts of filth and
Gone, too, and its site now a playground for children and a
breathing place for older people of evenings, is what long was the
worst strip of the ghetto. Hester, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Rutgers
Streets, poor as they were, did not sink into a helpless, apathetic
state until the invasion of the Russian Jews, beginning in 1884, as
a result of the exile because of the May Laws. With their coming in
masses, shrewd landlords began to put in flimsy rear tenements and,
because of the demand, to raise rents until one family had of
necessity to huddle in a single room and even to take in boarders.
There may have been worse blocks in the ghetto than those bounded by
Norfolk, Suffolk, Hester, Jefferson, Rutgers, East Broadway, and
Canal, but if there ever were, the writer never knew them.
THE MOST OVERCROWDED SPOT.
In truth, these blocks were bad enough. Huge, malodorous "barracks,"
smelling of fried fish and unclean persons, filled their centers as
well as fronted on the streets. In these blocks is said to have been
the most overcrowded spot in the world, far surpassing the
ill-reputed ghettos of European cities in the number of souls
clustered to the square rod. Every room at one time was a workshop
as well as a sleeping and living apartment. A series of miniature
factories honeycombed them all, and here were indescribable dirt and
odors. The people gave no heed to their condition; they were
unwilling to change. Over all was the sign of the gabardine, the wig
of the matron, the shul on many a tenement floor. The light of day
never came to the ghetto; literally, there were many rooms it hardly
visited at all.
And now? Where these festering tenements were, a broad field
stretches itself, unshaded and blazing hot at noonday, dusty and
rough, but still an open place, instead of the many score of
tenements. Some day it will be made into a beautiful shady park,
with such a greensward as slum dwellers love. That will take a long
time, however. Meanwhile, city and educational authorities have
thrown open the ground, surrounding it only by a slight fence. to
keep some semblance of order.
The Hester Street open-air dry goods market to the west looms out on
an altogether unaccustomed sight. It sees in place of a line of
scowling tenements an open-air gymnasium, a running track, a
basketball field, two covered sand playgrounds for the smaller
children, a tented platform on which fifty miniature women of all
ages at one time play kindergarten games. And, what is still
stranger and more wonderful, it sees croquet actually being taught.
This is the regeneration of the worst corner of the ghetto slum,
viewed at its crudest now because, though the old buildings have
gone, there is as yet little that is attractive to succeed it. But
already it has become a paradise for the children and the perfection
of resting places at evening for those older. No slum of the town
was ever transformed to better uses.
Jacob A. Riis, for this authority on the New York tenements must be
quoted again, has spoken many a time in print of the filth of Cat
Alley and its buildings, directly under the nose of Police
Headquarters - in front of it, in fact. Cat Alley grew to be a
well-known locality among police reporters, who constantly had it
before their eyes. There was much to disgust, to horrify, about Cat
Alley, for it was always a haunt of lawlessness as well as filth.
The knell has sounded over that as well. The widening and extension
of Elm Street are what brought about its tearing down.
A slice of the block bounded by Mulberry, Houston, Crosby, and
Bleecker Streets has been torn away for the Elm Street lengthening.
By rare good fortune this demolition took the course of the little
slum. Only the extension of the street was being considered, but the
work could not have resulted better. It razed every vestige of the
slum, leaving only a broad street, with a semi square where Bleecker
Street and Mulberry Street meet it, and Cat Alley, with all its
turbulence, its crime, its police record, and, it must be confessed,
its picturesqueness, is now only a name.
Another "Little Italy," this the one well up toward Harlem, on the
East Side, extending from Ninety-seventh to One-hundred-and-sixteen
st., and from Second-ave. to the river, has recently felt the broom
of a "clean sweep" among one of its dirtiest purlieus. Tenement and
little houses up in that region are old, though people generally are
not aware of this. Here is the extreme southeast corner of old
Harlem, nearly down to Yorkville, and the buildings are so closely
packed that were the people not Italians this might well be called a
ghetto, and it would deserve the name.
Three blocks of tenement houses, between One-hundred-and-eleventh
and One-hundred-and-fourteenth sts., Avenue A and the East River,
have met the fate of many other old structures in New York. They are
meeting it now, in fact, for the work of demolition, is not nearly
completed. This bit of former slum is at present a mass of bricks
and beams, of yawning cellars and ground that has been torn up into
wild confusion. One of the small parks will eventually be here,
though two years and perhaps more must certainly elapse before it is
The "Little Italy" on Harlem's southern outskirts is much like the
other "Little Italies." It has all the characteristics of these
noted slums and does not take second place to any of them. There is
the same dirt, herding, immorality and stiletto juggling. The new
park sweeps out of existence one of this locality's most crowded
parts. But there is needed here much further purification. The slums
on the East River bank opposite Ward's Island are not all gone. But
a beginning, and an excellent one, has been made.