Jacob Riis Essay

How The Other Half Lives Reflection

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American History II

A Reflection on "How the Other Half Lives" by the Other Half
The author of "How the Other Half Lives", Jacob Riis, inscribes on the deplorable living conditions of the Progressive Era from a first-person perspective. Riis, an immigrant, police reporter, photojournalist and most importantly: a pioneer and social reformer, tells a very captivating yet appalling experience of the lower class life in New York City beginning in the 19th century. Migration and the standardization of establishments are the attributing factors to overpopulation distribution and overcrowding of living arrangements in the city.
With the ever growing craze of coming to America and starting a new and better life many immigrants had to start from the bottom, and many stayed there. Ethnic groups tended to stick together and in result "claimed" their own territory; many worked low-wage jobs and were poverty-stricken. The only affordable shelter in close proximity to work and their community were overcrowded housing tenements, overcrowded being an understatement. From 1869 to 1890 tenement housing almost tripled to over 37,000 tenements in use.(p204 Riis) Houses and blocks were turned into barracks, giving a whole new meaning to overcrowding, and the expense unjust compared to living conditions. Tenements were the equivalent of coal mines; in early developments there were no safety standards, just the quickest way to make the most amount of money, with lack of sunlight and air ventilation.
The epitome of poor management regarding the lack of attempt of turnabout in the nature of tenements by landlords were shown through model tenements; the care and up-keeping focused mainly in the facade of buildings rather than continual care within the walls of confinements. Mortality rates in the city rose to one-in-twenty-seven persons in 1855 due to the severe lacking living conditions and negligence of owners, landlords and agents.(p11, Riis) Any case of disease that arose within the walls of a tenement was a formula for disaster. Typically the disease-stricken tenants were a lost cause, and the source of plague throughout other blocks. The mortality rate didn't lie, but the landlords did not see that because of the ill-paced illnesses, which led to a citizen movement that resulted in the organization of the Board of Health. The Health Department began to educate the public more than help the public; however, in years to come they ordered tenements to be ventilated by way of air shafts and ordered the installation of windows, which slowly led to the declination, and soon thereafter extinction of the "dark room".

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There were more propositions made by the Health Department, including the banishment of rear tenement-housing, and a less attempted, but more successful idea was a housekeeper assigned to tenement housing with ten or more families in the living quarters. The police also had a little hand in ousting tenements by the expulsion of tenants during midnight raids. Aside from many legal actions taking place, establishments of business were the leading cause in the overturn of the worst and poorest flats. Business was the most successful preventative measure against the continuation of slums and contributed to its steady decline by tearing down tenements or converting the buildings. Despite the despairing tone of the communities throughout the slums, and lack of public attention, philanthropists and neighborhood guilds were aware and made a difference in few tenement buildings. A positive start to an ongoing process that is problematic in modern day.
Throughout the years, the standard of living has changed immensely, but social classes have remained. With inventions such as quicker and more effective ways of transit, the Utopian suburbia was born and alleviated overcrowding problems cities faced. However, many members of the poorer class were not able to remedy their living conditions that places outside of the city offered. The many helpful factors suggested by the aiding systems of the 19th century may have given a more acceptable living standard to the poor. But if you were born into the poor class you were stuck in the poor class unless you worked your life out of debt if you were able survive as long. Today, there are many reform programs and policies to help the lower classes; are few are namely unemployment agencies, welfare, shelters and educational practices. Despite years of reform, a lack in abundance of shelter or food stamps exemplifies the modern hardship that was comparable to the difficulties the people of the 19th century faced.(p1 para3, Newfield)
The Progressive Era was progressive enough for social reform and was beneficial to the well-being of society's health, which also attributes to a powerful, wealthier and healthier society, but for who? There are still homeless and slums in New York City till this day, as there are mansions and other materialistic items of the rich. If there is an upper class, there will always be a lower class. The publication of Riis's "How the Other Half Lives" is meant to educate the Other Half that there is a war within their own communities of classes v. masses. With barely sufficient law and government reinforcement, and lack of publicity, the more prosperous half of country neither question nor care. Riis says, "The world forgets easily, too easily, what it does not like to remember."(p196, Riis) Society is infected with the mindset of survival of the fittest; if there is no direct correlation between the middle and upper classes to this epidemic, what profit is there by wielding responsibility in something that they haven't caused directly? There is no waning to the Progressive Era, but an indefinite separation of classes and combination of depravity and hopelessness.


Riis, Jacob. How the Other Half Lives. New York: Penguin Group, 1997.

Jack Newfield. "How the Other Half Still Lives." The Nation. Posted 27 February 2003. 17 March 2003 issue.

Riis, Jacob 1849-1914

(Jacob August Riis) American social reformer, journalist, autobiographer, and biographer.

Through such works as How the Other Half Lives (1890), journalist Riis exposed Americans to the miseries endured by New York City's slum residents. His was not the first writing on the living conditions of the urban underclass, but among that literature it was original in its use of the relatively new photographic medium to illuminate its text. Even more significant was the fact that Riis did not merely draw national attention to tenement conditions: he offered recommendations for their remedy. Principal among his solutions was housing reform, not just the making of laws to limit the number of people who could be crammed into a given living space, but also the destruction or renovation of old buildings. Individually, and as a leader in a larger social reform movement that included such pivotal figures as Jane Addams, Riis would have an enormous impact on urban life in America. During his time, he saw the passing of numerous zoning laws and initiatives such as New York state's Tenement House Law of 1901, as well as the demolishing of thousands of tenements and other run-down areas, and the building of new structures. In part because of Riis, a century later the cities of the United States would have more parks, more safe and well-lit buildings, and more space per person than they did in the late 1800s.

Biographical Information

Riis was born the son of a schoolteacher in the town of Ribe, Denmark, about which he would later reminisce in The Old Town (1909). At the age of twenty-one, in 1870, he emigrated to the United States and spent the next seven years wandering the northeastern part of the country. He barely made a living during that time, and his career as such did not begin until 1877, when he obtained a job as a police reporter for the New York Tribune. In 1888, he took a position with the Evening Sun. Through his newspaper work, Riis became closely acquainted with New York's poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods. This became the impetus for his first and most famous book, How the Other Half Lives, a landmark in the history of slum reform. On the popularity of his book and his own growing reputation, Riis became a well-known lecturer and activist who called for childlabor reform, creation of school playgrounds, improvements in the city water supply, and new housing. His activities brought him into contact with the city police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, and the two became lifelong friends. Throughout the 1890s, Riis continued to publish books, conduct lectures, and engage in reform activities that included a position as secretary of the New York City Small Parks Commission. In 1899 he retired from newspaper work, though he continued his other activities up to the time of his death in 1914.

Major Works

By far the most significant of Riis's books was his first, How the Other Half Lives. In it he presented what would become familiar themes and images, most notably that of the dark, dirty, and dangerous tenement house. Such dwelling spaces produced children deprived of typical childhood pleasures through overwork, neglect, and other forms of abuse, and these unfortunate children assumed almost as much significance in Riis's studies of the urban underbelly of the Gilded Age. Thus his second major work was The Children of the Poor (1892). In A Ten Years' War (1900) and The Battle with the Slum (1902), Riis presented a record of his own activities to combat the disastrous conditions of the poor neighborhoods. With The Making of an American (1901), he took the autobiographical approach a step further, in a presentation of his whole career as an American success story and an example of a European immigrant's assimilation into the larger culture of the New World. His last major work, The Old Town, focused on one aspect of his biography in its portrayal of his Danishhome. With Theodore Roosevelt, The Citizen (1904), Riis offered a largely uncritical portrayal of his well-known friend.


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