How the Other Half Lives

by Jacob Riis

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What did Riis mean when he said tenements made its inhabitants "shiftless, destructive, and stupid" in How the Other Half Lives? How did he view tenement inhabitants and American capitalism?

“Long ago it was said that ‘one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.’ That was true then. It did not know because it did not care. The half that was on top cared little for the struggles, and less for the fate of those who were underneath, so long as it was able to hold them there and keep its own seat.” - Riis, 59.
“They are shiftless, destructive, and stupid; in a word, they are what the tenements made them.” - Riis, 36.

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In his book, Jacob Riis delineates the experiences of new immigrants to America in the 19th Century. Interestingly, he devotes entire chapters to specific immigrant nationalities such as the Italians, the Jews, the Chinese, and the Bohemians. As for which groups Riis thought more capable of becoming good Americans, we will have to refer to his writing. It is important to remember that Riis often expressed seemingly contradictory opinions about specific immigrants.

He doesn't explicitly state which immigrants would make good Americans, but he does state what specific attributes such immigrants should have if they hope to become good Americans. Take the Italian immigrant. Riis states that the Italian immigrant is the perfect slum tenant: he 'makes less trouble' than the contentious Irishman or the order-loving German' and knows how to work hard. He is honest and 'gay, light-hearted and, if his fur is not stroked the wrong way, inoffensive as a child.' However, Riis thinks that the typical Italian immigrant lacks some of the most necessary attributes successful Americans have: rugged individualism, the will to succeed, vitality, and initiative. Riis also complains that the Italian immigrant knows no English and doesn't care to rectify this problem.

He not only knows no word of English, but he does not know enough to learn. Rarely only can he write his own language. Unlike the German, who begins learning English the day he lands as a matter of duty, or the Polish Jew, who takes it up as soon as he is able as an investment, the Italian learns slowly, if at all.

You will see the same pattern as you read Riis' opinion about other immigrants. For the Chinese, Riis laments that this group of immigrants will never adopt the true spirit of America. It is important to note here that Riis was very much a product of his time, despite being an immigrant himself.

I state it in advance as my opinion, based on the steady observation of years, that all attempts to make an effective Christian of John Chinaman will remain abortive in this generation; of the next I have, if anything, less hope. Ages of senseless idolatry, a mere grub-worship, have left him without the essential qualities for appreciating the gentle teachings of a faith whose motive and unselfish spirit are alike beyond his grasp...There is nothing strong about him, except his passions when aroused.

On the other hand, Riis expresses his admiration for the Chinese immigrant's 'scrupulous neatness' and his fantastic ability to combine worship with business. The average Chinese immigrant, Riis notes, is like a chameleon.

I am convinced that he adopts Christianity, when he adopts it at all, as he puts on American clothes, with what the politicians would call an ulterior motive, some sort of gain in the near prospect.

Again, Riis doesn't explicitly state that the Chinese immigrant cannot become a good American, but he does state what he thinks are several challenges the Chinese immigrant will have to overcome if he hopes to properly assimilate into American society. Intrinsic above all else, Riis claims that many of these immigrants, whether Italian, Chinese, Jewish, Bohemian, Russian, or French, cannot fully realize the American dream while they live in squalor. In Chapter XXIV What Has Been Done, Riis clearly states what it is that holds the average immigrant back from realizing his dreams in capitalistic America: the utter indifference of the middle classes and the rich towards the true plight of immigrants who live in tenements. Riis basically states that the typical practice of merely throwing money at the problem isn't the answer.

While Riis advocated for better housing options for beleaguered immigrants through his award-winning photo-journalism, he states that the poor also need to rise up to certain expectations. Riis gives the example of one philanthropist who spared no money to outfit his tenement building with the latest improvements. However, his efforts produced baffling results because he neglected to properly educate his tenants about his expectations for them.

He introduced his rough tenants to all this magnificence without taking the precaution of providing a competent housekeeper, to see that the new acquaintances got on together. He felt that his tenants ought to be grateful for the interest he took in them. They were. They found the boards in the wood-closets fine kindling wood, while the pipes and faucets were as good as cash at the junk shop. In three months the owner had to remove what was left of his improvements. The pipes were cut and the houses running full of water, the stationary tubs were put to all sorts of uses except washing, and of the wood-closets not a trace was left. The philanthropist was ever after a firm believer in the total depravity of tenement-house people.

Riis contrasts the above with the experiences of successful tenement owners who took the trouble to improve housing conditions for their immigrant tenants while simultaneously improving the general atmosphere of their housing tenements. For example, criminal influences were studiously eradicated and standards for behavior established for tenants.

With lower crime and less squalid living conditions, many of these immigrants flourished. When they realized that their wealthy landlords cared about what their community looked like, they began to take pride in their homes and their lives. Riis contends that, if all impoverished immigrants were given such opportunities, they would not fail to secure all benefits and privileges available to native Americans. In this respect, Riis, a progressive social justice warrior, was certainly ahead of his time.

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Riis views the extreme overcrowding and miserable filth of the New York tenements, not to mention the greed of the landlords, as the root causes of crime and alcoholism among the lower classes, most of whom were either recent immigrants or persons of color. Living in a horrible environment causes the poor to be "shiftless, destructive and stupid." He writes:

"By far the largest part--eighty per cent. at least--of crimes against property and against the person are perpetrated by individuals who have either lost connection with home life, or never had any, or whose homes had ceased to be sufficiently separate, decent, and desirable ... 

He also notes the alcoholism in tenement dwellers. This too he traces to the lack of decent housing:

"Forty per cent. of the distress among the poor, said a recent official report, is due to drunkenness. But the first legislative committee ever appointed to probe this sore went deeper down and uncovered its roots. The "conclusion forced itself upon it that certain conditions and associations of human life and habitation are the prolific parents of corresponding habits and morals," and it recommended "the prevention of drunkenness by providing for every man a clean and comfortable home."

The "other half" are chiefly immigrants: Germans, Jews, Chinese, Bohemians, Pole, Italians, as well as blacks. Latecomers, they have been shut out of the American dream.

Riis understands the poor, especially the deserving poor, who are primarily women and children, as in need of a much better chance in life, and as capable of becoming integrated into American life. He writes, "it is not an uncommon thing to find sweet and innocent girls, singularly untouched by the evil around them, true wives and faithful mothers, literally "like jewels in a swine's snout," in the worst of the infamous barracks."

On the other hand, the truly indolent and criminal, those who wouldn't work or were hardened so much they would not abandon crime, could not be assimilated into the American mainstream, he thought.

Most of the poor, he notes, work hard, and are not "vicious," but simply can't make enough to live on decently. Blacks too, deserve a better shake. (Riis is racist, but in sympathy with the way the deck has been stacked against the blacks.) He shows his sympathy, if stereotyping, in sentences like the following: "Cleanliness is the characteristic of the negro in his new surroundings, as it was his virtue in the old. In this respect he is immensely the superior of the lowest of the whites ..."

He blames capitalist greed for much of the problem. Landlords charge outrageous rents and evict people who don't pay in advance. Owners and even middlemen exploit the workers. He writes:

The sweater [sweatshop owner] knows well that the isolation of the workman in his helpless ignorance is his sure foundation, and he has done what he could--with merciless severity where he could--to smother every symptom of awakening intelligence in his slaves. In this effort to perpetuate his despotism he has had the effectual assistance of his own system and the sharp competition that keep the men on starvation wages; of their constitutional greed, that will not permit the sacrifice of temporary advantage, however slight, for permanent good, and above all, of the hungry hordes of immigrants to whom no argument appeals save the cry for bread.

The problem, to Riis, is the system, stacked against the poor.  Capitalism must be reformed, he said, with trade unions and laws to protect workers and provide them with decent housing. The rampant individualism and lack of social safety net that characterized 19th century America created the problems suffered by the lower classes. They were not themselves degenerate, but made so by circumstances. 

Riis is not anti-capitalist. He advocates for stronger laws, but the best remedy for the horrible tenements, he argues, lies in the hands of private enterprise, which can build new tenements and provide agents to deal fairly with renter complaints. Yet the problem must be dealt with:

The sea of a mighty population, held in galling fetters, heaves uneasily in the tenements. Once already our city, to which have come the duties and responsibilities of metropolitan greatness before it was able to fairly measure its task, has felt the swell of its resistless flood. If it rise once more, no human power may avail to check it. 

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