The People of the Abyss/Chapter 3
- The poor, the poor, the poor, they stand,
- Wedged by the pressing of Trade's hand,
- Against an inward-opening door
- That pressure tightens evermore;
- They sigh a monstrous, foul-air sigh
- For the outside leagues of liberty,
- Where art, sweet lark, translates the sky
- Into a heavenly melody.
- -SIDNEY LANIER.
FROM AN EAST LONDON standpoint, the room I rented for six shillings, or a dollar and a half, per week was a most comfortable affair. From the American standpoint, on the other hand, it was rudely furnished, uncomfortable, and small. By the time I had added an ordinary typewriter table to its scanty furnishing, I was hard put to turn around; at the best, I managed to navigate it by a sort of vermicular progression requiring great dexterity and presence of mind.
Having settled myself, or my property rather, I put on my knockabout clothes and went out for a walk. Lodgings being fresh in my mind, I began to look them up, bearing in mind the hypothesis that I was a poor young man with a wife and large family.
My first discovery was that empty houses were few and far between. So far between, in fact, that though I walked miles in irregular circles over a large area, I still remained between. Not one empty house could I find- a conclusive proof that the district was 'saturated.'
It being plain that as a poor young man with a family I could rent no houses at all in this most undesirable region, I next looked for rooms, unfurnished rooms, in which I could store my wife and babies and chattels. There were not many, but I found them, usually in the singular, for one appears to be considered sufficient for a poor man's family in which to cook and eat and sleep. When I asked for two rooms, the sublettees looked at me very much in the manner, I imagine, that a certain personage looked at Oliver Twist when he asked for more.
Not only was one room deemed sufficient for a poor man and his family, but I learned that many families, occupying single rooms, had so much space to spare as to be able to take in a lodger or two. When such rooms can be rented for from 75 cents to $1.50 per week, it is a fair conclusion that a lodger with references should obtain floor space for, say from 15 to 25 cents. He may even be able to board with the sublettees for a few shillings more. This, however, I failed to inquire into- a reprehensible error on my part, considering that I was working on the basis of a hypothetical family.
Not only did the houses I investigated have no bath-tubs, but I learned that there were no bath-tubs in all the thousands of houses I had seen. Under the circumstances, with my wife and babies and a couple of lodgers suffering from the too-great spaciousness of one room, taking a bath in a tin wash basin would be an unfeasible undertaking. But, it seems, the compensation comes in with the saving of soap, so all's well, and God's still in heaven. Besides, so beautiful is the adjustment of all things in this world, here in East London it rains nearly every day, and, willy-nilly, our baths would be on tap upon the street.
True, the sanitation of the places I visited was wretched. From the imperfect sewage and drainage, defective traps, poor ventilation, dampness, and general foulness, I might expect my wife and babies speedily to be attacked by diphtheria, croup, typhoid, erysipelas, blood poisoning, bronchitis, pneumonia, consumption, and various kindred disorders. Certainly the death-rate would be exceedingly high. But observe again the beauty of the adjustment. The most rational act for a poor man in East London with a large family is to get rid of it; the conditions in East London are such that they will get rid of the large family for him. Of course, there is the chance that he may perish in the process. Adjustment is not so apparent in this event; but it is there, somewhere, I am sure. And when discovered it will prove to be a very beautiful and subtle adjustment, or else the whole scheme goes awry and something is wrong.
However, I rented no rooms, but returned to my own in Johnny Upright's street. What with my wife, and babies, and lodgers, and the various cubbyholes into which I had fitted them, my mind's eye had become narrow-angled, and I could not quite take in all of my own room at once. The immensity of it was awe-inspiring. Could this be the room I had rented for six shillings a week? Impossible! But my landlady, knocking at the door to learn if I were comfortable, dispelled my doubts.
'Oh, yes, sir,' she said, in reply to a question. 'This street is the very last. All the other streets were like this eight or ten years ago, and all the people were very respectable. But the others have driven our kind out. Those on this street are the only ones left. It's shocking, sir!'
And then she explained the process of saturation, by which the rental value of a neighborhood went up while its tone went down.
'You see, sir, our kind are not used to crowding in the way the others do. We need more room. The others, the foreigners and lower-class people, can get five and six families into this house, where we only get one. So they can pay more rent for the house than we can afford. It is shocking, sir; and just to think, only a few years ago all this neighborhood was just as nice as it could be.'
I looked at her. Here was a woman, of the finest grade of the English working class, with numerous evidences of refinement, being slowly engulfed by that noisome and rotten tide of humanity which the powers that be are pouring eastward out of London Town. Bank, factory, hotel, and office building must go up, and the city poor folk are a nomadic breed; so they migrate eastward, wave upon wave, saturating and degrading neighborhood by neighborhood, driving the better class of workers before them to pioneer on the rim of the city, or dragging them down, if not in the first generation, surely in the second and third.
It is only a question of months when Johnny Upright's street must go. He realizes it himself.
'In a couple of years,' he says, 'my lease expires. My landlord is one of our kind. He has not put up the rent on any of his houses here, and this has enabled us to stay. But any day he may sell, or any day he may die, which is the same thing so far as we are concerned. The house is bought by a money breeder, who builds a sweat shop on the patch of ground at the rear where my grapevine is, adds to the house, and rents it a room to a family. There you are, and Johnny Upright's gone!'
And truly I saw Johnny Upright, and his good wife and fair daughters, and frowzy slavey, like so many ghosts, flitting eastward through the gloom, the monster city roaring at their heels.
But Johnny Upright is not alone in his flitting. Far, far out, on the fringe of the city, live the small business men, little managers, and successful clerks. They dwell in cottages and semidetached villas, with bits of flower garden, and elbow room, and breathing space. They inflate themselves with pride and throw chests when they contemplate the Abyss from which they have escaped, and they thank God that they are not as other men. And lo! down upon them comes Johnny Upright and the monster city at his heels. Tenements spring up like magic, gardens are built upon, villas are divided and subdivided into many dwellings, and the black night of London settles down in a greasy pall.