How The Other Half Lives

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"There is another line not always so readily drawn in the tenements, yet the real boundary line of the Other Half: the one that defines the 'flat.' The law does not draw it at all, accounting all flats tenements without distinction. The health officer draws it from observation, lumping all those which in his judgment have nothing, or not enough, to give them claim upon the name, with the common herd."

Customer Reviews:

  • How the Other Half+ Still Lives
    Essential classic to refresh past and current thinking on urban development and inequality. History is repeating itself all too comfortably....more info
  • Photojournalism: The original and the best
    As others have noted, this book was the beginning of photojournalism, and remains an accurate but depressing look into the lives of poor New Yorkers in the early part of the 20th century.

    This book never fails to amaze me. I read it in college, then ordered it for someone else recently.

    If you have never read it - or, if you have not read it recently, give it a look.

    In these times when the rich are increasingly wealthier than they've been since the 19th Century - the middle class is shrinking - and the poor are becoming poorer, it is wise to look and remember how socially aware and socially responsible we must be....more info
  • A classic work that still holds power
    Few books in American history have had the social impact that Jacob A. Riis's How the Other Half Lives had. Riis spent years crawling through the slums of New York's Lower East Side in the later half of the nineteenth-century, always with a local guide sympathetic to his cause. He hoped, through the evolving technological advances of photography and his published, emotional plea, to rouse the well-to-do citizens of New York into helping the millions of poor and impoverished, native and immigrant alike, which continued to swell the city's population. In order for them to have had the chance of becoming productive American citizens, they must first have been given the opportunity at a fair start, which the abject state of the tenement buildings were unable to provide.

    The first problem was the tenement itself. Usually a building, four to six stories high, intended for the occupancy of just a few families, soon had over a hundred people packed into every nook that could fill a human body. Most interior rooms never saw the light of day. Fresh air was a rare commodity, leaving most residents to breathe the same stale air day and night. The maze of tight, blind passageways created to fit each family made it impossible for firemen to reach helpless victims trapped on the upper floors, compounded by the fact that most fire escapes were blocked with residents' furniture, trapping more even still. Overall, the filth of the structures proved most offensive to the senses. One such building was so dubbed the "Dirty Spoon" because the grime on the walls had effectively made it fire proof (Riis 30). Rear tenements, built in empty courts behind the street buildings, were usually worse, little more than dilapidated hovels cut off from light by the surrounding structures.

    Despite this vision of abject poverty, and indeed starvation was prevalent, many in the tenements were not what would have been considered poor. Some, in fact, earned a decently living for the era. So why didn't they move? The real question to be asked is, to where would they move? Tenement houses were the norm in New York, each as good (or lousy) as the next. Additionally, the rents paid by most of these residents (especially blacks) were very high, often amounting to more than a week's wage. Only the abundantly wealthy could afford better, while the middle and lower classes were left to the stink of places like "The Bend" on Mulberry Street, which Riis considers the heart of slum depravity.

    Predictably, these conditions bred all types of criminal activity. Faced with constant hunger and only the streets to call home, many resorted to gang violence or controlled substance dependency. Children, who sometimes never saw beyond their squalid block, with a family that could not provide for their basic needs, soon created gangs of their own, making their way as they could. Other children toiled with their families in the sweatshops, for which the tenements were the main housing. Perhaps the most regrettable victims of the tenements were the infants, who were regularly victims of abandonment, left on wealthy doorsteps with vain hopes by desperate parents, or given up to "Baby-farms" where they were left to starve to death (Riis 148). These conditions Riis blames squarely on tenements: "The product is our own" (Riis 171).

    However, all hope was not lost to Riis. Already airshafts had been implemented in new building designs to allow ventilation (to what effect can be debated) and new windows punched into walls, so that "air and sunlight" could "have a legal claim" (Riis 211). Rear tenements, too, were quickly disappearing. He felt that by writing How the Other Half Lives, the wealthy and influential of the city would come to the aid (Riis 131). In this respect he was correct, when through his book he found an ally in Theodore Roosevelt, who began implementing many of the suggestions that Riis proposed. He urged people to look beyond the building facades (which were admittedly nice on some buildings) to the teeming filth that they masked (Riis 209). Perhaps the most intimidating argument for his more fortunate peers was the possibility of spreading disease, for to him public sentiment had "slumbered peacefully until... a dreaded epidemic knocked at our door" (Riis 212). He called for laws to be imposed against the current tenement conditions, for the buildings to be renovated or new "model tenements" built in their place (Riis 223). Likewise, tenants should have received the quality accommodations their high rents were entitling them to. Riis endorsed the park system (City-Beautiful influence?) as a way of relieving crime in congested districts, for reasons such as this elegant observation: "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" (Riis 138). Children, Riis felt, were the "key" to rescuing the city from poverty and corruption (Riis 143).

    The other contribution for which Riis has been immortalized, and no doubt thanked repeatedly by modern historians, is the treasure trove of photos he took while on his outings, one hundred of which are found in the Dover edition. (His original publication did not include the photos for technological reasons). The impact of the strikingly bleak images caught on film far outweighs any of the emotional condemnations he wrote. The reader, thankfully, is also treated to many of the stories behind these images, adding yet another dimension, such as the young paupers on page 157 who claimed that they "Didn't live nowhere." Another, probably unintentional, effective element to the photos is the pained grimace on many faces (like the "Street Arab" on page 152), as though they are writhing in agony from hunger, although it is no doubt just a reaction from the camera's blinding flash in dark quarters. The street dwellers and criminals, even those presumably embarrassed by their situations, seem willing to have their pictures taken. Perhaps it is the only such opportunity many had.

    Despite Riis's commendable crusading and fight for the underprivileged, he was still in many ways a man of his time. The modern reader cannot help but be struck by the prejudices running through his commentary. The groups that receive the most of the brunt are the Italians and Polish Jews. The Chinese also pay a price for their differences, and Riis tells us that his "senseless idolatry, a mere grub-worship" have made nothing strong about him, except his passions when aroused" (Riis 77) and speaks of opium addiction as a form of white slavery (Riis 80). At least he commends them for being clean. Surprisingly, however, he looks fondly on African-Americans (along with Bohemians), who he treats with sympathetic respect. He sees their hardships, and the causes (ironically), that "the blame is born by prejudice and greed that have kept him from rising under a burden of responsibility to which he could hardly be equal" under those circumstances. That after only twenty-five years of freedom, he "may be seen to advance much farther and faster than before suspected, and to promise, with fair treatment, quite as well as the rest of us, his white-skinned fellow-citizens" (Riis 119). When he wished, it seems, Riis was quite able to see beyond differences.

    Riis, through How the Other Half Lives, awakened a society that had once turned a blind eye to the hardships prevalent in the tenements. He showed them effectively that the struggle was not theirs alone, but that its reach was felt for many miles in ways not readily apparent. His photographic images, forever capturing the lowest moments in people's lives, begged for intervention. Whatever Riis's shortcomings, future generations in New York and cities around the country would be better off because of what he did, and benefit from the experiences of those who did not live long enough to see those changes occur. Unfortunately, the images in Riis's work are still a common sight in many developing countries, making his century-old ideas of relevant, present power....more info
  • NOT the right edition - get the DOVER
    Riis was before all else a photojournalist, and this his major body of work. As such, the fact that there even exist editions which do not contain quality reproductions of the photos astounds me. This edition only contains a few, and they are small, pixelated, two-tone reproductions. The Dover edition is the one to get. ...more info
  • Wrong edition.
    We all know the story, which can be found in any edition of this book-- and yes, they will all have typos, as the book was never originally put through a rigorous editing process. That's part of it's 'charm.'

    The problem, though, is this specific edition--many images are left out, and the images really make the book; after all, Jacob Riis was one of the first muckraking photojournalists... wouldn't you want to see those pictures? They add incredible depth to the story. Luckily I had to read this for a class, and didn't mind it, but... for someone reading it for personal purposes, spend the few extra dollars for an edition with photographs. It is SO worth it....more info
  • Wrong edition.
    We all know the story, which can be found in any edition of this book-- and yes, they will all have typos, as the book was never originally put through a rigorous editing process. That's part of it's 'charm.'

    The problem, though, is this specific edition--many images are left out, and the images really make the book; after all, Jacob Riis was one of the first muckraking photojournalists... wouldn't you want to see those pictures? They add incredible depth to the story. Luckily I had to read this for a class, and didn't mind it, but... for someone reading it for personal purposes, spend the few extra dollars for an edition with photographs. It is SO worth it....more info
  • horrendous edition
    This edition of How the Other Half Lives is astoundingly bad. It contains innumerable typos (the edition was clearly the result of scanning an old edition with sub-par OCR software). Moreover the illustrations and tables are 72dpi maximum making them a nearly illegible blur on the printed page. The blurb on the back claims the book was "first published in 1901" (in fact it was 1890). The same amount of care went into this edition as went into a New York Tenement....more info
  • Toughest Time
    Source book for Luc Sante's research into his book- Low Life:The Lures and Snares of Old New York. Current Affairs journalism in it's infancy. Tenement laws and building codes in New York were first manifested as a result of this book's original publication. Riis ruled....more info
  • excellent account of tenement life in NYC in the 19th century
    a real eye-opener. I read about this in a book on NY, and it lived up to its billing....more info
  • Immigrants & Tenements in NYC in 1890
    How the Other Half Lives, by Jacob Riis, with Introduction by Luc Sante, is a book that paints a picture of tenement neighborhoods in New York City in 1890. Riis, himself an immigrant, made his living as a journalist. It is his gift of words that brings the slums to life, and transports the reader to the very spot that he describes. Riis was the first to include photographs to vividly capture what his words portray. His writing and photographs were forerunners to investigative reporting and documentaries. Sante referred to Riis' agenda as being restricted to the mundane because he wanted immediate achievable results that would better the lives of the other half. Although his plans were simple; proper housing, sanitary conditions, parks, and schools; they were considered revolutionary. When he left the newspaper business in 1901 he became a lecturer speaking on this topic of reform that was so dear to his heart. He made headway and convinced influential people such as Theodore Roosevelt to join his cause.
    I think Riis was extremely successful in his mission to make people aware of the conditions in the tenements. Since this book was reprinted in 1997 and the introduction was added at that time, I think it would have increased the value of the book to include a section that briefly described the current condition of the tenements in today's light, and review, with a timeline, the reforms achieved since 1890. It would be interesting because Sante says "It [the book] haunts us because so much of it remains true" (p.xiii). This book created reforms, but if after 116 years, much of it is still true, we must be missing something. Then again, perhaps not, since Riis says the poor will always be with us, and we can never get rid of either the pauper or the tenement (p.xi).
    Riis was a firm believer that education alone could make "the other half's" lives better, but he also knew their need to work long hours to have a roof over their head and food to eat made the chance of education a far flung dream (pp.95, 105, 111, 136). Without the ability to speak English they are unable to change careers. Another solution he had was to focus on the children as a way to reduce city poverty (p.139). Riis preached that besides charitable donations there needed to be people willing to step into action (pp.145, 213).
    I think the book was well written and is very descriptive. At times I thought his words tended to be racial, blunt, and opinionated, but that was his true style, even in his journalistic works (p.xvi). Even though I didn't like to read the racist words, I believe he accurately presented the views of the slums. Just as Walter Isaacson fills his readers with awe at the accomplishments of Ben Franklin in his book Ben Franklin, An American Life, Riis fills us with an ache for the immigrants coming to America to make a better life for themselves and finding it hard to do. I think anyone interested in history or the life of an immigrant would find this an informative book. It isn't one I would find on an educational reading list in terms of contributions to education, but it does give insight into living conditions in the late nineteenth century and gives a plug for a connection between education (or lack of) and living conditions within the largest city in America.
    ...more info
  • A great exposee.
    How the other Half Lives does an excellent job of bringing to light the plight and destitution of early immigrants to this nation. As Riis systematically moves from one ethnic group to another, one realizes how much discrimination was shown to newcomers. Riis' own descriptions of the immigrants provide evidence to the prevalent feelings of that era. Overall, Riis' work is eye-opening and instructive....more info
  • What a book!
    I had to chose a book to read for my AP History Class, and I thouhgt this book would be very interesting; and it was. This book made me realize how life really was in New York during the early 1900's. Riis's pictures give you a feel for it all. If you are interested in true life stories and classic pictures than I would suggest this book....more info
  • I loved this book so much
    I really think this book was interested. we had to read it in our english class and everyone seemed to like it alot.I think that what they did to the peolpe was wrong and people should not be treated in such bad manners like that. I woyld not last long in there life time i would end up dead in a few days. I wish there was something someone could of did for those helpless people. I know that I had the chance I would help them live in an enviorment best for them.

    thank you

    amanda brayton...more info

  • powerful
    Riis's work is an amazing picture of life in the New York slums. While the text in itself is quite interesting, the photos are perhaps the most gripping aspect of the book. To see the tiny, crowded rooms populated by unreal numbers of people and the eyes of hungry children that stare out of the picture and are still imploring a century later is a powerful experience; Riis's book allows one to get very close to the misery these people felt. This book is not for the soft-hearted, as it is a very grim depection of life, such as it was for these immigrants....more info
  • Sad,startling,urban pictures & reporting from 1890 NYC
    This is an extremely important work that is often difficult to find at local libraries. At the turn of the century the Danish immigrant, Jacob Riis, took pictures, and wrote, of the the NYC ghettos where many of the immigrants lived. It is very powerful, depressing and shocking; a must read for anyone interested in the study of urban human behavior/housing and photo journalism. Beware: Avoid some paperback editions that do not contain the pictures Riis took of the dismal living conditions in NYC....more info