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.