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How the Other Half Lives [Paperback]

Jacob A. Riis

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2 Jan 2012
Book may have numerous typos, missing text, images, or index. Purchasers can download a free scanned copy of the original book (without typos) from the publisher. 1890. Excerpt: ... CHAPTER VIII. THE CHEAP LODGING-HOUSES. WHEN it comes to the question of numbers with this tramps' army, another factor of serious portent has to be taken into account: the cheap lodging-houses. In the caravanseries that line Chatham Street and the Bowery, harboring nightly a population as large as that of many a thriving town, a home-made article of tramp and thief is turned out that is attracting the increasing attention of the police, and offers a field for the missionary's labors beside which most others seem of slight account. Within a year they have been stamped as nurseries of crime by the chief of the Secret Police,* the sort of crime that feeds especially on idleness and lies ready to the hand of fatal opportunity. In the same strain one of the justices on the police court bench sums up his long experience as a committing magistrate: "The ten-cent lodginghouses more than counterbalance the good done by the free reading-room, lectures, and all other agencies of reform. Such lodging-houses have caused more destitution, more beggary and crime than any other agency I know of." A very slight acquaintance with the subject is sufficient to convince the observer that neither authority overstates the fact. The two officials had reference, however, to two different grades of lodging-houses. The cost of a night's lodging makes the difference. There is a wider gap between the "hotel"--they are all hotels--that charges a quarter and the one that furnishes a bed for a dime than between the bridal suite and the every-day hall bedroom of the ordinary hostelry. * Inspector Byrnes on Lodging-houses, in the North American Review, September, 1889. The metropolis is to lots of people like a lighted candle to the moth. It attracts them in swarms that come year after year with the vague idea that...

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ABOUT THE EDITOR Lorenzo Domínguez is a best-selling author, writer and an award-winning street photographer. He has written numerous books, interviews and articles about fine art and photography.

Throughout most of 2010, his book, 25 Lessons I’ve Learned about photography Life! has been the #1 Best Selling Photo Essay on Paul Giguere, guru for the popular podcast thoughts on photography, considers 25 Lessons one of the "classic" essays on photography. For more information go to

In October of 2010, Lorenzo served as the NYC photography adviser for the recently launched Microsoft foursquare photography app. In 2008, he was chosen to be the HP Be Brilliant Featured Artist. He has been called an "Internet photography sensation" by Time Out New York and is considered a "Flickr star" by Rob Walker, Consumed columnist, for New York Times Magazine. His work is represented worldwide by Getty Images. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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1. LONG ago it was said that "one half of the world does not know how the other half lives." Read the first page
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.7 out of 5 stars  66 reviews
76 of 78 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars How did those immigrants survive ? 31 Dec 2003
By Joanna Daneman - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
How did our grandfathers and great-grandfathers (and great-great, I suppose) survive immigration and the slums? What was life like on the Lower East Side of New York? For those of us whose family has only been in the US for a few generations, this is a must-read. Whether Irish, Italian, Jewish, Chinese or Polish, German, Russian, hordes of refugees ended up in New York on the promise of a better life.
Reading Riis' book reads like the newspaper in some ways; entrepreneurs lured poor people from Eastern Europe and contracted out their labor in sweat shops in the US. Sound familiar? But what is not so familiar are the living conditions in the tenements, dark, unventilated cages in blocks of buildings that rented for a surprising high rent to people who died by the thousands in the unsanitary conditions. Farm animals had it better. Why was rent so high? Supply and demand. Cheaper rent was to be had in Brooklyn and the outlying (as yet unincorporated) boroughs, but the WORK was in Manhattan, where you could get by as a tailor, a seamstress, a peddler or in some illegitimate activity.
The conditions will make you cry; the story of foundling babies (abandoned newborns) is astonishing. A cradle was put outside a Catholic Church and instead of a baby each night, racks of babies appeared. The Church had to establish foundling hospitals run by nuns, who persuaded the unwed or impoverished mothers to nurse the baby they gave up, plus another baby (women can usually nurse two, though these malnourished women must have been hard-pressed.) The child mortality rate, especially in the "back tenements" or buildings built on to the back of others (dark and airless) was incredible.
I wish the plates in the book were of better quality; Riis took many photographs, but the reproduction here is poor and they are hard to see. I recommend that if you are interested in this subject from seeing "The Gangs of New York" or for genealogical reasons, that you visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and see the buildings for yourself. Even cleaned up and no longer packed with unwashed people, they are heart-rending.
72 of 80 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars horrendous edition 19 Nov 2007
By History Reader - Published on
This edition of How the Other Half Lives is astoundingly bad. It contains innumerable typos (the edition was clearly the result of scanning an old edition with sub-par OCR software). Moreover the illustrations and tables are 72dpi maximum making them a nearly illegible blur on the printed page. The blurb on the back claims the book was "first published in 1901" (in fact it was 1890). The same amount of care went into this edition as went into a New York Tenement.
29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The One that Started It All 22 Oct 2003
By Rocco Dormarunno - Published on
For all intents and purposes, Jacob Riis' HOW THE OTHER HALF LIVES is the birth of photojournalism. And this new genre, like the first movies and radio programs, fascinated its audience. Riis' sharp essays are matched only by his sharp eye for photography. I don't know which made more of an impact on me: the text or the pictures of unspeakable misery. But I think it's a safe bet to say that Riis' contemporaries were fixated more on the photographs. (After all, Riis turned to photography AFTER his published essays seemed to have little effect.) In any event, the result, then as now, is a provocative, compassionate, and angry work that exposed to the middle and upper classes of his time the effects of their indifference, at best, or the effects of their roles as slumlords and sweatshop owners, at worst.
The only jarring aspect of the book is Riis' use of ethnic stereotyping. He makes several not-nice remarks about Jews, Chinamen, Italians, etc. However, we must not impose our early 21st Century values on a late 19th Century man. These types of remarks were commonplace back in the pre-politically correct times. In any event, Riis' overall intention was to help these people get out of their horrid conditions and not to slur their heritages.
One last note, Luc Sante's introduction is brilliant and serves the book very well.
Rocco Dormarunno, author of The Five Points Concluded, a Novel
20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Still the Same 27 Oct 2003
By Martha Lenardson - Published on
"The business of housing the poor, if it is to amount to anything, must be business, as it was business with our fathers to put them where they are. As charity, pastime, or fad, it will miserably fail, always and everywhere" (p. 201). Jacob A. Riis, in his book, How the Other Half Lives, vividly describes the human condition of the tenements of New York during the late 1800's. The author provides not only a physical description of the tenement buildings but delves deeper into the people who live there and why they don't leave the pits of filth and despair.
Jacob Riis, presents a compelling account of the intricate business of managing the slums of New York and maintaining the status quo among the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who came to America to seek a new and prosperous life. After arriving they found they were trapped in a life of high rents and low wages with little hope for improvement of their circumstances. What little help was available seemed to be in the form of charity that couldn't sustain the prideful immigrants desire to succeed in this country.
The reader is taken on a tour of the slums and introduced to the groups of immigrants nationality by nationality and given a full account of the author's stereotypical ideas about their good and bad points. Of the Italian Riis says he only spends time indoors when it's raining or he is sick. When the sun shines the entire population seeks the streets carrying on all facets of life (p. 47). He further says the Italian is a born gambler (p 44) and learns slowly, if at all (p. 42) so that his job of working the ash carts is simply suited for him. On the positive side Riis says the Italian is as honest as he is hot-headed (p. 45).
The Chinese are a stealth and secretive group with all activities going on behind closed doors (p75). They are also attributed with stealing the women of the white man and leading them into the grip of opium giving them up only to the Charity Hospital or the Potter's Field (p76). On the positive side the Chinese are noted for their scrupulous neatness (p 78).
The Bohemians are an honest group but rumored as being anarchists. They are fond of beer and will live at the highest means available thus they have nothing saved for a rainy day (105). He is caught in a tough position of working for poor wages and facing rising rents with no way out. For if he rebels against low wages and high rent he loses his home and job; the two are connected as cigar making takes place in the home utilizing supplies provided by the landlords.
To the Jews money is their God and they work in the tenements crowding the area of Ludlow Street more densely than the crowding of Old London (p 83). They are suited to baking as bread is cheap and their love of money and the saving of it is suited to eating bread. They are also known for their work in the clothing industry. Of the Blacks, Riis stereotypes them as cleaner and better tenants but none-the-less they pay higher rents for no one else will live in a tenement after the black man has. While much of the reading is based on the stereotypes formed by the author it still provides a vivid picture of the human condition including the live's of tramps in stale beer dives and the thugs who cause fear and trouble in the streets. Both tramps and toughs profess that the world owes them a living (p64). The author also relates the degree to which the upper class try to distort the reality of life in the tenements, classifying starvation as "improper nourishment". In one case starvation led one poor man to thoughts of murdering his own children. In his madness he had only one conscious thought: that the town should not take the children. "Better that I take care of them myself ," he repeated to himself as he ground the axe to an edge.(p 127).
Due to this book, Riis was able to draw public attention to the horrendous living conditions of the poor in New York City, and to insist on reform. The reforms he recommended were largely undertaken, although it was a very gradual process (p. ix). This may be partially attributed to political factors relating to the fact that political contests were won in the areas with the fully packed lodging houses (p 71). With this writing Riis does not allow the world to forget easily, what it does not like to remember (p196).
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sad,startling,urban pictures & reporting from 1890 NYC 5 July 1997
By A Customer - Published on
This is an extremely important work that is often difficult to find at local libraries. At the turn
of the century the Danish immigrant, Jacob Riis, took pictures, and wrote, of the the NYC ghettos where many of the immigrants lived. It is very powerful, depressing and shocking; a must read for anyone interested in the study of urban human behavior/housing and photo journalism.
Avoid some paperback editions that do not contain the pictures Riis took of the dismal living conditions in NYC.
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