How the Other Half Lives Summary
by Jacob Riis

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How the Other Half Lives Summary

How the Other Half Lives is an 1890 work of photojournalism by Jacob Riis that examines the lives of the poor in New York City’s tenements.

  • Riis, a journalist and photographer, uses a combination of photographs and prose to depict life in poverty-stricken urban areas.
  • The slums and tenements of the city are presented as a cause of poverty, not just a symptom. Riis shows that the majority of the poor are normal, hardworking people who simply face adverse circumstances.
  • Riis argues that it is necessary to address urban poverty for both social and moral reasons.

Summary

In 1870, penniless and alone, Jacob Riis immigrated to the United States from Denmark. Unable to find a steady source of income, Riis took on various low-paying jobs such as bricklaying, carpentry, and sales. During this time, he experienced firsthand the utter poverty in America’s cities. Astounded by the high levels of crime and disease—which he attributed largely to low socioeconomic status—Riis felt that the unsanitary and dangerous living conditions of the poor were a terrible injustice. After several years, Riis managed to establish a steady income and found work as a journalist for the New York Tribune. As a police reporter, Riis frequently journeyed to the most dangerous neighborhoods in New York City. It was during this time that Riis met and befriended police commissioner and future president Theodore Roosevelt. Using journalism as a platform, Riis employed sensationalist prose to try to show his readers what life was like in dangerous and poverty-stricken urban areas.

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At the time, popular opinion among middle- and upper-class New Yorkers was that poverty was the fault of the poor. Theories such as social Darwinism and Carnegie’s “The Gospel of Wealth” helped promote the belief that the poor were only poor because they were too lazy, weak, or immoral to rise up in society. In contrast, Jacob Riis saw the slums as a cause of poverty rather than a symptom. Certain that most New Yorkers were simply unaware of the struggles of those living in poverty, Riis was determined to show his readers that the vast majority of the poor were normal, hardworking people facing enormously adverse circumstances. As he visited the slums of New York, Riis made an effort to learn more about the various issues the poor faced, from the spread of disease to crime to overcrowding. After publishing numerous articles describing his findings, Riis realized that sensationalist prose had a limited effect on his otherwise oblivious audience; indeed, some of Riis’s readers felt that he must be exaggerating the conditions in the tenements. It was then that Riis started to experiment with photography, hypothesizing that the misery of the poor might be better conveyed through images.

After getting a job with the New York Sun, Riis began to photograph life in the slums using innovative flash technology to better capture the dim tenements and the nighttime streets. Rather than having his subjects pose, Riis often ran up to them and quickly took a photo before running away. This unorthodox technique—designed to capture subjects at their most raw—was one of the first instances of casual photography. Due to the limitations of print technology, line drawings of Riis’s photographs were published next to his articles rather than the photographs themselves. Meanwhile, Riis began presenting his photographs at churches and schools, often provoking shocked reactions from his audiences. In 1889, Riis published an article in Scribner’s Magazine called “How the Other Half Lives,” a phrase taken from François Rabelais’s famous quote: “One half of the world does not know how the other half lives.” After seeing the success of the article, Riis decided to adapt it into a book. By 1890, Riis had completed his book How the Other Half Lives . Echoing the style of Charles Dickens, Riis...

(The entire section is 856 words.)