How the Other Half Lives

by Jacob Riis
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How the Other Half Lives Themes

The main themes in How the Other Half Lives, a work of photojournalism published in 1890, are the life of the poor in New York City tenements, child poverty and labor, and the moral effects of poverty.

  • The life of the poor in New York tenements: Riis examines the crowded, squalid, and dangerous conditions under which people in tenements must live.
  • Child poverty and labor: The plight of impoverished children is depicted in Riis’s most memorable photographs.
  • The moral effects of poverty: Poor conditions in tenements are linked to crime throughout the city.

Themes

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1055

The Life of the Poor in New York Tenement Buildings

The chief purpose of Jacob Riis’s pioneering work of photojournalism and social commentary, published in 1890, is announced in its title. It is to show one half of American society—the more prosperous, comfortable half—how the other half lives. Riis remarks that, in New York City, which is the subject of his study, the other half is now actually the other three-quarters, as there are now 37,000 tenement buildings housing over 1,200,000 people. Most upper- and middle-class New Yorkers never see the poorest areas of their own city. Although there is a great deal of description and exposition in the book, the photographs are of primary importance in making Riis’s case.

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In the photograph “Typical tenement fire-escape serving as an extension of the flat: Allen Street,” for instance, Riis shows the danger as well as the squalor of living conditions in the tenements. The fire escape is so smothered with laundry as to be almost invisible, and the rickety balcony is also covered with washing set out to dry and cluttered with bottles and barrels, creating a lethal obstacle course for anyone who might have to escape from a fire (and fires, as Riis goes on to show, are all too frequent). In “Jersey Street tenements,” the crumbling buildings are patched with various makeshift arrangements of wood and wire that look as though they could give way and fall on the inhabitants at any moment. Three men perch uncomfortably on a narrow bench, while a woman holding her child has to stand.

Riis supplements these pictures with his own descriptions and anecdotes, showing the sordid and perilous nature of life in the tenements. In chapter 4, “The Down Town Back-Alleys,” he relates an incident in which he managed to set fire to a house by taking a flash-bulb picture. The paper and rags on the wall caught fire, and because Riis was “in an attic room with a dozen crooked, rickety stairs between us and the street,” he says that he despaired of getting out alive. The fire was only eventually smothered “with a vast deal of trouble.” This is just one of many instances showing that life in the tenements, apart from being poor and miserable, presents frequent dangers unimagined by more prosperous New Yorkers.

Child Poverty and Child Labor

Many of Riis’s most memorable pictures are of children. In “Street Arabs in Sleeping Quarters [Church Corner],” for instance, he depicts three young boys, barefoot and dressed in filthy, ragged clothes, trying to sleep on a street corner by a grating. Several other pictures tell similar stories, and there are also haunting portraits of individual children, such as “Girl of the tenements.”

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Riis includes various chapters on children, roughly divided between those which deal with homelessness and those which depict child labor—both issues that prevent the children in question from receiving an education and escaping from poverty. He describes an interview with a boy who has been taken into police custody and is in no hurry to leave, since it is much more comfortable there than where he lives. The boy is asked which church he attends and astutely replies that he has no suitable clothes for church:

“Well, where do you go to school, then?”
“I don’t go to school,” with a snort of contempt.
“Where do you buy your bread?”
“We don't buy no bread; we buy beer,” said the boy, and it was eventually the saloon that led the police as a landmark to his “home.” It was worthy of the boy. As he had said, his only bed was a heap of dirty straw on the floor, his daily diet a crust in the morning, nothing else.

Immigrant Communities and Racial Divides

Riis devotes separate chapters to New York’s Italian, Chinese, Jewish, and African American communities. In chapter 8, “The Color Line in New York,” he describes the tyrannical power of landlords to decree where the black population of New York can live—and thus essentially segregate the city. He writes,

The Czar of all the Russias is not more absolute upon his own soil than the New York landlord in his dealings with colored tenants. Where he permits them to live, they go; where he shuts the door, stay out. By his grace they exist at all in certain localities; his ukase banishes them from others.

Riis compares the rents of white and black tenants, saying that despite the latter generally being “cleaner, better, and steadier,” creating far less trouble for landlords, they pay an average of $17 a month more rent than white tenants in comparable accommodation.

Riis is less sympathetic to Chinese and Jewish populations, though he does dispel the myth that Chinatown is full of opium dens (there are far more laundries, he says, which at least makes for a reasonably clean quarter of the city). His view of the Jewish people is obviously influenced by the role of many of them in hard labor, though he does remark that the Jewish overseers of the sweatshops are merely middlemen for the more culpable owners.

The Moral Effects of Poverty

In the book’s introduction, Riis quotes the secretary of the Prison Association of New York, who testified before a legislative committee on the recent increase in crime in the city.

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 to afford what ate regarded as ordinary wholesome influences of home and family . . . The younger criminals seem to come almost exclusively from the worst tenement house districts . . .

Riis shows affluent New Yorkers that these tenement blocks they have never seen are the source of much of the crime in their city. He points out that “the security of the one no less than of the other half demands, on sanitary, moral, and economic grounds,” that the tenements should be improved. If New Yorkers do not want to live in a city riddled with worsening crime and immorality that is certain to affect them personally sooner or later, they must work to ameliorate the conditions Riis has revealed to them.

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