The novel How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis shocked middle and upper class Americans when it was published in 1890. Riis created a sensation when he revealed to the world, combining detailed written descriptions with graphic photographs, the horrific conditions of New York City’s tenement housing. How the Other Half Lives raised many questions, such as how and why the poor are subjected to such terrible living conditions and how that environment affects them. Riis also reveals his fears and prejudices toward certain ethnic groups as he investigates each tenement in order to find some kind of solution.
The miserable surroundings Riis discusses throughout the length of his entire document focus on the tenement. The tenement is a building, which due to the immigration boom was modified by its landlord to create as many rooms as possible, therefore sacrificing the human necessities of air and light. Riis says,
?Large rooms were partitioned into several smaller ones, without regard to light or ventilation.?(Pg. 69)
These rooms were too small to house one family and too dark and stagnant too live in, yet it was common to have as many as three or four families in one ?apartment?! Tenements are the pit of filth, hot, dank and disease ridden. It was very common for a whole building to be wiped out by a disease such as cholera. The tenants were so cramped that many babies died of ?foul air?, the cause of which was no ventilation. Deaths due to the poor condition of the tenement houses were so great the first year tenements were instituted that the death rate in the city nearly doubled. Yet the tenement population kept growing and growing, until one third of New York City’s population lived in the tenements. Population was so concentrated and overcrowded in the tenements that New York’s East side (where the tenements were located) had the highest population density in the world! Jacob Riis recognized that the ever-increasing lower class was a major problem and would only get worse if the tenement situation was not remedied.
The tenant’s behavior and characteristics reflected those of their surrounding conditions. Their housing was dark and filthy, as were their habits. The most popular hangout of the average tenant was the saloon, and conveniently enough it was usually located on the first floor of the tenement buildings. They hardly bathed or cleaned, and basically lived like animals.Order now
Riis was convinced that the nature of the poor’s environment was the major factor in the development of their morals and personalities, Riis states:
?An individuals future was shaped ultimately by environmental factors.?(Pg. 29)
Although Riis does admit some unfavorable hereditary characteristics also might attribute to keeping a man from success. The tenement was the biggest hindrance to achieving the American myth of rags to riches. It becomes impossible for one to rise up in the social structure when it can be considered a miracle to live passed the age of five. Children under the age of five living in tenements had a death rate of 139.83 compared to the city’s overall death rate of 26.67. Even if one did live past the age of five it was highly probable he’d become a criminal, since virtually all of them originate from the tenements. They are forced to steal and murder, they’ll do anything to survive, Riis appropriately calls it the ?survival of the unfittest?. (Pg. 40)
Riis believed that the tenants had no choice but to behave as they did. The persons Riis holds responsible instead are the landlords. Riis believed the landlord dictated the tenement environment. Riis claimed landlords:
?Frequently urged the filthy habits of the tenants as an excuse for the condition of their property, utterly losing sight of the fact that it was the tolerance of those habits which was the real evil, and that for this they themselves were alone responsible.?(Pg. 64)
The tenements were growing worse, their populations increased and their conditions decreased. Riis feared the number of unhappy lower class because of their potential to revolt. Riis believed that a revolt was very probable and offered some solutions to help improve the tenements and keep the poor satisfied. Riis believed that to avoid this possible revolution there were three effective ways of dealing with the tenement situation; by law, by remodeling and making the most out of the old or by building new model tenements. Riis believed the third option best, building new model tenements. Riis gives the examples of the Improved Dwelling Assoc. and the Tenement House Building Corporation. (Pg. 250) Both designed and built model tenement houses that proved to be a social success as well as a business success. These tenement builders disproved the previous theories that in order to make money landlords had to cut corners.
Riis does a vivid and realistic job of describing the poor and their plight, but he sometimes let his prejudices get in the way. This may have been due to the fact that he was an ?old? immigrant from Denmark, part of the wave of immigrants that arrived in America prior to 1880. The ?old? immigrants hailed mainly from North-Western Europe; ethnicity’s Riis clearly favored over the ?new? wave of immigrants. The ?new? immigrants were mainly from South ? Eastern Europe, featuring such ethnicities as Italians and Jews.
The ?old? despised the ?new? immigrants because they stole their jobs. The ?new? immigrants came over hungry for work and were willing to work for a fraction of what the ?old? immigrants would. The ?new? immigrants came in unskilled and unaccustomed to American society, took the ?old? immigrants jobs and shook up their neighborhoods; this created much tension between the two groups. Riis like others, hated some ethnic groups more than others, and in How the Other Half Lives establishes a general hierarchy placing the ?old? immigrants on the top, groups such as Germans, Irish and the English. In the middle Riis ranks the Italians, Jews, and blacks. On the bottom of the ladder Riis places the Chinese.
Riis describes the Italians as:
?Slow, stubborn, and content to live in a pig ? sty. The man is so ignorant that, as one of the sharpers who pray on him once said ?it would be sinful not to take him in.’?(Pg. 92)
Riis then gives his thoughts on the Jewish population, saying:
?Thrift is the watchword of Jewtown. It is at once their strength and fatal weakness? Money is their God.?(Pg. 130)
Riis though shows some sympathy to the black man, fearing that they may never totally assimilate. The Tenement owner has segregated buildings, forcing the blacks to usually live all together. They are forced to pay higher rent then whites but Riis swears:
?The blacks are one of the cleanest and most orderly races.?(Pg. 158)
At the very bottom of Riis’s hierarchy, along with most other Americans were the Chinese. Riis describes the Chinaman as:
?Lacking the handle of a strong faith in something, anything, however wrong to catch him by. There is nothing strong about him.? (Pg. 120)
Riis’s prejudices may slander or sway the truth about the people he writes about, but he gives you the average American’s opinion on all the different ethnicities during this era.
Riis used his camera to express the poor in their supposed ?natural? environment but Riis actually had the people pose for the photographs. The fact that Riis planned out many of his pictures shows that perhaps he may have been trying to play on the feelings and sensibilities of his fellow man, particularly the middle?class. Riis needed them to sympathize with the poor’s environment so hopefully they would help in whatever ways they could.
Another way Riis aroused sympathy was with his captions that accompanied his pictures. One example of this is his caption that reads ?Sewing and Starving in an Elizabeth Street attic?. The caption gives the idea that the two women pictured were dying of starvation and cramped. The picture though just shows two elderly women sewing next to a fireplace in an orderly apartment. (Pg. 217)
Riis used these tactics to get the middle-class to take notice of the problems of the tenements. The middle-class at this time was growing steadily, and due to an increase in public transportation moved away from the over-crowded cities and into the suburbs. The middle-class had extra money and was intrigued by the ?queer? people in Riis’s photographs, living in such ?odd? places. (Pg. 29) They enjoyed the beauty of looking into such hellish places without actually having to go see them first-hand. The middle-class, being a brand new class in American society needed to define itself, and helping the urban poor, the people beneath them gave them that chance. The middle-class welcomed the task of becoming the mediator between the rich and the poor.
How the other Half Lives opened many eyes, and brought about change and newfound sympathy for the lower class. The tenements were Hell, and through lucid descriptions and shocking photographs, Riis exposed the plight of the poor living in New York City’s tenements to the world. I found this book to be well written and his description usage superb.
In a few reviews posted on Amazon.com the general synopsis presented by all of the reviewers was similar to my feelings, except that they failed to see how his somewhat biased opinion affected his writings. They all agreed that his writings were very compelling, but the real key to this book was the horrific pictures he displayed. An anonymous read from Furman University of South Carolina is quoted saying:
?While the text in itself is quite interesting, the photos are perhaps the most gripping aspect of the book.?
Also they all felt a strong sense of sympathy for the poor lower class living in those
God-awful tenements posing as homes.