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57 Works of Jacob A. Riis

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One stormy night in the winter of 1882, going across from my office to the Police Headquarters of New York City, I nearly stumbled over an odd couple that crouched on the steps. As the man shifted his seat to make way for me, the light from the green lamp fell on his face, and […]

Skippy was at home in Scrabble Alley. So far as he had ever known home of any kind it was there in the dark and mouldy basement of the rear house, farthest back in the gap that was all the builder of those big tenements had been able to afford of light and of air […]

Jack’s Sermon

Story type: Literature

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Jack sat on the front porch in a very bad humor indeed. That was in itself something unusual enough to portend trouble; for ordinarily Jack was a philosopher well persuaded that, upon the whole, this was a very good world and Deacon Pratt’s porch the centre of it on week-days. On Sundays it was transferred […]

A Backwoods Hero

Story type: Literature

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I had started out to explore the Magnetawan River from our camp on Lake Wahwaskesh toward the Georgian Bay, thirty miles south, but speedily found my way blocked by the canal rapids. The river there rushes through a deep and narrow canon strewn with sharp rocks, a perilous pass at all times for the most […]

How Jim Went To The War

Story type: Literature

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Jocko and Jim sat on the scuttle-stairs and mourned; times were out of joint with them. Since an ill wind had blown one of the recruiting sergeants for the Spanish War into the next block, the old joys of the tenement had palled on Jim. Nothing would do but he must go to the war. […]

Rover’s Last Fight

Story type: Literature

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The little village of Valley Stream nestles peacefully among the woods and meadows of Long Island. The days and the years roll by uneventfully within its quiet precincts. Nothing more exciting than the arrival of a party of fishermen from the city, on a vain hunt for perch in the ponds that lie hidden among […]

War On The Goats

Story type: Literature

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War has been declared in Hell’s Kitchen. An indignant public opinion demands to have “something done ag’in’ them goats,” and there is alarm at the river end of the street. A public opinion in Hell’s Kitchen that demands anything besides schooners of mixed ale is a sign. Surer than a college settlement and a sociological […]

Fire In The Barracks

Story type: Literature

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The rush and roar, the blaze and the wild panic of a great fire filled Twenty-third Street. Helmeted men stormed and swore; horses tramped and reared; crying women, hurrying hither and thither, stumbled over squirming hose on street and sidewalk. The throbbing of a dozen pumping-engines merged all other sounds in its frantic appeal for […]

It is my firm opinion that newspaper men should not be deacons. Not that there is any moral or spiritual reason why they should abstain–not that; but it doesn’t work; the chances are all against it. I know it from experience. I was a deacon myself once. It was at a time when they were […]

“Conduct unbecoming an officer,” read the charge, “in this, to wit, that the said defendants brought into the station-house, by means to deponent unknown, on the said Fourth of July, a keg of beer, and, when apprehended, were consuming the contents of the same.” Twenty policemen, comprising the whole off platoon of the East One […]

All Bottle Alley was bidden to the christening. It being Sunday, when Mulberry Street was wont to adjust its differences over the cards and the wine-cup, it came “heeled,” ready for what might befall. From Tomaso, the ragpicker in the farthest rear cellar, to the Signor Undertaker, mainstay and umpire in the varying affairs of […]

A Heathen Baby

Story type: Literature

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A stack of mail comes to Police Headquarters every morning from the precincts by special department carrier. It includes the reports for the last twenty-four hours of stolen and recovered goods, complaints, and the thousand and one things the official mail-bag contains from day to day. It is all routine, and everything has its own […]

John Gavin, Misfit

Story type: Literature

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John Gavin was to blame–there is no doubt of that. To be sure, he was out of a job, with never a cent in his pockets, his babies starving, and notice served by the landlord that day. He had travelled the streets till midnight looking for work, and had found none. And so he gave […]

Heroes Who Fight Fire

Story type: Literature

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Thirteen years have passed since,[1] but it is all to me as if it had happened yesterday–the clanging of the fire-bells, the hoarse shouts of the firemen, the wild rush and terror of the streets; then the great hush that fell upon the crowd; the sea of upturned faces, with the fire-glow upon it; and […]

Joe drove his old gray mare along the stony road in deep thought. They had been across the ferry to Newtown with a load of Christmas truck. It had been a hard pull uphill for them both, for Joe had found it necessary not a few times to get down and give old ‘Liza a […]

A Dream Of The Woods

Story type: Literature

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Something came over Police Headquarters in the middle of the summer night. It was like the sighing of the north wind in the branches of the tall firs and in the reeds along lonely river-banks where the otter dips from the brink for its prey. The doorman, who yawned in the hall, and to whom […]

A Little Picture

Story type: Literature

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The fire-bells rang on the Bowery in the small hours of the morning. One of the old dwelling-houses that remain from the day when the “Bouwerie” was yet remembered as an avenue of beer-gardens and pleasure resorts was burning. Down in the street stormed the firemen, coupling hose and dragging it to the front. Upstairs […]

Abe’s Game Of Jacks

Story type: Literature

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Time hung heavily on Abe Seelig’s hands, alone, or as good as alone, in the flat on the “stoop” of the Allen Street tenement. His mother had gone to the butcher’s. Chajim, the father,–“Chajim” is the Yiddish of “Herman,”–was long at the shop. To Abe was committed the care of his two young brothers, Isaac […]

It was just a sprig of holly, with scarlet berries showing against the green, stuck in, by one of the office boys probably, behind the sign that pointed the way up to the editorial rooms. There was no reason why it should have made me start when I came suddenly upon it at the turn […]

Policeman Muller had run against a boisterous crowd surrounding a drunken woman at Prince Street and the Bowery. When he joined the crowd it scattered, but got together again before it had run half a block, and slunk after him and his prisoner to the Mulberry Street station. There Sergeant Woodruff learned by questioning the […]

“The cop just sceert her to death, that’s what he done. For Gawd’s sake, boss, don’t let on I tole you.” The negro, stopping suddenly in his game of craps in the Pell Street back yard, glanced up with a look of agonized entreaty. Discovering no such fell purpose in his questioner’s face, he added […]

Midwinter In New York

Story type: Literature

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The very earliest impression I received of America’s metropolis was through a print in my child’s picture-book that was entitled “Winter in New York.” It showed a sleighing party, or half a dozen such, muffled to the ears in furs, and racing with grim determination for some place or another that lay beyond the page, […]

The December sun shone clear and cold upon the city. It shone upon rich and poor alike. It shone into the homes of the wealthy on the avenues and in the up-town streets, and into courts and alleys hedged in by towering tenements down town. It shone upon throngs of busy holiday shoppers that went […]

Nigger Martha’s Wake

Story type: Literature

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A woman with face all seared and blotched by something that had burned through the skin sat propped up in the doorway of a Bowery restaurant at four o’clock in the morning, senseless, apparently dying. A policeman stood by, looking anxiously up the street and consulting his watch. At intervals he shook her to make […]

The fact was printed the other day that the half-hundred children or more who are in the hospitals on North Brother Island had no playthings, not even a rattle, to make the long days skip by, which, set in smallpox, scarlet fever, and measles, must be longer there than anywhere else in the world. The […]

Nibsy’s Christmas

Story type: Literature

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It was Christmas Eve over on the East Side. Darkness was closing in on a cold, hard day. The light that struggled through the frozen windows of the delicatessen store and the saloon on the corner, fell upon men with empty dinner-pails who were hurrying homeward, their coats buttoned tightly, and heads bent against the […]

The tenement No. 76 Madison Street had been for some time scandalized by the hoidenish ways of Rose Baruch, the little cloak maker on the top floor. Rose was seventeen, and boarded with her mother in the Pincus family. But for her harum-scarum ways she might, in the opinion of the tenement, be a nice […]

When The Letter Came

Story type: Literature

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“To-morrow it will come,” Godfrey Krueger had said that night to his landlord. “To-morrow it will surely come, and then I shall have money. Soon I shall be rich, richer than you can think.” And the landlord of the Forsyth Street tenement, who in his heart liked the gray-haired inventor, but who had rooms to […]

The Kid

Story type: Literature

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He was an every-day tough, bull-necked, square-jawed, red of face, and with his hair cropped short in the fashion that rules at Sing Sing and is admired of Battle Row. Any one could have told it at a glance. The bruised and wrathful face of the policeman who brought him to Mulberry Street, to be […]

“It is too bad,” said Mrs. Lee, and she put down the magazine in which she had been reading of the poor children in the tenements of the great city that know little of Christmas joys; “no Christmas tree! One of them shall have one, at any rate. I think this will buy it, and […]

Paolo’s Awakening

Story type: Literature

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Paolo sat cross-legged on his bench, stitching away for dear life. He pursed his lips and screwed up his mouth into all sorts of odd shapes with the effort, for it was an effort. He was only eight, and you would scarcely have imagined him over six, as he sat there sewing like a real […]

Lost Children

Story type: Literature

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I am not thinking now of theological dogmas or moral distinctions. I am considering the matter from the plain every-day standpoint of the police office. It is not my fault that the one thing that is lost more persistently than any other in a large city is the very thing you would imagine to be […]

Little Will’s Message

Story type: Literature

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“It is that or starve, Captain. I can’t get a job. God knows I’ve tried, but without a recommend, it’s no use. I ain’t no good at beggin’. And–and–there’s the childer.” There was a desperate note in the man’s voice that made the Captain turn and look sharply at him. A swarthy, strongly built man […]

The sleeper on the 3.35 A.M. elevated train from the Harlem bridge was awake for once. The sleeper is the last car in the train, and has its own set that snores nightly in the same seats, grunts with the fixed inhospitality of the commuter at the intrusion of a stranger, and is on terms […]

The dead-wagon stopped at the mouth of Cat Alley. Its coming made a commotion among the children in the block, and the Chief of Police looked out of his window across the street, his attention arrested by the noise. He saw a little pine coffin carried into the alley under the arm of the driver, […]

Isaac Josephs, slipper-maker, sat up on the fifth floor of his Allen Street tenement, in the gray of the morning, to finish the task he had set himself before Yom Kippur. Three days and three nights he had worked without sleep, almost without taking time to eat, to make ready the two dozen slippers that […]

The clock in the West Side Boys’ Lodging-house ticked out the seconds of Christmas eve as slowly and methodically as if six fat turkeys were not sizzling in the basement kitchen against the morrow’s spread, and as if two-score boys were not racking their brains to guess what kind of pies would go with them. […]

Mrs. Kane had put the baby to bed. The regular breathing from two little cribs in different corners told her that her day’s work was nearing its end. She paused at the window in the middle of her picking-up to look out at the autumn evening. The house stood on the bank of the East […]

The Rent Baby

Story type: Literature

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Adam Grunschlag sat at his street stand in a deep brown study. He heeded not the gathering twilight, or the snow that fell in great white flakes, as yet with an appreciable space between, but with the promise of a coming storm in them. He took no notice of the bustle and stir all about […]

Is There A Santa Claus?

Story type: Literature

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“DEAR MR. RIIS: “A little chap of six on the Western frontier writes to us: “‘Will you please tell me if there is a SantaClaus? Papa says not.’ “Won’t you answer him?” That was the message that came to me from an editor last December just as I was going on a journey. Why he […]

The Strand From Above

Story type: Literature

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From the Danish of JOHANNES JORGENSEN The sun rose on a bright September morning. A thousand gems of dew sparkled in the meadows, and upon the breeze floated, in the wake of summer, the shining silken strands of which no man knoweth the whence or the whither. One of them caught in the top of […]

As Told By The Rabbi

Story type: Literature

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Three stories have come to me out of the past for which I would make friends in the present. The first I have from a rabbi of our own day whom I met last winter in the far Southwest. The other two were drawn from the wisdom of the old rabbis that is as replete […]

“All aboard for Coney Island!” The gates of the bridge train slammed, the whistle shrieked, and the cars rolled out past rows of houses that grew smaller and lower to Jim’s wondering eyes, until they quite disappeared beneath the track. He felt himself launching forth above the world of men, and presently he saw, deep […]

A year has gone since we built a roof garden on top of the gymnasium that took away our children’s playground by filling up the yard. In many ways it has been the hardest of all the years we have lived through with our poor neighbors. Poverty, illness, misrepresentation, and the hottest and hardest of […]

His Christmas Gift

Story type: Literature

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“The prisoner will stand,” droned out the clerk in the Court of General Sessions. “Filippo Portoghese, you are convicted of assault with intent to kill. Have you anything to say why sentence should not be passed upon you?” A sallow man with a hopeless look in his heavy eyes rose slowly in his seat and […]

It is a good many years since I ran across the Murphy family while hunting up a murder, in the old Mulberry Street days. That was not their name, but no matter; it was one just as good. Their home was in Poverty Gap, and I have seldom seen a worse. The man was a […]

The City’s Heart

Story type: Literature

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“Bosh!” said my friend, jabbing impatiently with his stick at a gaunt cat in the gutter, “all bosh! A city has no heart. It’s incorporated selfishness; has to be. Slopping over is not business. City is all business. A poet’s dream, my good fellow; pretty but moonshine!” We turned the corner of the tenement street […]

What The Snowflake Told

Story type: Literature

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The first snowflake was wafted in upon the north wind to-day. I stood in my study door and watched it fall and disappear; but I knew that many would come after and hide my garden from sight ere long. What will the winter bring us? When they wake once more, the flowers that now sleep […]

“Go quickly, please, to No. — East Eleventh Street, near the river,” was the burden of a message received one day in the Charities Building; “a Hungarian family is in trouble.” The little word that covers the widest range in the language gives marching orders daily to many busy feet thereabouts, and, before the October […]

The Mother’s Heaven

Story type: Literature

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The door-bell of the Nurses’ Settlement rang loudly one rainy night, and a Polish Jewess demanded speech with Miss Wald. This was the story she told: She scrubbed halls and stairs in a nice tenement on the East Side. In one of the flats lived the Schaibles, a young couple not long in the country. […]

Kate’s Choice

Story type: Literature

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My winter lecture travels sometimes bring me to a town not a thousand miles from New York, where my mail awaits me. If it happens then, as it often does, that it is too heavy for me to attack alone–for it is the law that if a man live by the pen he shall pay […]

The mere mention of the widow Salvini always brings before me that other widow who came to our settlement when her rascal husband was dead after beating her black and blue through a lifetime in Poverty Gap, during which he did his best to make ruffians of the boys and worse of the girls by […]

Driven From Home

Story type: Literature

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“Doctor, what shall I do? My father wants me to tend bar on Sunday. I am doing it nights, but Sunday–I don’t want to. What shall I do?” The pastor of Olivet Church looked kindly at the lad who stood before him, cap in hand. The last of the Sunday-school had trailed out; the boy […]

Life’s Best Gift

Story type: Literature

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Margaret Kelly is dead, and I need not scruple to call her by her own name. For it is certain that she left no kin to mourn her. She did all the mourning herself in her lifetime, and better than that when there was need. She nursed her impetuous Irish father and her gentle English […]

The Wars Of The Rileys

Story type: Literature

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It was the night before Washington’s Birthday that Mr. Riley broke loose. They will speak of it long in the Windy City as “the night of the big storm,” and with good right–it was “that suddint and fierce,” just like Mr. Riley himself in his berserker moods. Mr. Riley was one of the enlivening problems […]

Kin

Story type: Literature

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Early twilight was setting in on the Holy Eve. In the streets of the city stirred the bustling preparation for the holiday. The great stores were lighting up, and crowds of shoppers thronged the sidewalks and stood stamping their feet in the snow at the crossings where endless streams of carriages passed. At a corner […]

“You get the money, or out you go! I ain’t in the business for me health,” and the bang of the door and the angry clatter of the landlord’s boots on the stairs, as he went down, bore witness that he meant what he said. Judah Kapelowitz and his wife sat and looked silently at […]