Unlike the majority of immigrants of his time, Jacob Riis assimilated easily into Americas melting pot. A Dutch born police reporter and amateur photographer, Riis dove into the impoverished streets of Americas most populated city and proved to the upper classes that horror does exist next door. In his early days of church exhibitions and in the writing of his novel, How the Other Half Lives, originally published on 15 November 1890, Riis depicted the color lines, tenements, stereotypes, careers, and lifestyles of Americas newest and poorest citizens. In the book, he discusses the despair and filth that he discovers in the ghettos and those people that remain there, and those that are striving to find a way out.
How the Other Half Lives is an awe inspiring documentation of the trials that immigrants and factory workers were subject to during the turn of the century. The seamy side of tenement life in New York is presented in the most graphic way (San Francisco Chronicle, 7). Jacob Riis, the Danish born journalist and photographer, was among the most dedicated advocates for America’s oppressed, exploited, and downtrodden. How the Other Half Lives documented, through word and image, the lives of those who lived in New York’s slums in a brutal, uncensored fashion.
Among those moved by Riis’s reportage was Theodore Roosevelt, then New York police commissioner. Alerted to the inhumane conditions endured by many of New York’s inhabitants, Theodore Roosevelt accompanied Riis on his rounds of tenement houses and back alleys. By 1900, Riis’s mission began to yield results with the help of Roosevelt: city water was purified, incidences of yellow fever, smallpox, and cholera were declining, and efforts to establish child labor laws were underway. After many reforms in New York and nationwide, multiple published works, assistance to Theodore Roosevelts campaigns, Riis died of heart failure on May 26, 1914.
How the Other Half Lives remains to be his best selling and most popular novel. As iron and steel entered Americas marketplace, industry conquered the country. The latter years of the nineteenth century were laden with smog accounted for by the many east coast factories. Inhabitants of those factories were the migrant workers; the immigrants forced out of their own distraught countries looking for the American dream. In accompaniment to the rush of industry and finance into the American economy were the Italians, the Bohemians, the Irish, the Polish, the Jewish, the Chinese, and all other races seeking prosperity into its cities.
Droves filled into Ellis Island seeking citizenship. From there, they filtered throughout New York, finding work in the factories, and homes near those factories. Larger families moved as one to the city, and because of this trend, various parts of the city became divided into race origin. These separated neighborhoods became the ghettos. As tenement housing was introduced, those ghettos became embellished with tenement housing. Real estate agents, and those who suddenly discovered the profession, realized the intense need for housing in New York City.
Initially, immigrants were moving several families into the abandoned middle income homes and duplexes that were available in the vicinity of the factories. It was imperative that housing was located near the place of work, as the immigrants could not afford transportation from the outer limits of the city, and jobs were not stable. The newcomers frequently shifted from job to job and were dependent upon a home locale convenient to the area factories. As the homes around the employment became overfilled, the investors discovered an opportunity for supply and demand. The land that was destined to be the immigrants skyrocketed in value, as it had become the most desired land for migrant workers.
In addition, the over population required more lodging. Tenement housing, to accommodate the constant trend of immigrants, was invented and provided. The homes that had previously been adopted by multiple families had now been divided into apartments where more families could be situated. More tenements, as well, were built in between existing structures. As the shift continued from Europe to the United States, more housing was packed and the land value and rent rates soared. Attempting to curb the extreme cost of living, occupants again moved more people into their space to divide the rent.
The standard of living was nonexistent. Homes has ceased to be sufficiently separate, decent, and desirable to afford(Riis, 60). Cholera, smallpox, typhus fever, and measles all prowled through homes. The epidemics created more death and disruption in some groups, and less in others.
The Jews, for instance, had lived in inner cities in Europe in similar conditions. Their immune systems were adept to dealing with many of the plagues that swept through the ghettos of New York, while the Irish and Italian immigrants had lived in rural territories, inept in dealing with disease. Other differences were prevalent in the separated ghettos, as well. Every section of people had their individual characteristics that made them distinct from one another.
Riis depicts each of the groups, discussing the stereotypes and explaining his defense. The Irish tended to reside in the West Side tenement districts and hold such jobs as bricklayers and land lords. The once unwelcome Irishman has been followed in his turn by the Italian, the Russian Jew. .
. (Riis, 73). The Irish were now out to be the insiders and, therefore, gained control of the one evil that every immigrant struggled with: tenement rent. They tended to be the beggars, the cave dwellers that existed in the basement or on the roof.
Above all other groups that inhabited the city, the tenement, especially its lowest type, appears to possess a peculiar affinity for the worse nature of the Celt. . . (Riis, 224).
Italians, however, were more mundane with their pursuit for financial prosperity. Their interest in the United States was to make money fairly, his intention was only to work. They tended to be violent. Rivalries were created with neighboring Jews and Irishmen. He also was recognized as the gambler.
Construction and sanitary positions were most likened to the Italian because of the intense farming background that most were accustomed to in Italy. Little Italy was formed in response to the tight Italian ties to expanded family members in Harlem and expanded along Mulberry Street. The Italian assimilation was delayed, they are dumb and learn slowly if at all(Riis, 37). The effect may have been, as well, that the desire of the Italian was to make money as quickly as possible, and in many cases, return home to Italy with the finances.
In contrast, the distinction of the Jew from the Italian was that they were cheap, money is their God(Riis, 37). Jews tended to hold business in the populated market place, in order to obtain their deity. They were hard workers and most often found work by tailoring, cigar making, or laboring in a sweat shop. The Bend was the home to the Jews, considered to be the core of New Yorks slums. Here they existed, from the entrepreneur to the rag picker, and here they did their trading.
It is not much more than twenty years since a census of the Bend returned only twenty-four of the six hundred and nine tenements as in decent condition(Riis, 96). By all means, though, the Jews were the most unique and diligent in the collection of money than the opposing racial segregates. In all sectors of New York City, though, these foreign families sought shelter and forged through famine, sickness, poverty, and unemployment. They all became unified in their struggle of survival and bounty and the American dream.
Though the conditions were rancid, the first generation immigrants endured the entirety for the hope that one day their children would have better lives than those available to them in Europe. The penalty exacted for the sins of our fathers that shall be visited upon the children, unto the third and fourth generation. We shall indeed be well off, if it stop there(Riis, 254). Bibliography: