How the Other Half Lives

by Jacob Riis

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What makes the tenement districts so crowded and unhealthy?

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Riis blamed the crowded and unhealthy conditions in the tenements primarily on the rich. First, he said, the rich simply didn't know how bad the conditions of the poor were, which is why he called his book How the Other Half Lives. This title comes from a Montaigne quote that "one half of the world does not know how the other half lives." But beyond their sheer ignorance of conditions, Riis said the wealthy were also to blame due to their greed and neglect. Rents were so high that poor people were forced to crowd together to survive, especially as many of the immigrants toiling in the sweatshops on the Lower East Side were badly underpaid. Lack of decent education was another problem, as people were trapped in poverty with no way out, leading to hopelessness. Further, landlords failed to maintain their properties, and the poor had no one to go to when things broke or problems arose. Riis advocated for having a manager on these properties who could respond to problems before the situation became too grim. Better infrastructure, such as indoor plumbing and sewage systems, would cut down on disease, he thought. Riis argued for tearing down the worst tenements, improving education, and getting rid of the sweat shops in order to improve conditions.  

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