How The Other Half Lives Summary

Jacob Riis

How The Other Half Lives

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How The Other Half Lives Summary

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A seminal work of photojournalism that set in motion major legislative reforms addressing the squalid living conditions prevalent in late nineteenth century New York City tenements, How the Other Half Lives was documented and written by Jacob Riis in 1890 in an attempt to bring much-needed attention to the otherwise neglected population of immigrants living in close quarters on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The title of the work, first published as an article in Scribner’s Magazine in 1889 after seeing the popularity of the one-off images that had been featured in the New York Sun, was taken from François Rabelais’s famous quotation: “One half of the world does not know how the other half lives.”

Immigrants from Europe, many fleeing the potato famine in Ireland or revolution in Germany, poured in large numbers into New York City during the mid-to-late 19th century. By 1900, more than 80,000 tenements had been built. They housed a population of 2.3 million people, fully two-thirds of the city’s total population. These tenements were characterized by unsafe and unsanitary living conditions, high crime rates, and severe overcrowding. On average, rooms some 13 feet across housed 12 adults, and at its peak, the infant death rate climbed as high as 1 in 10. Fires and disease epidemics (infamously, a cholera outbreak in 1849 caused the deaths of 5,000 people) were not uncommon, and undoubtedly the result of unsafe construction, lack of ventilation or fire escapes, filthy and contaminated quarters, and the close proximity that characterized tenement living.

An exemplary model of the “muckraking” style of journalism popular in the 1880s and 1890s, How the Other Half Lives served to expose the middle and upper classes to the horrifying living conditions endured by these immigrants. A Danish immigrant himself, Riis struggled to find consistent employment for some time, until he landed a job as a police reporter and befriended then-police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt. His job as a police reporter gave him unprecedented access to the slums, where he was so shocked by what he encountered that he was moved to document his findings for the wider world, at first using prose alone. It wasn’t until he moved from reporting at the New York Tribune to the New York Sun that he incorporated flash photography, pairing stark images with his sensationalist writings to successfully appeal to his readers’ sense of moral outrage. It was a commonly held belief at the time that poverty was the result of laziness, weakness, or immorality, and that those who suffered from it simply failed to pull themselves out of these conditions. On the contrary, Riis saw the slums themselves as a cause of poverty, among the first to posit the notion of a poverty cycle, and suggesting that improvements to living and working conditions might empower people to pursue improved life circumstances.

In addition to being an innovative example of the use of new photographic technologies, How the Other Half Lives is a pioneering work of the Progressive Era (1890-1920), from its subject matter to its execution. A time distinguished by a focus on social activism and political reform, the Progressive Era saw many incidents that were the flashpoint of major reforms similar to those that came in the wake of the publication of Riis’s work, including the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (1911), which sparked the passing of important labor laws that also affected many tenement dwellers. Indeed, Riis’s work highlights not only the living conditions of the poor, but also their working conditions, as he investigates sweatshops, stockyards, and slaughterhouses where workers were making only a few cents a day, many having to send their young children to work as well in order to make ends meet.

For all its progressivism, Riis’s work is also typified by certain racial and ethnic biases prevalent at the time, such as broadly categorizing entire groups of people as predisposed to certain kinds of behavior. There is some debate, however, as to whether these were his genuine feelings, or whether this was a device simply used to appeal to his average reader as he angled for reform by any means possible. How The Other Half Lives was also motivated by the patriarchal Gilded Age concept of “noblesse oblige,” in which those with means are obligated to perform philanthropic works for those less fortunate–out of Christian charity, to be sure, but not without an avenue for profits and increased social control.

Nonetheless, as a direct result of How The Other Half Lives, two major studies of tenements were completed in the 1890s, and in 1901, a landmark piece of Progressive Era-legislation was passed: the Tenement House Law. The Tenement House Law effectively outlawed the construction of new tenements on inadequate 25-foot lots, and mandated improved sanitary conditions, fire escapes, ventilation, and access to natural light. Under the new law, which would be effectively enforced (in contrast to previous legislation; most notably, the 1867 Tenement House Act, which legally defined a tenement, but did nothing to ensure inhabitants’ safety). Pre-existing tenement structures were updated and made safer, and more than 200,000 new apartments built according to improved codes were constructed over the next 15 years, supervised by city authorities to ensure proper execution. Mulberry Bend, captured in one of Riis’s most well-known photos and described as incredibly dangerous, was also razed and turned into a city park.

Jacob Riis’s work had a lasting effect not only on the poor, immigrant populations that were the subject of his book, but also on the social conscience of the upper and middle classes, many era-defining in their magnitude.