Thursday, August 19, 2010

cliff dwellers

This is a painting by George Bellows called Cliff Dwellers (as usual, you may click the image to view it full size).


{Cliff Dwellers, oil on canvas, 40 1/4 by 42 1/8 inches, currently hung in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; source: the web pages from last winter's exhibit called American Stories at the Metropolitan Museum of Art}

He showed it in the 1913 Armory Show which he helped organize.

Bellows was known for his gritty scenes of working class life in New York. Associated with the realist artists of the Ashcan School, he, more than others, depicted the "crudity and chaos" of city life in the immigrant neighborhoods.[1] Although he was not known to flinch from depicting violence and raw emotion, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art points out that in Cliff Dwellers, he "offers a genial narrative:"
Bellows acknowledges that much life in the neighborhood was lived in the street or on stoops and fire escapes, as residents sought respite from dark, poorly ventilated, overcrowded apartments. Yet he minimizes hardship, using bright colors and showing children at play, laundry snapping in a passing breeze, and other cheerful details. While Jacob Riis made a disquieting photographic record of New York's slums about 1890 and social commentators urged tenement reform, Bellows offers a genial narrative. Like Basil March, a character in William Dean Howells's novel A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) who visited a tenement neighborhood, he seems to proclaim: 'I haven't seen a jollier crowd anywhere in New York.'[2]
Jacob Riis did not just photograph, but, in telling detail, described the awful conditions endured by these immigrant masses. From a text of his written two decades before, here's roughly the same scene: "Evening has worn into night as we take up our homeward journey through the streets, now no longer silent. The thousands of lighted windows in the tenements glow like dull red eyes in a huge stone wall. From every door multitudes of tired men and women pour forth for a half-hour’s rest in the open air before sleep closes the eyes weary with incessant working. Crowds of half-naked children tumble in the street and on the sidewalk, or doze fretfully on the stone steps. As we stop in front of a tenement to watch one of these groups, a dirty baby in a single brief garment — yet a sweet, human little baby despite its dirt and tatters — tumbles off the lowest step, rolls over once, clutches my leg with unconscious grip, and goes to sleep on the flagstones, its curly head pillowed on my boot." -- How the Other Half Lives, Jacob A. Riis, 1890.[3]

Here are some details from the Bellows painting.

1. The windowsill sports a flowering plant by which a young person looks out. A man takes a nap on the fire escape as another observes life going on below.



2. I think this shows a man lighting a cigarette. Tobacco was a luxury and young boys would scavenge for cigar butts, combining the remnants to sell. Guys like this would buy their tobacco and roll cigs.



3. The electric street car is on its way to Vesey Street, packed with commuters. We're on East Broadway and the sidewalks are jammed with other commuters afoot, as well as Riis's "multitudes of tired men and women [seeking] a half-hour’s rest in the open air before sleep closes the eyes weary with incessant working." The barber poll indicates that this block draws custom from places where men can afford a haircut and shave.



4. It's women who put out the wash to dry of course, doing so in the evening after they've finished work for the day.



5. Here are the romping kids to whom the Met curator drew our attention, but also one in exhausted sleep by the curb as Riis described.



6. An older girl has some harsh words for a boy, presumably her brother.



7. Two women, one with sleeping babe, relax in the pleasure of each other's company. If you're like me your eye was drawn first the white frocks of the girls directly above, and then to these two.



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The East Broadway of Cliff Dwellers was an area that Riis called Jewtown. The term seems offensive but he meant it as we say Chinatown or Little Italy. In a piece called The Sweaters of Jewtown, he both described and depicted the sweated labor of Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe.[4] Here's one of his photographs. It shows a tenement home and place of work. Note the girl's smile, the pet dog, and the hands-in-lap of a woman at rest, all of them mitigating the viewer's sense of outrage over the exploitive toil that's the photo's main subject. Riis says: "Up two flights of dark stairs, three, four, with new smells of cabbage, of onions, of frying fish, on every landing, whirring sewing machines behind closed doors betraying what goes on within, ... in a dimly lighted room with a big red-hot stove to keep the pressing irons ready for use, is a family of man, wife, three children, and a boarder. 'Knee-pants' are made there .... Three cents and a half is all he clears, says the man, and lies probably out of at least two cents. The wife makes a dollar and a half finishing, the man about nine dollars at the machine. The boarder pays sixty-five cents a week. He is really only a lodger, getting his meals outside. The rent is two dollars and twenty-five cents a week, cost of living five dollars. Every floor has at least two, sometimes four, such shops."[5]


{Riis's caption: Knee-pants at 45 cents a dozen – a Ludlow Street sweater’s shop; source: Child Labor Resources at the Catherwood Library and the Kheel Center}

Riis says the these Jewish immigrants appear to present policy makers with an intractable set of problems. Organizations such as United Hebrew Charities try to better their living conditions and to break the economic system that ties them to poor-paying piecework, but they are stymied since there are so many Ostjüdin, eager to flee the desperate poverty and constant danger of life in the Russian Empire. As current residents move out, others, in greater numbers, move in. In tenements, says Riis, "the lodger of Jewtown can 'live like a lord,' as he says himself, for twenty-five cents a day, including the price of his bed, that ranges all the way from thirty to forty and fifty cents a week, and save money, no matter what his earnings."[6]

I've done sets of blog posts on the African-American underclass of former slaves in New York's Five Points neighborhood and on the destitute Irish immigrants who moved in with them.[7] After a bit of mid-century urban cleansing the Irish moved north to Mulberry Street and Little Italy and the African-Americans spread out to other neighborhoods, many of them to blocks east of Mulberry Street in and near Chinatown.[8] What Riis called Jewtown lay further to the east.

In 1890 Riis took this photo of the worst part of Mulberry Street, called Mulberry Bend. It's hard to tell from the photo, but destitution and crime were worse here than they were in Riis's Jewtown. From the shadows, it seems to be mid-day, a time on East Broadway when most residents would be inside making sweated garments; yet here there are many men out and about, most not seeming to have any occupation. The only woman we can see is stooped, collecting something from curbside.


{Mulberry Bend by Jacob Riis on Meisterwerke der Fotografie -- zeno.org}

This map shows East Broadway, Ludlow St., Mulberry St., and Vesey St. The blue line indicates the route of the Vesey St. electric car. I've also indicated Mulberry Bend and Reade St. My great-grandfather worked out of an office at 20 Reade St. for all of the second half of the 19th century and for most of that time commuted on foot from his home at Woodside in what was then rural Queens. He didn't usually pass through East Broadway, but he did cross its western end as he strolled back and forth each day.[9]


{The city of New York, by Will L. Taylor, 1879; source: Library of Congress}


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Some sources:

George Bellows (American, 1882–1925) Cliff Dwellers, 1913, Metropolitan Museum of Art

American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915: Cliff Dwellers by George Bellows, transcription of a podcast on the subject; Barbara Weinberg interviews Joyce Mendelsohn and Annie Polland, two historians of New York’s Lower East Side

After 1915: The Evolution of American Stories, a blog post from the Met including a discussion of the painting:
In Cliff Dwellers, children play, vendors sell from carts, and a streetcar inches its way through the lively throng. (For more information about Cliff Dwellers, listen to the related Met Podcast episode with Joyce Mendelsohn and Annie Polland, two historians of New York’s Lower East Side.) Like Bellows’s painting, early-twentieth-century films of New York City streets often emphasized the sometimes chaotic movement of the crowds that passed before the lens. (As an example, see the 1903 film by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company called At the foot of the Flatiron, available through the Library of Congress website.) In Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film, 1880–1910, the art historian Nancy Mowll Mathews writes that films and paintings in the early twentieth century often presented cities as living things. In Cliff Dwellers, with its emphasis on the surging, crisscrossing crowds, we see the streets of New York as a living being, which parallels the visual language of motion pictures.
New York City, Tenement Life

New York City Play Areas for Children of the Tenements

Seward Park

New York Songlines: East Broadway

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Notes:

[1] The quote comes from the wikipedia article on Bellows.

[2] George Bellows (American, 1882–1925) Cliff Dwellers, 1913

[3] A photographer as well as sociologist and urban reformer, Riis was, like Bellows, associated with the Ashcan School.

[4] The piece is Chapter XI of How the Other Half Lives, Studies Among the Tenements of New York, by Jacob A. Riis (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890)

[5] Here's the whole section:
Up two flights of dark stairs, three, four, with new smells of cabbage, of onions, of frying fish, on every landing, whirring sewing machines behind closed doors betraying what goes on within, to the door that opens to admit the bundle and the man. A sweater, this, in a small way. Five men and a woman, two young girls, not fifteen, and a boy who says unasked that he is fifteen, and lies in saying it, are at the machines sewing knickerbockers, “kneepants” in the Ludlow Street dialect. The floor is littered ankle-deep with half-sewn garments. In the alcove, on a couch of many dozens of “pants” ready for the finisher, a bare-legged baby with pinched face is asleep. A fence of piled-up clothing keeps him from rolling off on the floor. The faces, hands, and arms to the elbows of everyone in the room are black with the color of the cloth on which they are working. The boy and the woman alone look up at our entrance. The girls shoot sidelong glances, but at a warning look from the man with the bundle they tread their machines more energetically than ever. The men do not appear to be aware even of the presence of a stranger.

They are “learners,” all of them, says the woman, who proves to be the wife of the boss, and have “come over” only a few weeks ago. She is disinclined to talk at first, but a few words in her own tongue from our guide set her fears, whatever they are, at rest, and she grows almost talkative. The learners work for week’s wages, she says. How much do they earn? She shrugs her shoulders with an expressive gesture. The workers themselves, asked in their own tongue, say indifferently, as though the question were of no interest: from two to five dollars. The children — there are four of them — are not old enough to work. The oldest is only six. They turn out one hundred and twenty dozen “knee-pants” a week, for which the manufacturer pays seventy cents a dozen. Five cents a dozen is the clear profit, but her own and her husband’s work brings the family earnings up to twenty-five dollars a week, when they have work all the time. But often half the time is put in looking for it. They work no longer than to nine o’clock at night, from daybreak. There are ten machines in the room; six are hired at two dollars a month. For the two shabby, smoke-begrimed rooms, one somewhat larger than ordinary, they pay twenty dollars a month. She does not complain, though “times are not what they were, and it costs a good deal to live.” Eight dollars a week for the family of six and two boarders. How do they do it? She laughs, as she goes over the bill of fare, at the silly question: Bread, fifteen cents a day, of milk two quarts a day at four cents a quart, one pound of meat for dinner at twelve cents, butter one pound a week at “eight cents a quarter of a pound.” Coffee, potatoes, and pickles complete the list. At the least calculation, probably, this sweater’s family hoards up thirty dollars a month, and in a few years will own a tenement somewhere and profit by the example set by their landlord in rent-collecting. It is the way the savings of Jewtown are universally invested, and with the natural talent of its people for commercial speculation the investment is enormously profitable.

On the next floor, in a dimly lighted room with a big red-hot stove to keep the pressing irons ready for use, is a family of man, wife, three children, and a boarder. “Knee-pants” are made there too, of a still lower grade. Three cents and a half is all he clears, says the man, and lies probably out of at least two cents. The wife makes a dollar and a half finishing, the man about nine dollars at the machine. The boarder pays sixty-five cents a week. He is really only a lodger, getting his meals outside. The rent is two dollars and twenty-five cents a week, cost of living five dollars. Every floor has at least two, sometimes four, such shops. Here is one with a young family for which life is bright with promise. Husband and wife work together; just now the latter, a comely young woman, is eating her dinner of dry bread and green pickles. Pickles are favorite food in Jewtown. They are filling, and keep the children from crying with hunger. Those who have stomachs like ostriches thrive in spite of them and grow strong—plain proof that they are good to eat. The rest? “Well, they die,” says our guide, dryly. No thought of untimely death comes to disturb this family with life all before it. In a few years the man will be a prosperous sweater. Already he employs an old man as ironer at three dollars a week, and a sweetfaced little Italian girl as finisher at a dollar and a half. She is twelve, she says, and can neither read nor write; will probably never learn. How should she? The family clears from ten to eleven dollars a week in brisk times, more than half of which goes into the bank.

A companion picture from across the hall. The man works on the machine for his sweater twelve hours a day, turning out three dozen “knee-pants,” for which he receives forty-two cents a dozen. The finisher who works with him gets ten, and the ironer eight cents a dozen; buttonholes are extra, at eight to ten cents a hundred. This operator has four children at his home in Stanton Street, none old enough to work, and a sick wife. His rent is twelve dollars a month; his wages for a hard week’s work less than eight dollars. Such as he, with their consuming desire for money thus smothered, recruit the ranks of the anarchists, won over by the promise of a general “divide;” and an enlightened public sentiment turns up its nose at the vicious foreigner for whose perverted notions there is no room in this land of plenty.
[6] This chapter is worth reading in full. Here's some more of the context:
The tenement has defeated its benevolent purpose. In it the child works unchallenged from the day he is old enough to pull a thread. There is no such thing as a dinner hour; men and women eat while they work, and the “day” is lengthened at both ends far into the night. Factory hands take their work with them at the close of the lawful day to eke out their scanty earnings by working overtime at home. Little chance on this ground for the campaign of education that alone can bring the needed relief; small wonder that there are whole settlements on this East Side where English is practically an unknown tongue, though the people be both willing and anxious to learn. “When shall we find time to learn?” asked one of them of me once. I owe him the answer yet.

I know of a couple of restaurants at the lower end of Orchard Street that are favorite resorts for the Polish Jews, who remember the injunction that the ox that treadeth out the corn shall not be muzzled. Being neighbors, they are rivals of course, and cutting under. When I was last there one gave a dinner of soup, meat-stew, bread, pie, pickles, and a “schooner” of beer for thirteen cents; the other charged fifteen cents for a similar dinner, but with two schooners of beer and a cigar, or a cigarette, as the extra inducement. The two cents had won the day, however, and the thirteen-cent restaurant did such a thriving business that it was about to spread out into the adjoining store to accommodate the crowds of customers. At this rate the lodger of Jewtown can “live like a lord,” as he says himself, for twenty-five cents a day, including the price of his bed, that ranges all the way from thirty to forty and fifty cents a week, and save money, no matter what his earnings. He does it, too, so long as work is to be had at any price, and by the standard he sets up Jewtown must alide.

It has thousands upon thousands of lodgers who help to pay its extortionate rents. At night there is scarce a room in all the district that has not one or more of them, some above half a score, sleeping on cots, or on the floor. It is idle to speak of privacy in these “homes.” The term carries no more meaning with it than would a lecture on social ethics to an audience of Hottentots. The picture is not overdrawn. In fact, in presenting the home life of these people I have been at some pains to avoid the extreme of privation, taking the cases just as they came to hand on the safer middle-ground of average earnings. Yet even the direst apparent poverty in Jewtown, unless dependent on absolute lack of work, would, were the truth known, in nine cases out of ten have a silver lining in the shape of a margin in bank.

New York can “beat the world” on cheap clothing. A single Bowery firm last year sold fifteen thousand suits at $1.95 that averaged in cost $1.12 1/2. With the material at fifteen cents a yard, he said, children’s suits of assorted sizes can be sold at wholesale for seventy-five cents, and boys’ cape overcoats at the same price. They are the same conditions that have perplexed the committee of benevolent Hebrews in charge of Baron de Hirsch’s munificent gift of ten thousand dollars a month for the relief of the Jewish poor in New York. To find proper channels through which to pour this money so that it shall effect its purpose without pauperizing, and without perpetuating the problem it is sought to solve, by attracting still greater swarms, is indeed no easy task. Colonization has not in the past been a success with these people. The great mass of them are too gregarious to take kindly to farming, and their strong commercial instinct hampers the experiment. To herd them in model tenements, though it relieve the physical suffering in a measure, would be to treat a symptom of the disease rather than strike at its root, even if land could be got cheap enough where they gather to build on a sufficiently large scale to make the plan a success. Trade schools for manual training could hardly be made to reach the adults, who in addition would have to be supported for months while learning. For the young this device has proved most excellent under the wise management of the United Hebrew Charities, an organization that gathers to its work the best thought and effort of many of our most public-spirited citizens. One, or all, of these plans may be tried, probably will. I state but the misgivings as to the result of some of the practical minds that have busied themselves with the problem. Its keynote evidently is the ignorance of the immigrants. They must be taught the language of the country they have chosen as their home, as the first and most necessary step. Whatever may follow, that is essential, absolutely vital. That done, it may well be that the case in its new aspect will not be nearly so hard to deal with.
[7] Here's a list of the posts: This blog post is one of a series on the Five Points district of Manhattan. Here are others in the series. [8] Here are the posts in that series. [9] More on his walks here.

1 comment:

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