When educator and philanthropist Thomas Davidson died in September of 1900 the New York Daily Tribune wrote that his death “has called attention to his services to the cause of education and higher culture; but little seems to be known of a work he was carrying on among the Russian Hebrews of lower New York. At No. 166 Madison Street, in a modest four-story brick building, Professor Davidson gathered together more than one hundred young men and women of ability and ambition, and was training them to be of high value to the neighborhood they represented. They were to be, he hoped, ‘a leaven which should leaven the whole mass’ in that crowded city, and slowly but surely the aim was being accomplished.”
Until his death Davidson’s focus was on educating young Jewish immigrants, teaching them the nuances of “American English,” and ultimately providing them with college educations so they, in turn, would be in a position to help their own people.
Davidson was a member of the Educational Alliance, a program founded by German Jews in 1889. The Educational Alliance, or “Edgies” as it was known on the lower east side, was one of a number of settlement houses whose goal was to help Jewish immigrants adjust to American culture while retaining their own heritage.
With anti-immigrant sentiment running high, this was no easy task. Many recent arrivals lived in unimaginable squalor. To help lift the spirits of these immigrants and their children the Edgies, and other groups, focused on social programs and education. The groups cobbled together art classes, gyms, rooftop gardens and concerts.
Stressing personal hygiene, these groups also provided baths and, in an age of tuberculosis infested tenements, put a particular emphasis on access to clean, fresh air.
Isidor Straus, who maintained a home on Inwood Hill, acted as the Alliance’s first president. While his brother Nathan, provided pasteurized milk to those in need.
In 1907, Mark Twain, who closely followed the Alliance’s work, wrote, “For fourteen years Isidor Straus, the president of the Educational Alliance, has devoted himself to educating these future citizens. The Educational Alliance greets them at the steamship landing and from that time onward, never loses track of them. Their morals are watched; they are educated in the practical things of life.
We have good reason to emulate these people of the East Side. They are reading our history and learning the great questions of America that we do not know and are not learning, and they are learning them first hand and doing their own thinking.”
Twain continued, “They are taught that the true motives of life are to reach for the highest ideals. The dramas that they play have morals that lend toward this aim. And best of all, they are taught to act for themselves and to think for themselves.”
And thus, in 1909, at this confluence of famous figures, sociological experiments and anti-immigrant sentiment sat Inwood.
In this article, published in the New York Sun, we meet the young college alumni of the Davidson school, who, for a summer, retreated from the lower east side slums to pitch tents on Inwood Hill.
New York Sun
Summer Camp in the City
Odd Group of Dwellers on Manhattan’s Edge Who Work and Study and Take Life Seriously—Have Few of the Sports That Appeal to the Ordinary Dweller in the Woods
Get off at the Dyckman street station on the subway and in the growing dusk you see all the evidences of a city still building. The streets are laid out, while here and there the walls of an apartment house loom up. Five minutes walk, and you strike an unobtrusive little lane winding down from a hillside. In five minutes the city is blotted from view and there are the quiet evening woods.
Once or twice you pass an old-fashioned country house with wide lawns and lights gleaming through the windows. Dogs even run out to howl at you. Then the road stretches ahead with only the trees about it. Suddenly deep in their midst a light glows. You step along a path and the light resolves itself into a flaming campfire. In and out of its shadows there are figures moving and three white canvas tents are also visible.
It is a camp with all its equipment, and you may rub your eyes, but you are still on Manhattan Island. Here at the very end of the city, on the wooded slopes, below which the Hudson and Harlem meet, several East Side boys have pitched their tents for the summer.
There are eleven of them and they are members of the Thomas Davidson Society of the Educational Alliance on East Broadway. They are every one of them immigrants themselves and not the sons of immigrants, but they showed an initiative that the more native youngsters of the city never did. They sought for a select spot, lighted on this secluded wood—overlooking the Hudson and from the beginning of June have made themselves just as comfortable as they could.
In several respects this is a camp-out of the ordinary. In its location it is sufficient of a novelty, but the campers too are curiosities. They are all of them students, some at the City College, some at the universities, although one or two still speak with a foreign accent; but they are doing the unusual thing for campers—they are earning their living while enjoying the camp life.
Every morning some of them tramp out of the woodland atmosphere into the city atmosphere and are whisked down to work on the subway, returning in the evening. The few others remain about the camp until the afternoon, when they too descend into the city to serve afternoon newspapers to Broadway offices. The provisions they bring back consist only of vegetables, but their vegetarian fare does not disagree with them; a more wiry, lean, healthy set of campers it would be difficult to find.
As a matter of course their camp life has little of the adventurous quality that is the real fascination to the ordinary woodsman. Secluded though they are, they cannot wander far forth before striking the city. Game does not abound in the neighborhood, and there are no streams near by in which to seek the mountain trout, the vicinity is just a little lacking as an ideal location.
But they make the most off what they have, and it is questionable if they enjoy themselves any the less for the lack of those delights, which the ordinary camper would consider indispensable, for their bent o enjoyment does not seem to turn towards sports. They could get some poor fishing in the Hudson if they wished, but they have never essayed it. They do, however, swim in the river.
They are there for rest, in other words, and not for boyish forms of recreation. They live in quiet orderliness. The mere change of existence on the East Side to the free and open life of the woods is sufficient of a delight to satisfy their spirits. So when they are not working in the city or doing their daily tasks about the camp they employ their time chiefly in reading and studying.
An unexpected visitor one evening found most of them collected in close groups reading about the flickering light of the two lanterns in the evenings and most often read until the lights die down and go out. Under the cots of most of them will be found books—books a-plenty all about the camp.
It is not light summer reading either. A hasty examination discovered books on astronomy, on political economy, on philosophy and on chemistry. Essays on standard novels—some of the best things in English and European literature—make up their little library. There are a few textbooks, for some of them are studying for their winter courses in college. One of them indeed has fitted up a miniature chemical laboratory and conducts experiments.
There is one particular at least in which they are not at a disadvantage, and that is the view they get. Just overtopping the Hudson they see stretching along on the opposite Jersey shore the beginning of the Palisades. They can add their testimony to the beauty of the sunsets and twilights over the Hudson, a scene which further below, a faithful set of worshipers regularly comes to enjoy every evening.
Sometimes they take a night row on the Hudson or up the Harlem to Kingsbridge. Pulling out into midstream on the Hudson they see a sight which has never yet failed to make the onlooker exclaim audibly or inwardly, the line of yellow lights like so many large stars, ‘way down the river,’ marking the length of Riverside Drive. In back of those lights more lights and more lights still, while above them is the faint yellow glare—the reflection of the myriad more lights of the city, which cannot be seen. That night view of New York from a rowboat in mid-Hudson is worth a whole lot of other pleasures which the campers cannot get on account of their location.
“Altogether,” said one of them, “it’s just a little bit more pleasant to sleep under the trees here; than in a stuffy bedroom to read by the lantern than under the electric bulb of a library, to eat about our own camp fire than a crowded restaurant, to say nothing about the freedom of always being right under the heavens.”