How the Other Half Lives (Penguin Classics) Paperback – 26 Feb 1998
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From the Back Cover
In How The Other Half Lives New Yorkers read with horror that three-quarters of the residents of their city were housed in tenements and that in those tenements rents were substantially higher than in better sections of the city. In his book Riis gave a full and detailed picture of what life in those slums was like, how the slums were created, how and why they remained as they were, who was forced to live there, and offered suggestions for easing the lot of the poor. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
About the Author
Jacob Riis (1849-1914) was a journalist and photographer born in Denmark. Luc Sante teaches writing and the history of photography at Bard College. His books include "Low Life," "Evidence," and "The Factory of Facts."
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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.
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).
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
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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