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Shantytown  (1880) 
by H. C. Bunner

Extracted from Scribner's Monthly magazine, vol. 20, 1880, pp. 855-869. Illustrations (by F. H. Lungren, R. Blum, Walter Shirlaw, H. P. Share and W. Taber).


by H. C. Bunner

The great city spreads itself day by day. Chafing within its island limits, it feeds the muddy bays and shallows of its river-front with its own soil, with the ashes of its myriad fires, with the ruins of old houses torn down to make room for new; steals from the water long lines of streets; still unsatisfied, crawling ceaselessly northward, it divides and subdivides its habitations; gardens disappear and tenement-houses rise; every man's allowance of space is cut down to its lowest possibility; the rich man can buy himself a little kingdom a hundred feet square; the poor man must hire a bed six feet by two, in a five-cent lodging-house. And still there is not room. One day, a full block of brown-stone houses, climbing up on the rocks by Central Park, cuts right into a gypsy camp of superfluous poor, squatting outside the gates—a peaceable and well-organized colony, that could not find room for itself in the regions of brick and mortar.

And then the squatter colony must go. Pariahs of poverty, these extra-mural citizens must pull to pieces their home of shreds and patches, and set up their household gods elsewhere—little matter where. No one will remember, next year, when the place of their habitation is graded, curbed and paved, according to city regulations; when the six-story mansions of Philistia stand where stood the whitewashed cabins; when C-spring carriages roll where the one-horse wagon of the licensed vender began its rounds, and when the aristocratic anglo-maniac's dog-cart has replaced the rag-picker's.

The knell of the little colony has already struck. The elevated railroad has set its iron feet in the westernmost highway of Shantytown. A few pioneer brown-stone fronts, with their great Doric high-stoops adjusted to levels strange to the cartography of the earlier settlers, stare, tenantless, out of blank, astonished windows, at the ragged and ruleless architecture of their humble neighbors; the dull, incessant thud of the steam-pick thrills the rocky foundations of the town; long processions of creaking carts stream up from the city, deposit each a cubic yard of earth in some broad ravine where a market-garden and a small stock- yard flourish, thirty feet below the curb, and on the morrow the market-garden and the stock-yard are things of the past. The market-gardener has turned teamster, and is "leveling" elsewhere; the stock-farmer is getting his bread by carrying a hod on the newest flat-building going up on Madison avenue, and the boys of Shantytown are playing base-ball on the smooth ground where a placard announces "Building Lots for Sale."

Yet, before it is utterly gone, let us take a walk through Shantytown. It is not too much to give it—this fast-passing phase or fraction of our city's growth—an hour or two of our time; for the wind blows fresh from the west, across the steely-blue river that gleams down at the bottom of the empty road-ways. The sky is clear overhead, except where the smoky haze about the Jersey river highlands softens the sharper blue. And where we are going we shall see, on the east, the many-colored foliage of Central Park, and, to the north, the white and brown of Bloomingdale villas, showing through the distant green.

But, first, where and what is Shantytown? It has lain, all these years, at your doors, O careless New-Yorker, and you know as little of it as you know of the Battery Park, where your father walked of summer evenings a half-century gone by, a fine young man in rolling-collar swallow-tail and tasseled Hessians, and wooed your mother, in a Directoire dress whose belt came close up to the heart that throbbed responsive to the formal utterances of his well-regulated passion. That was at the other end of the city; we are going now to the region bounded, as the election notices say, on the S. by 65th street; on the N. by 85th; on the W. by 8th avenue, and on the E. by Central Park.

This is the Bohemia of the laboring classes. In this country we all belong, or at least we ought to belong, to the laboring classes; but the most of us get from our labor wherewith to keep a certain extent of roof over a limited number of heads. There are some, however, who toil for ten hours only to buy themselves the right to a dozen cubic feet of sleeping-room during such part of the fourteen remaining hours as they may choose not to spend in the streets or the beer-saloons. Of this class, which has no condition nor possession to characterize it beyond the fact of its laboring, there must always be found some lively-minded and restless members who are ill content to gasp out their lives in the packed cellars and garrets down the back alleys of the lower town; they yearn for freedom of movement, for light and air, for the smell of the bare earth and the sight of trees and water. It was some such adventurous souls as these, brave discoverers of the rabble, rambling rakes of poverty, who long ago found their way up to this rocky region, built homes of boards and canvas, and bought goats—which have since multiplied in a ratio wholly disproportionate to the growth of the settlement, respectable as that increase has been: for others, less clearly aware of what moved them, soon came to join the hardy and happy pioneers.

But to be original, independent and comfortable is to be Bohemian; and to be Bohemian is to be condemned of conventionality. When young Mr. and Mrs. Doveleigh van Stuyvesant enter upon the married state, with much affectionate enthusiasm, two unnecessarily long pedigrees, and $1,500 yearly income, they are expected, by good society, to find a corner in his father's house, or her father's house, and there to live, dependent and cramped, but unimpeachably proper and "nice"! And if they take it into their young heads to rent a little room for themselves, near Union Square, turn it into a small and cheap palace of decorative art, and go foraging among the French table-d'hôte restaurants, dining with the newspaper men and the artists—why, Niceness at once labels them "queer—not to be trusted," and they are outlawed—but happy.

The law of the World of Laziness has its counterpart in the World of Labor. Right-minded and right-thinking poverty clings to its small, stuffy, half-lit tenement-house rooms with a steadfast devotion. Two modes of living it holds utterly in horror. One of these is the life planned for it by philanthropists, in "model" cottages: the other is the disreputable freedom of the shanty.

For the dislike which the poor undoubtedly bear toward the pattern habitations of too-officious benevolence there may be much reason; but, surely, the lofty contempt of a seventh floor in Baxter street for the healthful hovels of the Boulevard is a meanness of small conventionality in which unconscious envy must go for something.

When Pat O'Donohue sits in his smoke-begrimed den, high up near the shaky roof-tree of Murphy's tenement, listening to the rattle and roar of the Elevated Railroad trains, far below him, as they echo up the narrow alley, looking down at the black, crowded streets, where the children swarm in the darkness, and the red, camphene-fed lamps of the venders' torches flare and flicker, his breath choked with the varied foulnesses of sewer-gas and stifling crowds, the night-wind coming in his window, heavy with the smells of Hunter's Point, to mix with the essence of his own pork and cabbage,—is Pat, in all his pride of poor respectability, much better off than Tim, "who's gahn to live up wid the folks in thim shanties, the b'y has—sorra's the day such luck iver kem to the fam'ly!"—is he, indeed?

Here we are at Shantytown. Shanties dot the landscape near and far; shanties mark the lines of graded streets north and west; but it takes only a glance to show us that here, right in front of us, lies a veritable town of shanties—an ordered aggregation of hovels that speaks of an association of interests and an identity of tastes—the two great principles that enter into the foundation of villages and cities. You know at once that something stronger than mere chance has drawn these dwellers in huts together; something more mighty than mere accident has made them live in peace and unity for years. You see at once that, within the legal limits of the city, before the very doors of the actual town, this little settlement exists in its entity, in its quiddity, as Charles Lamb might have said, a something quite by itself and for itself.

Standing here at Sixtieth street, your eye, turned toward the rising ground where a glimmer of white shows the old Croton aqueduct and the gentle slopes of hills cut right and left by boulevard and avenue, takes in a space just half a mile in length—from Sixty-second to Seventy-second streets—and perhaps an eighth of a mile wide, covered with a huddling host of small houses, mostly one story high, no two on a level. [1] This space is bounded right and left by two avenues, straight as an arrow-flight, and with but slight undulations. It is further transected by streets that run at perfect right angles to the Eighth and Ninth avenues. These sharp lines serve only to mark the strange irregularity of the region. From where we stand, we catch sight of chimneys just peeping above the curb-stones of Seventieth street. A half-dozen blocks nearer, the town mounts an ambitious elevation and sits, a beggarly Rome, hill-enthroned, dominating the surrounding hollows.

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For Shantytown lies, for the best part, in certain quadrangular depressions, made by the laying-out and grading of the highways that checker its picturesque irregularity. These broad roads have run, like railroad embankments, across a low country, whose undrained bottom now stares up to heaven from amid four sloping walls of earth and rubble.

But the shanties make no account of high ground nor low. They nestle in the malarious hollows, or perch impudently on the salubrious heights. Their whitewashed walls shine out against the raw, red earth of huge slopes like fortress-walls; their fantastic gables, adorned with bird-houses of quaint design, stand out in sharp outline against the sky, whose keen blue gleams brightest above the high gray rocks.

The suburbs of the town are here at Sixtieth street; but they do not cluster closely together below Sixty-fifth street and that large, ambitious house of yellow-stone-faced brick, whose unused porte-cochère has so many years mocked the unfashionable roadway. Pass this, and we are within the limits. Stop here for a moment, if you wish to see the last of one of the most characteristic sections of the colony. Here are two blocks that are still geographically one. The street has not been cut through, from avenue to avenue. It has a beginning now, right ahead of us, as we stand on Eighth avenue. A broad ridge of mud starts from our feet and divides the hollow below us, pausing feebly at the rocky heights that shut the river out—a projecting joint of the island's backbone. Beyond this hummock we see the top of a derrick, occasionally veiled in a cloud of white steam. In a month or two, a wide ravine will cleave the rocks and meet this abortive mud-embankment. But now the hollows on this side, and the heights on the Boulevard end of the two blocks, swarm with shanties. Some stand in the very path of the steam-drill, nor will they disappear until the rock is actually drilled from under them. When we pass down the Boulevard, going home, you will see a hut with one corner projecting beyond the edge of the rocks. The proprietor sits in the door-way. He will move out in a day or two. He has to get up and retire a hundred yards or so every time there is a blast; but that is no reason for quitting his home with premature and injudicious haste.

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The folk who have builded in the mud are, in this case, better off than they who have set their houses upon a rock. These former nestle in the excavation made when Eighth avenue was graded. Their highest roofs do not come up to the line of the pavement. Some of them lie so low that it looks as if a heavy rain would drown them. Others crowd up close to the street, utilizing the fortress-like slope as a combined wall and floor. Others mount the proud eminence of an ash-heap perhaps twenty feet high, a relic of abandoned dumping-grounds. Almost every yard of space is occupied. Here and there is an open stretch; but the lines of foundation-posts show that buildings have lately been removed.

But why do we linger to look at these shanties, which are not so picturesque as the party-colored groups to the north? Why? Do you see that smooth breadth of new earth on the block to the south? That was just such a populous hollow as this a fortnight ago. It is not wholly closed up yet. At the further end there is a junkman's hut, with his little barn, his stable, sty and shed, and a perfect wilderness of "truck"—boxes, barrels, baskets, stove-pipes, bottles, cart-wheels, odds and ends of furniture—the accumulations of, it may be, a dozen years of his strange traffic. See, his high-pitched roof is ornamented with a coiled and twisted skeleton—a crinoline, that mayhap puffed out the gorgeous silks of some fair American who courtesied within these pliant wires at the court of the last and least Napoleon. Again, mayhap, it did nothing of the sort. Who shall predicate thus much from a bird's-eye view of a feminine hoop on the roof of a rag-picker's house? And see, the tenant's big Newfoundland regards us with a curious eye. We should do well to press onward up the long, bare avenue.

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A block further north, we find another "lift" of the rocks which still defies the surveyors. We clamber up a ragged and winding space, impassable for horses, yet evidently meant for a road, an apology for the street that is not. Up here the wind blows fresh and free. We can see the river, bright to-day, and flecked with white sails of yachts. The houses here are neater and more home-like than those we have just seen. These are the choice places, pre-empted by their first settlers, who have been at pains to make their nests as snug and pleasant to the eye as may be. We get back to the walk by Central Park, and note that on the north end of this hill the shanties fairly pack themselves together. Above here the streets are all cut through and graded, some partly paved, and the crowded cottages edge the "stoop-line" with decorous regularity. But the physical geography of the space between the streets is unchanged; and the shanty architect revels in unevenness. He finds no two feet of surface on a level, and he adapts his structure to the conditions of his site.

The impression that this small and strange city makes upon the chance beholder is that of a wild dream of all that he has ever imagined in the way of odd sea-side shelters, boat-cabins, wharf-sheds and marine cubby-houses generally, jumbled together in confusion by a storm, and stranded here. At first the eye cannot make out separate forms in these acres of wood and tin and canvas, clothing the inequalities of the ground. It is only a mass of close-set, distinct patches of brown and gray, in every shade, heightened by spots of white, green, or red, and backed, on the further ridge, by the sharp sky-blue. Then this multi-colored expanse begins to resolve itself into walls and roofs, windows and doors, chimneys, porches, gables and galleries. But here the process ends. We cannot assign part to part, nor fit these shreds and patches into habitable structures. Each one must be studied by itself. In the mass, individual combinations are lost in the prevailing lawlessness of line and hue.

The shanty is the most wonderful instance of perfect adaptation of means to an end in the whole range of modern architecture. Nothing is prepared for it, neither ground nor material. Its builders have but an empirical knowledge of the craft they practice. They scorn a model, and they work with whatever comes to hand.

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This house in front of us found a triangular bit of rock for itself, about as large as a Fifth-avenue parlor. The rock slopes up from the small end, where it connects with this little alley between the red shanty, to the right, and the brown shanty, to the left. At the large end of the triangle it drops down abruptly. Now look at the grip and smartness and easy-going adaptability to circumstances of that shanty. It climbs over the rock, and puts its front door at the very summit; thence its other rooms slip off, at lower levels. An extensive stair-way system being out of the question, these lower rooms are reached by trap-doors in their roofs, which are exactly on a level with the kitchen door. A small gallery leads to the cow-house, which is around a spur of the height. It is ten by six, really large for the neighborhood, and the cow climbs the rock, when she has the chance, as easily as do the children.

As to the odds and ends whereof all this is built, you could not catalogue them. There are bits of wood from the docks, from burnt-out city houses, from wrecks of other shanties; there are rusty strips of roofing-tin; sheets of painted canvas; the foundations are of broken bricks, neatly cemented, the top of it all is tin, slate, shingle, canvas and tarred paper. No bird's-nest ever testified to more industrious pickings and stealings.

They have been put together with a bird-like eye to effect, too. The gallery railings are painted a bright green, and enriched with iron scroll-work from some ruined villa-wall; the front porch is surmounted with a neat cornice, a well-tended vine clambers about the queer, rough corners, turkey-red curtains deck the irregular windows, and the stones and clam-shells that border the alley path shine with whitewash.

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Come inside—we will make some pretext, for these people want neither to be stared at nor patronized. They are independent and respectable, and their sill is as sacred as the lordliest threshold in the land. But we will tell them that we want some goat's milk, which we do, and we will take rapid notes while the mistress of the house is telling us that she thinks we may find a widow with a goat three blocks up.

Mrs. Eichler. American woman. German husband. Has been good-looking. Is now. Neat as a new pin. Everything about her the same. Best class of shanty-dwellers, these. Five children; all clean; and money in bank. This is the kitchen—also dining-room. Good stove; dresser; bright pots and pans; white stone-china. Yankee clock on shelf. Oil-clothed table. Doors right and left. Through left we see white bed, and crib with patch-work quilt. Right, best room of house; horse-hair sofa, chromo, fancy clock, sewing-machine and—a sofa-bed. This is luxury! Who wouldn't live in a shanty?

They are not all so nice, though. Most of the Irish are shiftless, and some of the Germans are slovenly. Sometimes there is only one room in the shanty; but that is rare. Three is the average. Occasionally, one is occupied by two families; but the main idea of the community is the principle of an independent dwelling. Your squatter, smoking his evening pipe in front of his shanty, for which he has paid a fair ground-rent, is a King; and he knows it. His brother down in the Baxter-street tenement-house may despise him; but he cares not. He sends for his father and his mother from the old country, and the neat white heads sun themselves at his south windows all day long. He is proud of his old people, that fellow is; and they, being provided with potatoes to peel, or light employment of the sort, sit under his roof like aged benedictions upon their son's prosperity.

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Of course, the shanty-dweller does not loaf for a living. He is a day laborer, a truckman, a junkman or a rag-picker. The last two lines of business are most numerously represented in Shanty town; but the better class of the population is found among the "truckers," or the men employed in the city as porters, messengers or drivers. They have been living in Shantytown, many of them, for twelve and fifteen years. A few have been on the ground even longer. The first comers were really squatters; later on, rent was charged and collected, and the rates have steadily risen of late years. The ground rent of a shanty ranges now from $20 to $100. These are "open leases," still, the dwellers are lessees of property, and citizens.

It may seem strange to consider this region as a factor in the body politic; but in this free country, votes are cheap, and Shantytown has a hand in the government of Fifth avenue. It comprises, indeed, the entire southern portion of the 19th Assembly District; and the shanty dwellers between Fifty-ninth and Eighty-sixth streets have nine election districts to themselves. The town proper lies in, or partly in, four. The nine election districts which cover the space between Sixtieth street (about), Eighty-sixth street, Eighth avenue, and the North River last year polled a vote of 1,459 for Governor of the State, the majority being largely Democratic, divided between the regular and the split tickets. The vote of the four districts referred to as belonging principally to Shantytown proper was 684. The 20th district, of only six blocks, cast 149 votes. The political complexion of the whole region is decidedly Democratic. Last year there was a certain amount of discord in both parties; ex-Governor Lucius Robinson, at the head of the straight ticket of the Democrats, diverted many votes not only from the ticket of Tammany Hall, the local organization most powerful in the neighborhood, but from the Republican ticket, which had lost the support of a small but active party of "Young Republicans," or "Scratches," who worked in behalf of the regular Democratic nominee. On the vote for local officers, Shantytown "ran wid de machine" of Tammany. These figures are interesting only in that they show how large and how masculine is the population of the district—how rich in voters—that is, in men upward of twenty-one years of age, qualified residents. Of course, allowance must be made for "repeating," but the general testimony is that the region is too solid, too openly and surely pledged to the support of a certain party to call for any illicit electioneering devices. The significant fact remains, that four sparsely settled blocks on the edge of Shantytown turn out 204 votes; while the 16th election, of the Eleventh Assembly District, right in the center of the Murray Hill quarter,—the heart of the patrician domain,—the four blocks lying between Sixth and Madison avenues and Thirty-second and Thirty-fourth streets, can show only 240. Yet the aristocratic election district is closely built up: there are but four vacant lots in the whole space; and many of the houses are fashionable "boarding establishments," whose tenants are the same year in and year out. This little fact ought to preach a startling sermon on indifferentism in politics. The four Murray Hill blocks are the very stronghold of respectability. The extreme corners are occupied by two private houses of millionaire families, one grocery and one bazaar; both the shops being among the oldest, richest, and most respectable of their kind in New York. Yet even the mad excitement of such an election as last year's cannot bring from this district a decent and proper complement of voters; while every qualified man in Shantytown walks up to the polls and deposits his vote. Hence, Murray Hill is governed by the rulers chosen of its own truckmen, street-sweepers, and rag-pickers.

Few of Shantytown's voters are visible at this hour of the day. Later, toward evening, you may see a few junkmen sorting their collections; but in most of the yards, women are picking over the loads that their husbands and sons deposited last night. Women have to do a deal of work in this region. They have charge of almost all the shops, and many of the beer-saloons. We will step into a shop, if you please—but not that one. It is a funny little place; but it is only the penny toy and candy store that is to be found wherever there are poor children. There is nothing characteristic about it save the varied assortment of queer confections in the tiny show-window; and the cheery, though unseasonable, plaster Santa Claus who presides over them, with fly-specked snow on his shoulders.

Here is a grocery that supplies Shantytown with tea and coffee, and other luxuries. You see the regulation assortment as you enter. It is Park and Tilford's, in little, with the addition of cabbages. The nicest little German woman imaginable is behind the counter. She speaks vile English with a sweet South German accent. We have forgotten our pipe and our 'baccy, and for eleven cents we get a pretty little terra-cotta affair and a small package of best Durham. "I can't sell no odder!" she declares, with a dainty shrug. Ambitious falsifier! Behind that counter you have hidden tobacco, at ten cents a pound, that would burn the aristocratic gums out of such customers as the present. But this we say not. We pause and chat, and thus learn that the ground-rent of this absurd box used to be fifty dollars, and is now eighty dollars; that the destruction of the shanties is affecting her business; that everybody in her neighborhood has had the proper bonus of five dollars to move away quietly; that it is all on account of the pride of the landlords, who want to have everything pretty for 1884 and the Great Fair; and that she thinks the shanties look better than the bare ground. We agree with her and depart.

We ought to inspect the beer-saloons, of which there are a plenty. But inspection involves beer, and, unless you have a strong stomach, the refreshment will be too much for you. However, this one is a sample of the majority of them—you see: plain, empty, with a high counter and one lonely keg of bad lager. The Hansmutter, who is quite seventy, serves us. A yellow-haired baby clings to her skirts. Her grandchild? "Ach Gott, nein! Du bist mein papy, ni't wahr, August?"

The "swell" saloon is at the corner of Eighth avenue and Seventy-second street. It is kept by an intelligent, bristly old German, with "exile of '48" written all over his socialist face. He has good kümmel—that's a sure sign, too. A mighty mastiff, chained up in one corner, growls at us suddenly and unsettles our nerves. "What do you keep such an ugly beast for?" we ask, too hastily, "He ought to be killed——"

"KILL? kill dot dog?" And the stumpy figure rises up to positive grandeur as the old man thunders forth his wrath, like a disarmed Berserker. "I guess you aint got no friends, to talk of killing a dog like dot!" And he fondles the animal that licks his hand.

This brings us well-nigh to the uppermost end of Shantytown. Let us turn down, now, and follow the rough line of Ninth avenue and the Boulevard. The Elevated Railroad cars crash over our heads every few minutes; their oily breath vitiates the air. This is much too cityfied. So, likewise, is that exquisitely neat little row of brown-stone houses; all tenanted; the most notable encroachment yet upon the liberties of the town. Across the area railing of the corner house, a policeman is flirting with a pretty, red-haired chamber-maid. She tosses her cap when she sees us, and goes inside. We converse with the "cop"—not on the subject of his conquest. He gives the Shantytowners an excellent character. They are not troublesome, and yield few "drunks" to the acre.

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A little below here is the Pound. It is perked up on a rocky corner, and is kept by an American couple, who despise their neighbors, impound the stray live-stock of said neighbors, get from the city a quarter for a goat, and a dollar for a cow, and are cordially hated for a mile around.

Shantytown's two churches stand on this side—the Chapel of the Church of the Transfiguration, where Dr. Houghton preaches every Sunday afternoon; and the Reverend Mr. Van Aiken's.

Here, too, are the shamefully neglected ruins of the little old Dutch Reformed Church, and its burying-ground, where lie in fragments the head-stones that, patched together by curious, and not wholly irreverent hands, show how outrageously some highly respectable people in this city are neglecting their ancestors. Shantytown's birds are better cared for.

The poor always love birds. This love is often the sole grace and poetry of their lives. Old-time German folk treasured the rhymes of Walter von der Vogelweide. Norman peasants, in forgotten centuries, invented a quaint and touching story to tell their children why the robin's breast is red; and ages have only nurtured this affection till it has become a fixed fondness—a sort of gentle reverence even, which has made a constant alliance between the needy of this earth and the "careless children of the air." The sky-line of Shantytown is dotted with bird-houses. The roofs are bestuck with them. They sit acock of the gables, and atop of lonely poles. The tomato-can, vulgar, modern and artificial, but weather-worthy and snug, is no sooner nailed up under the eaves than it is tenanted by the business like sparrow. The rare old wild-birds, that you never see, nowadays, in the city squares, share with the noisy English immigrants the larger domiciles, many of which are curiously ornate, testifying to the industrious leisure of some ingenious, bird-loving shanty-dweller. The airy colony does its courting, its mating, its setting and its nursing, and all the other duties of its life, in perfect quiet and content. The ragged infants below are less wanton than your sleek farmer's boys out in the country. They are willing to leave the birds alone, because the birds leave them alone. Their barbarian yearnings toward torture are glutted when they can tie an abandoned tin-kettle to an unprotected cat.
A goose is not a bird. "In spite of all the learned have said," common people of poetic instinct refuse to believe the libel on the feathered form of beauty to which we love to liken fluttering female hearts, and that sort of thing. Yet, let the graceless goose serve as a connecting link between the pets of Shantytown and its edible beasts and beasts of burden. To neither of these classes belongs the rat, who deserves one line of mention to record the fact of his presence. Nothing more does he demand. He is numerous, but commonplace—the same old rat who is everywhere that man and decay are. He is a shade more impudent here than is his wont, as who should say: "I'm a beggar and a tramp—you're right I am; but where's your social standing, anyway, stranger?" The pig is a step higher than the rat in the scale of animal worth, in that he can eat the rat. On the other hand, he himself is eaten by man; and it were a nice question to discuss whether he himself regards a life as well and nobly spent that ends in "fresh country" sausages and the hasty ham-sandwich bolted at noonday by the down-town broker.

But 'twere reasoning too curiously to devote such speculation to the pig. The dog is the goat's only rival as the typical animal of the colony, and the dog must be properly discussed. The dog in Shantytown—let us stumble down this embankment, cross lots, and scramble up the opposite side, and thus get southward again to the more populous quarter, where we may search for illustrations of our theme. We will spare our feet, and take this narrow pathway between the two gray old hovels huddling together at one end of this long ravine. The dog in Shantytown—"Mother of Moses, sorr! did he bite ye? Jack, lave the gintleman alone, ye baste,—had he hoult of ye, sorr?" No, ma'am, he did not; but he put his vicious old incisors through the thick stuff of this sleeve, and nothing but that yard of chain keeps those foaming jaws off us at this moment. The dog in Shantytown, as we were remarking, is everything that is vile, degraded and low in canine nature. In him survives the native savagery of the wolf, blent with an abnormal cunning learnt from association with men. He draws the rag-picker's little cart, not by way of making himself useful, not as the friend and helper of man, but simply to delude you into believing in his docility and sweetness of disposition. Then he bites you, and his owner grins out a string of ironic condolences. It is a thing arranged between the dog and his proprietor. Let us go hence, for the atmosphere is not sympathetic; and there are some beautiful effects of chiaroscuro just over there, about a quarter of a mile down the road.

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And, as we pass on, we will glance at the little market-gardens to our right. Of these the larger occupy entire blocks—or rather the bottoms of blocks, yards below the street. They supply "salad stuff," radishes, and a few table vegetables to Washington Market. Their crops are grown with little regard to the season; and the soil is worked to its utmost capacity. In an open winter you will often find a prosperous market-gardener with a full half-acre of glass frames. But he is not happy then, for the warm weather keeps the prices down.

All over the rough land, dropping riverward to the west, we see, side by side with desolate old mansions, that were fashionable water-side villas in 1800, the outlying shanties, rebels in their way against the urban constraint of the town proper. They have broad fields to themselves, and are happy in a plenitude of wind and sun. Yet they are just as fond of creeping into out-of-the-way corners, and up inaccessible heights, as those in the crowded settlement.

We reach here another beer-saloon which you must not miss, though the beer is even more utterly undrinkable than anywhere else. You climb up a shaky flight of steps, and you enter a woful little strip of a room—perhaps eight feet by fifteen. At one end are the bar and the German brigand who owns it; at the other several young local loafers are playing Russian bagatelle. They look on us with suspicion; but are not unwilling to play with us, and to win. Meanwhile, glance through the door at the back. You see a huge, empty room, dark except where the light creeps in around the edges of the shutters, and shows the faded pink and blue fly-paper on the ceiling; the plain benches against the walls, and the kerosene lamps in iron brackets screwed to the side-posts. This is Shantytown's ball-room; where a fiddle or a banjo, or peradventure a cracked piano, leads some queer revelry in the winter-time.

Let us not libel the population, though. It is only the worst of all who frequent these shady halls. From all accounts, the Shanty-folk are much inclined to stay at home o' nights. There are visiting from house to house for the old ones, and decent and sober love-making for the young.

Love! Is there love in Shantytown? Certainly, there is,—good looks, and strong likings, and healthy young blood, and all that goes to make up that rare folly. Those two babies, who are making their own personal, private and peculiar mud-pie on their own side of the gutter, far from the madding crowd of promiscuous infancy—that twelve-year-old pair carrying between them the family pail, just filled at the common pump—that broad-shouldered, red-faced young fellow, in his Sunday broadcloth, hanging on the wooden gate to flirt ponderously with the rosy tenant of the little yard—are not these all steps to that union of affection which has been so effectively commended of St. Paul?

Or, to be more primitive, do not all these lay fitting sacrifice on Cytherea's altar? Juliet Mulvany is spanked and put to bed for making mud-pies with Romeo Guggenheim. Romeo dies not for her; but, growing older, turns to a maiden of his own people, and visits her on Saturday nights, spending long hours in mute admiration of her blonde charms, broken only by spasmodic attempts at conversation, on wholly irrelevant subjects. The fire-light flickers, the rounded form moves to and fro, from shadow to brightness, going about the simple household duties; the tongue-tied young truckman yearns for smooth and impudent speech as wretchedly as a big-eyed Newfoundland dog; yet he speaks nothing, but looks instead, till broad hints and a clamorous clock tell him that he must turn his face homeward through the midnight dark. And then he goes out, with his dull heart full of strange, oppressive delight, and all the small boys round about, waiting in the blackness, throw tomato-cans at him, and chorus: "Sho! Sho! Lottie Bierbaum's got a beau!"

"Guggenheim—Bierbaum" will never figure in the marriage column of the "Herald"; but they will be quietly married all the same, and their lives will be all devotion and sauerkraut, till Death dissolve the honest, homely partnership.

Now we have reached the Boulevard, and we will follow its well-planned course, leaving the Elevated Railway to roar and quiver down the avenue. The sun is setting. The wheels of homeward-bound bicycles whir past us, breaking the yellow light into wiry flashes. Out of the shade of a ragged rock-corner comes a strange couple—strange for the place—a gentleman with a lady on his arm—young, well dressed; the man tall and handsome, the woman slight and pretty. A new-married pair, clearly. He is a young lawyer, perhaps, poor and persevering. He has just come up from business; she has been to meet him at the elevated road station; they are going home to some cheap lodging in one of the old high-gabled Knickerbocker houses, far up the road—or perhaps to a bit of a cottage still further up—their own little shanty.

P 868--shantytown--Scribner's 1880.jpg


But we must leave this smooth, broad road after awhile, and go down to Eighth avenue and Fifty-ninth street, where the house of the Paulist fathers stands—a big, brown building, with a granite extension, half-built, on the avenue. We wish to see the parish priest. Certainly. Father O' Gorman will see us in five minutes; it is dinner-time now. We are shown into a little, cell-like parlor, where the late sun-rays steal through the cool brown shutters, and against the white wall an ebony crucifix relieves the graceful, drooping lines of the ivory figure it upbears. Dead and perfect silence all about us; a delicious rest and calm. Suddenly—hark! The rhythmic patter and shuffle of many feet, the sharp, strong, nervous vibration of men's high voices, chanting resonant Latin vocables; the beat of feet and the clear, trumpet-like tones draw nearer, still unseen, then echo down the corridors, growing fainter and sweeter; and, while our nerves yet thrill with startled pleasure, a black-robed figure bows before us, and the parish priest greets us with the easy, amiable courtesy which always sits so well on the educated Roman cleric. Father O'Gorman is very happy to afford us all the information in his power concerning his Shantytown flock. It is a good flock, quiet, well-behaved, attentive to its religious duties, and well-to-do in a worldly way. It can, the Father frankly says, "afford to be generous to us." No, there is but little vice or crime among the people of Shantytown. They are far superior, as a class, to any tenement-house people. The women have no time to idle; their household duties occupy them; the men find something to do at night in making the house neat, or cultivating the small kitchen-garden. The children go to Sunday-school with the Fathers. The Rev. Father Schweninger has an eye to the spiritual needs of the German part of the population. The "Sick Call" of the House shows negatively that the Shanty-folk are healthy. Father O'Gorman owns that he is losing a good congregation; is glad that many of the ejected have moved further up town, or to Hoboken, and regrets to hear that a few are going back to the noisome tenements. Then a pale young priest calls the Father elsewhere, and he graciously bows us out.

On the steps of the "elevated" station, an employé answers a question about the region we have just left, by referring us to a fat and pompous old person, who is deferentially spoken of as a great man in the neighborhood, a builder, and an owner of many blocks. "Yes," this old person says, "they are cleaning out Shantytown—and a good job, too. Them people, for the rent they pay for what aint either a summer house nor a winter house, could get comfortable rooms in a good tenement-house." Needless to ask what property that man builds and owns.

From the station platform we catch, through the trees, a last glimpse of Shantytown. The dark roofs rise high into the golden air; the smoke of wholesome dinners trembles hazily upward; a flash of sunlight against the sky tells of an else invisible bird-house. When we next come here, the houses will be gone, the fires will be cold, and the birds flown. Even now, the smoke-shrouded train rolls down the line, shuts out the picture, and bears us home.

This work was published before January 1, 1927, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.

  1. Since this article was written, Shantytown has lost several blocks at each end—absolutely lost them, for they have been filled in or cut down to the plane of the graded streets.