How the Other Half Lives (Iluustrated): Studies Among the Tenements of New York – Jacob A. Riis

riisA few weeks ago, my family had its first gathering in nearly two years.  The even took place at Jacob A. Riis Park in Queens, New York.  As I walked the boardwalk next to the beach, I wondered how many people there knew the story of Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914) for whom the park is named. In 1890 this book by Riis was published and more than one hundred years later is stands as a  crucial piece of writing about the island of Manhattan.  At the time Riis wrote the book, the City of New York had yet to be incorporated.  That occurred eight years later on January 1, 1898.  His focus here is on the tenements in lower Manhattan and the different ethnic groups that inhabited the area.  And though New York has changed significantly in the years since Riis wrote this book, the gap between the wealthy and poor still remains wide.

Riis personally visited the tenements and made his observations regarding the people who called the them home.  And what he reveals is not entirely shocking but should serve as a reminder that before the skyscrapers rose across Manhattan, many parts of the island were home to families on all income levels and poverty was more common that some may think.  And in the area that was once known as the Five Points, life was tougher and deadlier.  The pictures that emerge from Riis’ work show two different worlds that exist in the same city.  The wealthy lived comfortably further uptown but, in the tenements, it was hell on earth.  In the tenements we find immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland, China, and various other places from which they departed.  All were in search of a better life in America but found themselves at the bottom of the social ladder where they were joined there by black Americans who had struggled to fit into American society in the wake of the Civil War and the failed Reconstruction Acts.  Riis gets up close and personal with each group and leaves us his thoughts which are sure to raise eyebrows.

I do warn readers that the author uses coarse language at times and his references to some groups and areas would never make it past a publisher’s desk today.   More than once I winced at his use of such terms as “Chinaman” and “Jewtown”.   But I also realize that in 1890 this style of writing was perfectly acceptable.  And despite the terms he chooses for certain discussions, Riis’ goal of shedding light on how the other half lived is thoroughly accomplished.  And the illustrations that are included help to reinforce the message he is delivering.  Today it might seem unreal that such conditions existed in New York, but they did, and the tenements were beyond deplorable.  Disease, hunger, crime, and despair could be found all over, and many met early deaths trying to survive in the depths of hell.  Their stories are consolidated here through Riis’ storytelling that is engaging and will keep readers tuned in and rooting for the underdog.  Riis is also rooting for them as well and fully understand the challenges they face.  To make that point clear he explains to the reader that:

“The poorest immigrant comes here with the purpose and ambition to better himself and, given half a chance, might be reasonably expected to make the most of it. To the false plea that he prefers the squalid homes in which his kind are housed there could be no better answer. The truth is, his half chance has too long been wanting, and for the bad result he has been unjustly blamed.”

Those words are still true today.  Readers who are also history buffs may recall that only eight years prior to the publication of this book, Congress had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which was signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur. The legislation prohibited Chinese laborers from emigrating to the United States and remains one of America’s darkest legacies with regards to immigration and the Chinese-American experience.  I am sure Riis was cognizant of that fact and fully understood how and why the Chinese neighborhoods developed into what they became.  I found him to be fair for the most part in his descriptions of the tenements but there were times where his words are slightly menacing.  But interestingly, Riis is aware of it and mentions it on occasion as he explains the various areas of the tenements.   However, there is one group for which he seems to be far harsher upon than others: the Arab/Bohemian.  I cannot say why his words about the Bohemians were as sharp as they were, but his criticism of the group is significant in the book.  Sadly, even today America’s Muslims are not always fully understood and anti-Arab discrimination is still an issue within our borders.  In all fairness, Riis never goes as far to mercilessly bash them or try to incite violence upon them.  But I do feel that perhaps he was a little too critical of an immigrant group that has strived for acceptance.

There are many redeeming moments in the book and Riis does make sure to point the great things about the various ethnic groups.  And that is what is so striking about the book.  His casual use of terms and descriptions could be taken as slightly bigoted, but he never fails to give praise where praise is due.  And when it comes to the Negro population, he is brutally honest in the treatment blacks had received in America and how their lives have suffered because of it.  I could feel while reading the book that his time in the tenements allowed him to understand the challenges immigrants faced as arrived in America.  Faced with a new culture, new language, and exposure to ethnic groups they may have only heard about, immigrants in New York during the 1800s did what was needed to survive and for many, life in the tenements was their daily reality.  Lower Manhattan looks different today but at one time the Five Points was a battle zone and life was not guaranteed.  It was here that the other half lived.  Riis, however, was optimistic and makes this statement that I feel exemplifies at least one thing New York City will always be known for:

“New York is, I firmly believe, the most charitable city in the world. Nowhere is there so eager a readiness to help, when it is known that help is worthily wanted; nowhere are such armies of devoted workers, nowhere such abundance of means ready to the hand of those who know the need and how rightly to supply it. Its poverty, its slums, and its suffering are the result of unprecedented growth with the consequent disorder and crowding, and the common penalty of metropolitan greatness.” 

Some readers may find the book to be difficult at times due to Riis’ descriptions of the tenements.  He spares very few details, but I believe that was the effect he wanted when he wrote the book.  The tenements were not a place of happiness but of hopelessness and uncertainty.  New York City is known as the melting pot and the label is accurate, but it is imperative to remember that the melting pot we have come to know has its own dark past and for hundreds of immigrants arriving in Manhattan during the 1800s, life was not a glorious as many had hoped.  These are their lives brought to life by Jacob Riis in this book that is and forever shall be part of American history.

“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.” – Jacob A. Riis

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B0796FFTQ4

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