Summer colonies for city people[edit | edit source]

(Condensed from the Annual Report of the U. S. Department of the Interior of the Commissioner of Education. Vol. 2, now out of print.)

BERLIN has not been boastful of a new sociological feature which it has developed within the last fifteen years, a feature so revolutionary in its bearing upon education and upon the general health of future generations, that it should be made known to the world. As yet little has been said about this new agency. It may be because it is not a governmental institution, but the result of self-help and of the recognition of a plain necessity. It may be assumed that if the summer colonies had been instituted by the government for the great majority who are poor it would not have succeeded so well as it has.

The teachers, seeing that the horizon of their pupils was limited by brick and mortar (for open park spaces are rare in Berlin), came to the conclusion that only by giving their pupils opportunity to live in the open air could they lay a sound foundation of knowledge of natural objects and processes as a basis for school studies. The teachers of themselves, however, could apply only palliative remedies, such as having sent to them, from the botanical gardens,thousands of specimens of plants, twigs, flowers, fruit, etc., for nature study in the schoolroom; planting flower beds around the schoolhouses; also, brief excursions into parks, and hanging up before the class colored pictures of landscapes and rural scenery.

While in many cases, especially in large cities, the necessity was recognized of getting the children out of the great desert of brick and mortar into the open air and into companionship with life in the field, the garden, the brooks, and the woods, it had nowhere resulted in a systematic effort to aid the children of an entire city in that way until it was tried in Berlin. Of course it is well understood, not only abroad, but in New York and in other large cities of this country, that something must be done to alleviate the want of space and fresh air, and so recreation piers and roof gardens are provided, excursions of schools into parks are undertaken, open-air playgrounds are instituted, and similar efforts are made tending to mitigate the evil effects of city life; but all these efforts are merely sporadic or temporary; they do not attack the evil at the roots; moreover they are only drops in the bucket when compared with that which is necessary.

This tendency to cooperative and collective action has resulted in this particular case in thousands of the children's _"Arbor Gardens"_ round about the city. It is an experience "en gros," one of such dimensions that cavil ceases and admiration rises supreme.

The German poor are very poor indeed, but parents were induced to rent, at a price of 4 marks ($1) or about 20 cents a month from May to October for the summer season, a patch of land in the suburbs of Berlin unfit for farmland because cut up by railroad tracks and newly laid-out streets. On one of these patches a family might erect an arbor, or a small structure of boards with a wide veranda and a corrugated iron roof, for housing themselves and children during the summer months. The dwellings are of the most primitive kind and rather flimsy; no permanent structure can be allowed, for at any time the owner of the land may give notice to vacate for the purpose of erecting a row of houses, railroad buildings, or other permanent structures. The tenants themselves build fences of wire or plant hedges to keep the different plots apart. On these patches the children, under the guidance of teachers, parents, and appointed guardians, began to sow flower seeds, plant shrubs, vines, and trees, or raise kitchen vegetables, each group or family according to its own desires and needs. Since the "arbors" are small they do not decrease the arable land of the allotments much, and there is still room left for swings, gymnastic apparatus, and similar contrivances, as well as bare sandy spots for little tots to play in. The various allotments are mostly uniform in size and are reached by narrow three- or four-foot lanes, on which occasionally are seen probationary officers or guardians who keep the peace and settle cases of disturbance.

The "arbor gardens" are established on every square rod of unused land round about the city, on vacant lots, far out to the borders of the well-trained woods and royal forests. Small tradesmen, laboring men, civil officials of low degrees, etc., have found it profitable to forsake their tenements in the city and move kith and kin into those "arbor colonies." The tenements in Berlin are as bad as in our own big cities, only better policed.

Not all of these arbor gardens are occupied by families during the night. Thousands return to their city homes evenings. Some parents,unable to free themselves from toil in town, send their children under guidance of servants, and spend only occasional Sundays and holidays with them.

The people, especially the children, getting some information concerning the treatment of the crops from competent advisers in school and out in the arbor colonies, derive great good from their horticultural and floricultural work. Families who are aesthetically inclined devote their space to flowers and trailing vines exclusively; others, utilitarians from necessity, plant potatoes,carrots, turnips, beets, beans, strawberries, and the like. The feeling of ownership being strongly developed in the children in seeing the results of their own labor, the crops are respected by the neighbors and pilfering rarely occurs, except perhaps in a case of great hunger.

Several hundred or a thousand of such patches of land, or gardens,situated in close proximity to each other, form an arbor colony,which has a governor, or mayor, who is an unpaid city official. He arranges the leasing of the land, collects the rents, and hands them over to the gratified landowners who don't even have to collect them. There is always a retired merchant or civil officer to fill the office, to which is attached neither title, emolument, nor special honor. He is assisted by a "colonial committee" of trustees selected from the colonists, who act as justices of the peace, in case disturbances should arise. If colonists prove frequent disturbers of the peace or are found incapable of living quietly,their leases are not renewed. Of course there are such cases, but they are rare.

Since the size of an "arbor garden" is from about two sixteenths to three sixteenths of an acre, say two or three New York City Lots,those forming a colony make a considerable community, in which the authority of the committee, or board of trustees, is absolute, and the few cases they have had to adjudicate have generally been caused by nagging women. It is claimed in the press that these colonists are literally without scandals, and that the life led by young and old is a most peaceful and happy one. People who are hard at work are not likely to be quarrelsome: good wholesome food, much exercise in play and labor, and an abundance of fresh air and sunshine are conducive to happiness, especially as the clothing may be of a primitive kind, or need not conform to the dictates of fashion.

A teacher remarked: "It is noticeable that since these school children are engaged in lucrative work which does not go beyond their strength, and since they see with their own eyes the results of their labor, a sense of responsibility is engendered which has a beneficial influence upon school work also. Respect for all kinds of labor and a decrease in the destructiveness so often found among boys are unmistakable effects of the arbor gardens. It is not easy work which the children perform, for spade and rake require muscular effort; but it is ennobling work, for it leads to self-respect,self-dependence, and respect for others, as well as willingness to aid others. The most beautiful sight is afforded when, on a certain date agreed on by the members of a colony, a harvest festival is held. Then flag raisings and illuminations and singing and music make the day a memorable one."

Most of the families had not the means to buy the lumber and hardware to erect an "arbor," and yet they were the very ones to whom the life in the open would be of the greatest benefit. Hence philanthropy erected the structures. The Patriotic Woman's League of the Red Cross built half of all the "arbors" of the colony found on the "Jungfernheide." Many colonies reach into the woods, and naturally are of a different character from those in the open, for there tents are used instead of wooden structures. For protection during the night watchmen pace up and down the lanes; this before the war entailed a cost of 7 1/2 cents a month to each family. The season lasts from May 1 to October 1.

The school-going population meanwhile attend their schools, which used to be reached by means of the elevated cars or surface tramways for 2 1/2 cents and much cheaper if they have commuters' tickets. Many schools are near enough to be reached on foot. The children do not loiter on the way, but when school is out they hurry "home" to begin work in the garden, or to sit down to a meal on the veranda, which is relished far more than a meal in a city tenement house filled with fetid air and wanting in light. Nearly every one of these gardens has a flagpole, and at night a Japanese paper lantern with a tallow dip in it illuminates the veranda. These, with flags by day,make a festive appearance. The teachers find that city children who spend the five months in the open air are well equipped with elementary ideas in physical geography and astronomy. Their mental equipment is better, indeed, in all fields of thought, their physical health is improved, as well as their ethical motives and conduct.

To realize the full extent of these wholesale efforts (for put children into close contact with nature and they will improve in all directions), it is well to take a ride on the North belt line (elevated steam railroad), the trains of which start from the Friedrich's street depot and bring one back after a ride of an hour and a half. Then one may do the same on the South belt line. On these two trips one will see, not hundreds, but tens of thousands of such "arbor gardens" full of happy women and children at work or play. The men come out on the belt line when their work in town is done. The writer was riding through the city on an open cab, and seeing hardly any children on the streets and in the parks, he asked, "How is it that we see no children out?" "Ah, sir," was the reply, "if you will see the children of Berlin you must go out to the arbor colonies outside of the city. There is where our children are." Subsequent visits to these colony gardens showed that Berlin is by no means a childless city. To judge from the multitudinous arbors to be seen from the windows of the belt line cars there must be 50,000 to 75,000 of them. As far as the eye reaches the flagpoles, the orderly fences, and the little structures can be seen; and since the city has 2,000,000 inhabitants, it is very likely that an estimate made by a city official of several hundred thousands of children thus living in the open air, is not excessive.

The most beautiful and best-arranged gardens are not found in the vicinity of railroads, but several miles out toward the north and the south of the city. Here, where the soil is better, fine crops are raised.

If we turn our eyes homeward and contemplate the many thousands of small efforts made in this country toward the alleviation of city children's misery, we can say truthfully that we in America are perhaps fully alive to the necessity which has prompted the people of Berlin to action; we only need to be reminded of Mayor Pingree's potato patches on empty city lots, our children's outing camps, our occasional children's excursions, and the like. Still, there is nothing in this country to compare with the thousands of Berlin "arbor gardens" and their singularly convincing force. Like a circus, all this is supposed to be for the children, though it usually seems to need about two grown people to escort each child.

The elders enjoy the gardens even more than the circus.

The arbor gardens of Berlin should not be mistaken for the numerous "forest schools" (Waldschulen) in Germany. These schools "in the woods" are for sickly children, both physically crippled and mentally weak. The pupils have their lessons in the open, and the teachers live, play, and work with them; long recesses separate the various lessons and a two-hour nap in the middle of the day out in the open is on the time-table of every one of these schools. These special open-air schools for weaklings and defectives are now found in many parts of Germany, notably in Charlottenburg, Strassburg, and the industrial regions of the Rhineland.

The example of Berlin has been followed in other German cities, such as Munich, notably in Dusseldorf on the Rhine, where the arbor gardens are called "Schreber gardens" in honor of the man who promoted their establishment. There is a large colony of such gardens along the Hans-Sachs street, where Lima beans, peas,lettuce, cucumbers, potatoes, and many other garden vegetables are raised; even strawberries, raspberries, and fruit trees are found here. But the city being more lavishly provided with parks and open spaces than others of its size, the necessity for open-air life has not made itself felt as forcibly as in Berlin.

And think of the cleansing influence of all this. Light and air and labor--these are the medicines not of the body only, but of the soul. It is not ponderable things alone that are found in gardens,but the great wonder of life, the peace of nature, the influences of sunsets and seasons and of all the intangible things to which we can give no name, not because they are small, but because they are outside the compass of our speech. The God that dwells in gardens is sufficient for all our needs--let the theologians say what they will.

"'Not God! in gardens? When the eve is cool? Nay, but I have a sign-- 'Tis very sure--God walks in mine.'"

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