RCC Honors History Project

The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years among Them (excerpt)

Posted by nrohr on March 8, 2009

The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years among Them (excerpt) (1872)

Charles Loring Brace

From: The Dangerous Classes of New York and Twenty Years among Them. New York: Wynkoop and Hallenback, Publishers, 1872.

The intensity of the American temperament is felt in every fibre of these children of poverty and vice. Their crimes have the unrestrained and sanguinary character of a race accustomed to overcome all obstacles. They rifle a bank, where English thieves pick a pocket; they murder, where European proletaires cudgel or fight with fists; in a riot, they begin what seems about to be the sacking of a city, where English rioters would merely batter policemen, or smash lamps. The “dangerous classes” of New York are mainly American-born, but the children of Irish and German immigrants…

There are thousands on thousands in New York who have no assignable home, and “flit” from attic to attic, and cellar to cellar; there are other thousands more or less connected with criminal enterprises; and still other tens of thousands, poor, hard-pressed, and depending for daily bread ou the day’s earnings, swarming in tenement-houses, who behold the gilded rewards of toil all about them, but are never permitted to touch them.

All these great masses of destitute, miserable, and criminal persons believe that for ages the rich have had all the good things of life, while to them have been left the evil things. Capital to them is the tyrant.

Let but Law lift its hand from them for a season, or let the civilizing influences of American life fail to reach them, and, if the opportunity offered, we should see an explosion from this class which might leave this city in ashes and blood.

Seventeen years ago, my attention had been called to the extraordinarily degraded condition of the children in a district lying on the west side of the city, between Seventeenth and Nineteenth Streets, and the Seventh and Tenth Avenues. A certain block, called “Misery Row,” in Tenth Avenue, was the main seedbed of crime and poverty in the quarter, and was also invariably a “fever-nest.” Here the poor obtained wretched rooms at a comparatively low rent; these they sub-let, and thus, in little, crowded, close tenements, were herded men, women , and children of all ages. The parents were invariably given to hard drinking, and the children were sent out to beg or to steal. Besides them, other children, who were orphans, or who had run away from drunkards’ homes, or had been working on the canal-boats that discharged on the docks near by, drifted into the quarter, as if attracted by the atmosphere of crime and laziness that prevailed in the neighborhood. These slept around the breweries of the ward, or on the hay-barges, or in the old sheds of Eighteenth and Nineteenth Streets. They were mere children, and kept life together by all sorts of street-jobs—helping the brewery laborers, blackening boots, sweeping sidewalks, “smashing baggages” (as they called it), and the like. Herding together, they soon began to form an unconscious society for vagrancy and idleness. Finding that work brought but poor pay, they tried shorter roads to getting money by pettey thefts, in which they were very adroit. Even if they earned a considerable sum by a lucky day’s job, they quickly spent it in gambling, or for some folly.

The police soon knew them as “street-rats;” but, like the rats, they were too quick and cunning to lie often caught in their petty plunderings, so they gnawed away at the foundations of society undisturbed.

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