NYC: 125 Years Ago
Eadweard Muybridge, between 1872 & 1878
There are only a few ways to do it. Either read a book, watch a period piece film, delve into old photographs, rummage through eclectic items in an antique store, or, if properly situated, stroll the streets of an old American town or city, using your imagination. In certain places, such as the Middle East, the past never gives in to the future. It has a death-like grasp on whole populations, still fighting the same battles, generations later, only with different strategies, rhetoric, and weapons. But how about the economy of America's number one city, approaching the fin de siècle, when milk is 4 cents a quart, and swill drawing a fine of from fifty to a hundred dollars, which almost nobody has? People who make $10 to $12 dollars a week think themselves rich, even though they may have worked day after day until midnight. The down-and-out can find a 7 cent stretch of canvas to lie on in snoring bunkhouses near where today multi-million dollar lofts beckon to the well-heeled. It has been a long time since I was in NYC, but why relive the 80s when I can read and dream about the 1880s, captured in dark photos and descriptive, newspaper-like language?
There are people who read and others who do not. I cannot figure it. No one really needs to know that Blindman's Alley was actually where Manhattan's blind resided. But how else is the info found out, or of what value is its discovery? Or, why dote on the names of saloons long since vanished, such as Rock of Ages or Swamp Angel? Or, while I am on the subject, is it too offensive for the polished inhabitant of the 21st century to learn of "order-loving German[s]" or that "the Polish Jew" quickly starts to learn English faster than another class of immigrants? All in all, it is a literary escape, I think, worth the price of admission -- in this case an 1890 publication reprinted in New Delhi, India, used but in "very good" condition. Naturally, it is typeset with old-fashioned, obsolescent fonts. The photos are dark and indiscernible. A pity. Still, there they are in all their glory: Mulberry Street, the Bend, Five Points, Bottle Alley, and, of course, the Bowery.
Commentary Through a Prejudicial Lens
For the most part, the reader can easily separate the chaff from the wheat. The European-born of the 19th century were congenitally endowed with favoritisms and misgivings when it came to neighboring nationalities. The author's language is not altogether neutral or nicely edited for the likes of Life Magazine or the Saturday Evening Post. It would take time to eliminate the offensiveness of printed words derived from the spoken. But there is no denying the accuracy, for instance, of Bohemians (his own vague term) working seventeen hours a day to assemble cheap cigars for employer/landlords. Or people of another heritage breaking down a tailor business into sewers, buttoners, ironers, and finishers. In fact, it is simply mind-boggling how much activity went on in old New York. Still, there were many, upon whom the author expounds, who gradually fell to waste and ruin. The Chinese took to the pipe, for instance, he writes, as did unlucky immigrants in general to excessive drink. Sicknesses were plentiful and cures, according to the author, scarce. Potters Field could never have languished unattended for any significant length of time. Cadavers were packed in with no room to spare. But the marketplace flourished, even if the writer could not identify the weirder types of fish for sale.
A Compelling Photo
Jacob August Riis
The reader will have to search elsewhere for the author's biography. The Dane who crossed the ocean in 1870 to find work as a carpenter had, by the time of this publication, 1890, transformed himself into a fledgling photo-journalist. I find it rewarding that his descriptions do not obfuscate his own biases, which, it is all too apparent, he has merely borrowed from the fellow-commoner of the era. Thus, anarchism is automatically coupled with the Bohemian, and oddities, such as comparing Czechs to the Irish, in terms of landlord robbery, are somehow lost without further research. To me, the small sums of money used in regular commerce are a constant source of wonderment. A strike increases the payment for 1000 cigars from $3.75 to $4.50. Combine this statement of fact with another, the 3 cent whiskey of Hell's Kitchen, and what have you? Possibly a cause for celebration, but just as possibly not. For it seems that no matter how much employment, how well-paid, or how many members of a single family religiously contributed to the welfare of the group, it was never anything but difficult to maintain an airless, fire-hazardous, life-threatening space in an ill-built, code-less tenement.
From an informed perspective 125 years later, it is all-too-obvious that there actually was a way out. It did not happen all at once, but it encompassed almost the whole of New York's poverty-stricken, who in tandem, found a collective solution to a very vicious cycle of overwork and slave wages. Devilishly harsh ruses, such as setting a section of a building on fire to collect insurance for new furniture, were not to endure. Concurrent outrages: penance for abortions (not the author's word), and nursing for money, are hard to conceive. "Baby farms", in which infants were deliberately starved, are even harder. To put it else wise, as bad as it was in New York, or could get, from time to time, it must have been worse in Europe. Wikipedia's bio of the author seems to report on a number of reasons why he himself might have taken a return trip back. There were times when he had nothing, nowhere to go, and no opportunities within reach.
Never Mind the Revolution
Ever wonder why they did it? These were blue collar workers. They held jobs, worked long hours, were paid little, but had no alternative or special rights. Back home, in Europe, the Communist and Socialist movements held for them no appeal. Despite their bleak circumstances, they plodded onward. Riis predates the more famous muckrakers by several years. But his work, in photographs and words, awakens the spirit of humanitarianism toward which Ida Tarbell and Lincoln Steffens later took aim. Unlike the latter, Riis did not go after the big guys, either in the shape and form of Standard Oil or well-known, corrupt politicians. He sank into the evils of the pathetic run-of-the-mill, some paying five cents per week premiums to gradually drive a step-child into the grave, collecting thereupon $17. Or, highlighting the plight of those whom Riis calls Street Arabs, boys with no real home, who mill about all day, doing what they can, sometimes delivering beer, only to fall asleep drunk and be half-devoured by rats. The single sunny side of the mean streets of New York appears to have been the absence of taxes. One can only guess at what reactions such an unwanted burden would have produced.
New York City
Actually, it never comes. But somehow, after the publication of "How the Other Half Lives", things evolve. But they will not change altogether. Beggars will transform themselves into the homeless. The glass ceiling will take the place of unfair fines for women who sew from four in the morning until eleven at night, in addition to the mandating of payment for an apron, thread, and machine. Blacks paying $12 for quarters Whites pay $10 will turn into other inequalities, too. But by and large, there will be less starvation and greater access to help when the wolf is at the door. Also, Manhattan's population will increase instead of the other way around. The tenements will vanish and high rises of immense proportions come about. NYC is the tallest town I know. Its Dutch architecture the most mesmerizing, if you dare to stop, stand, and look upward. Still, values will truly tempt fate. What has been gained, really, from raising the cost of 5 cent barroom beer to five or ten bucks? The price of traffic tickets, previously unknown, periodically acquired on the way home, has soared beyond belief. If anything, there is more sanctioned, lawful insanity today than ever.
One could go on. In fact, there are hundreds if not thousands of modern books to keep an ancient forerunner endlessly updated. Yes, the poor we have always. For a while, the creation of wealth in bull run markets seemed to pave the way to heaven. Now, big money is not noticeably headed in that selfsame direction. Iran can buy nuclear technology even if it cannot unilaterally manufacture "the Islamic Bomb". Not an unreasonable speculation. We know that talk of millions has been replaced by billions. Think of how much more rooted evil is at present. Examine Riis's photos and reflect upon how rustic the so-called Industrial Revolution now looks. Is there anything that cannot be obtained for money? Yes, poverty is horrifying, as Riis makes abundantly clear, but so is affluence, and its threatening, attendant vices.