Book review (2015): “How the Other Half Lives” by Jacob Riis

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Book review (2015): “How the Other Half Lives” by Jacob Riis

There is much to say about Jacob Riis’s 1890 masterpiece How the Other Half Lives, but, first, let’s look at the faces in his book.

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In our selfie-social media age, a collection like this — a collection of the faces of individuals — is nothing unusual. Yet, 125 years ago, these images were revolutionary.

If you were rich, you could have your portrait painted. If you were middle-class, you could pay for a photographic likeness. You might even buy your own Kodak box camera, introduced in 1888, and take up the expensive hobby of photography, making photos of family members and friends.

The poor couldn’t avail themselves of these options.

But Jacob Riis, newspaper reporter and reformer in New York, could and did. And, in lectures, articles and a series of books, starting with How the Other Half Lives, he bridged the economic, cultural and class gap to link those with solid, comfortable lives to their brothers and sisters trying to eke out a living in poverty.

 

Common humanity

riis --- How-the-Other-Half-LivesHow the Other Half Lives was a major milestone in journalism, in photojournalism and in social reform.

Riis’s text, often overlooked, is hard-edged and filled with a barely restrained anger.

His photos show every crooked board, every crack in the plaster, every smudge and detail of the rooms where poor families and individuals lived and often worked and of the buildings and neighborhoods in which they spent their days.

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These images were startling and unsettling. And what was most startling and unsettling about them were the highly distinctive faces —- the individual faces — of this Italian and that tough, of this Jewish child and that Street Arab, of this sleeping laborer and that drunken woman.

Jacob-Riis-Five-Cents-Lodging-Bayard-Street-c-1889

Those with solid, comfortable lives generally didn’t look at the poor, and, when they thought of the poor, they pictured the mass of poor people rather than individuals.

The photos by Riis showed the particular room in which this family lived or the particular basement in which this man lived, sleeping atop a barrel — images that gave viewers new insights into the experience of being poor.

And they showed this family and that man — and the common humanity that each of these individuals shared with each of the viewers.

This above all else — showing the faces of fellow human beings with undeniable clarity and directness — was the triumph of Riis in How the Other Half Lives.

 

“A mere grub-worship”

It’s impossible to read How the Other Half Lives today without being struck by Riis’s prejudices.

He was a man of his time and his class. He writes, for instance, that “the Chinaman” is all about making money and will never convert to Christianity. “Ages of senseless idolatry, a mere grub-worship, have left him without the essential qualities for appreciating the gentle teachings of [Christianity]…”

Yet, even when Riis is showing his biases, he often provides a glimpse of the system that keeps the poor at the bottom.

Regarding “the Italian,” he writes, “In the slums he is welcomed as a tenant who ‘makes less trouble’ than the contentious Irishman or the order-loving German, that is to say: is content to live in a pig-sty and submits to robbery at the hands of the rent-collector without murmur.”

 

“The poor man’s club”

Sometimes, Riis is angered by the practices of the poor that, to his mind, are self-destructive, such as flashy and costly funerals which he groups with the opium habit as a plague:

The habit of expensive funerals…is a distinctively Irish inheritance, but it has taken root among all classes of tenement dwellers, curiously enough most firmly among the Italians, who have taken amazingly to the funeral coach, perhaps because it furnishes the one opportunity of their lives for a really grand turn-out with a free ride thrown in. It is not at all uncommon to find the hoards of a whole lifetime of hard work and self-denial squandered on the empty show of a ludicrous funeral parade and a display of flowers that ill comports with the humble life it is supposed to exalt. It is easier to understand the wake as a sort of consolation cup for the survivors for whom there is — as one of them, doubtless a heathenish pessimist, put it to me once — “no such luck.”

Riis doesn’t see or won’t acknowledge how a funeral filled with pomp and circumstance might bright a bright light into a neighborhood afflicted with want and drudgery.

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Yet, with regard to another plague — drink and the saloon — he’s able to recognize the role it plays in the lives of the poor and in the perpetuation of the system that oppresses the poor:

One may walk many miles through the homes of the poor searching vainly for an open reading-room, a cheerful coffee-house, a decent club that is not a cloak for the traffic in rum. The dramshop yawns at every step, the poor man’s club, his forum and his haven of rest when weary and disgusted with the crowding, the quarrelling, and the wretchedness at home. With the poison dealt out there he takes his politics, in quality not far apart. As the source, so the stream. The rumshop turns the political crank in New York. The natural yield is rum politics. Of what that means, successive Boards of Aldermen, composed in a measure, if not of a majority, of dive-keepers, have given New York a taste. The disgrace of the infamous “Boodle Board” will be remembered until some corruption even fouler crops out and throws it into the shade.

 

“A brown crust”

Through his photos and his text, Riis endeavors to help — or, perhaps better put, force — the reader/viewer to enter the world of the poor.

At one point, while talking about sweat shops, which he calls “sweaters,” he provides a word picture for a trip the readers could make to see for themselves:

Take the Second Avenue Elevated Railroad at Chatham Square and ride up half a mile through the sweaters’ district. Every open window of the big tenements, that stand like a continuous brick wall on both sides of the way, gives you a glimpse of one of these shops as the train speeds by. Men and women bending over their machines, or ironing clothes at the window, half-naked. Proprieties do not count on the East Side; nothing counts that cannot be converted into hard cash. The road is like a big gangway through an endless workroom where vast multitudes are forever laboring. Morning, noon, or night, it makes no difference; the scene is always the same.

And he brings the readers along on a police raid of a “stale beer dive,” a place that sells whatever the operator can rummage from the empty beer barrels of regular taverns:

A room perhaps a dozen feet square, with walls and ceiling that might once have been clean — assuredly the floor had not in the memory of man, if indeed there was other floor than hard-trodden mud — but were now covered with a brown crust that, touched with the end of a club, came off in shuddering showers of crawling bugs, revealing the blacker filth beneath. Grouped about a beer-keg that was propped on the wreck of a broken chair, a foul and ragged host of men and women, on boxes, benches, and stools. Tomato-cans filled at the keg were passed from hand to hand. In the centre of the group a sallow, wrinkled hag, evidently the ruler of the feast, dealt out the hideous stuff.

And, at times, he lays the experience of the poor side by side with the experience of his readers, as in these sentences about measles:

The measles, ordinarily a harmless disease, furnishes a familiar example. Tread it ever so lightly on the avenues, in the tenements it kills right and left. Such an epidemic ravaged three crowded blocks in Elizabeth Street on the heels of the grippe last winter, and, when it had spent its fury, the death-maps in the Bureau of Vital Statistics looked as if a black hand had been laid across those blocks, over-shadowing in part the contiguous tenements in Mott Street, and with the thumb covering a particularly packed settlement of half a dozen houses in Mulberry Street. The track of the epidemic through these teeming barracks was as clearly defined as the track of a tornado through a forest district.

 

“An armful of daisies”

Riis has a soft spot in his heart for the boys who roam the streets — orphans or those pushed out of their homes by families with too many mouths to feed.

The Street Arab has all the faults and all the virtues of the lawless life he leads. Vagabond that he is, acknowledging no authority and owing no allegiance to anybody or anything, with his grimy fist raised against society whenever it tries to coerce him, he is as bright ‘and sharp as the weasel, which, among all the predatory beasts, he most resembles His sturdy independence, love of freedom and absolute self-reliance, together with his rude sense of justice that enables him to govern his little community, not always in accordance with municipal law or city ordinances, but often a good deal closer to the saving line of “doing to others as one would be done by”…

Riis goes on to note that many successful men started life this way and, in some manner, found their route up and out. In other words, many of these boys have potential.

nowhere

Many, it’s true, will turn into toughs, but Riis sees how, at their young age, they haven’t been hardened by life. They are still able to be moved by beauty and sentiment.

Indeed, his implicit argument is that these boys could prosper and become useful citizens if they lived in a different landscape — such as one with flowers:

Let him take into a tenement block a handful of flowers from the fields and watch the brightened faces, the sudden abandonment of play and fight that go ever hand in hand where there is no elbow-room, the wild entreaty for “posies,” the eager love with which the little messengers of peace are shielded, once possessed…I have seen an armful of daisies keep the peace of a block better than a policeman and his club, seen instincts awaken under their gentle appeal, whose very existence the soil in which they grew made seem a mockery.. I have not forgotten the deputation of ragamuffins from a Mulberry Street alley that knocked at my office door one morning on a mysterious expedition for flowers, not for themselves, but for “a lady,” and having obtained what they wanted, trooped off to bestow them, a ragged and dirty little band, with a solemnity that was quite unusual. It was not until an old man called the next day to thank me for the flowers that I found out they had decked the bier of a pauper, in the dark rear room where she lay waiting in her pine-board coffin for the city’s hearse.

 

“Seemed doomed”

And it’s not just the little boys.

Riis writes about and provides images of families who are striving and keeping their heads above water, such as this family:

A patched and shaky stairway led up to their one bare and miserable room, in comparison with which a whitewashed prison-cell seemed a real palace. A heap of old rags, in which the baby slept serenely, served as the common sleeping-bunk of father, mother, and children — two bright and pretty girls, singularly out of keeping in their clean, if coarse, dresses, with their surroundings. The father, a slow-going, honest English coal-heaver, earned on the average fire dollars a week, “when work was fairly brisk,” at the docks. But there were long seasons when it was very “slack,” he said, doubtfully. Yet the prospect did not seem to discourage them. The mother, a pleasant-faced woman, was cheerful, even light-hearted. Her smile seemed the most sadly hopeless of all in the utter wretchedness of the place, cheery though it was meant to be and really was. It seemed doomed to certain disappointment — the one thing there that was yet to know a greater depth of misery.

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“Seemed doomed to certain disappointment” — this is the story behind the faces that Riis offers to his readers.

Life in the slums is hard and sometimes unbearable. And disappointment is all but certain. So is misery.

And, as Riis makes clear on every page, human beings, like those reading his book, are living these lives.

Patrick T. Reardon
1.19.15

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