“How The Other Half Lives/Jacob A. Riis

Exploring Sustainability – Spring 2008
Book Review “How the Other Half Lives” by Jacob A. Riis
William Robb

Published in 1890 and sub-titled “Studies Among the Tenements of New York”, this book was written by Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant, to expose the ill treatment of the tenement poor in New York City. The book grew out of both his personal experience in the neighborhoods he wrote about, and his work as a reporter for the New York Tribune, where he started working as a police reporter in 1877. He pioneered the use of flash photography, allowing him to capture and communicate in a very concrete way the misery of the tenements. In 1888, the New York Sun published his essay “Flashes from the Slums: Pictures Taken in Dark Places by the Lightning Process,” and in 1889, Scribner’s published his photographic essay on city live which was to grow into “How the Other Half Lives.”1

Lodgers in a Crowded Tenement - 5 cents a spot

Riis despised the tenements, which he saw as central to the problem of poverty in New York and responsible for crime, disease, and the perpetuation of the culture of poverty. The analysis is modern, and accurate, thought the phrasing used over a century ago takes getting used to – “In the tenements all the influences make for evil; because they are the hot-beds of the epidemics that carry death to rich and poor alike; the nurseries of pauperism and crime that fill our jails and police courts; that through off a scum of forty thousand human wrecks to the island asylums and workhouses year by year; that turned out in the last eight years a round half a million beggars to prey upon our charities; that maintain a standing army of ten thousand tramps with all that implies; because, above all, they touch the family life with deadly amoral contagion.”

Mixed in with acute social analysis is an large measure of racial prejudice. The chapter “The Cheap Lodging Houses”, depicting how people attracted to the city in swarms with the “vague idea that they can get along here if anywhere2,” journey down the scale from the twenty five cent hotel to the ten cent lodging house is as accurate a description of the trap of poverty waiting for the immigrant as is Sinclair’s depiction of the dynamics of the same trap awaiting the Rudkis family in Packingtown some decades later. Yet, this chapter is followed by others titled “The Italian in New York”, “Chinatown”, and “Jewtown”, which paint in equal detail, pictures of peoples based on racial stereotypes that are all too familiar. This unabashed portrayal of Jews, for instance, of loving money more than their families, is tempered with an obvious caring for the subject, a sympathetic view of their plight and the circumstances that drove them to it. Though the prose wanders a bit, the facts are presented with appalling clarity, and are backed with both figures and anecdotes. Riis clearly took to the back alleys and stairways in researching his book.

The book was published to popular acclaim, and was, as was Sinclair’s “The Jungle” responsible for providing the impetus for reform. Helping to push tenement reform to the front of New York’s political agenda, his writing prompted then-Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt to close down the police-run poor houses3.

Although Riis did talk in detail about the tenements as a work-place; piecework clothing manufacture in the Jewish quarter, cigar rolling, and so forth, he did not do so in the context of labor issues that were to rise to the fore as these kinds of working conditions and arrangements became commonplace in sweatshop and factory over the next several decades. Stating that it is the nature of capitalistic price competition to keep wages low, he documents the weak position of the workers in this arrangement, a position that allows the manufacturer to “devote … his energies to the paring down of wages to within a peg or two of the point where the tenant rebels in desperation.” Despite this, Riis does not focus on the labor dynamics as central, but rather the indecent conditions, the helpless of those who do not know the language, and the power of the tenement owner to charge ruinous rents as the sources of the problem.

Thus the dynamics of poverty are the same as written about by Sinclair in “The Jungle” in 1906, albeit seen through the lens of housing, rather than work. Both document the influx of immigrants seeking opportunity flooding a city, and how those with means take advantage of them – the focus being tenement housing for Riis, and wage labor in the packing houses for Sinclair. Both document the money made off the poor by the absentee landlord and the factory owner. Both document the political corruption, the buying of votes, and how reform efforts are overwhelmed by the sheer mass of the problem.

Unlike Sinclair, Riis does not see nature of capitalism as the core issue, and therefore does not see it necessary, as Sinclair did, to move to Socialism as a means of meaningful reform. Riis believed that private enterprise – properly guided by law, and incorporating moral values, as the means by which a workable solution could be attained. This is a view of capitalism which marries need for social justice with the profit motive. The last chapter of the book “How the Case Stands” makes the case quite clearly, stating “Private enterprise – conscience, to put it in the category of duties, where it belongs – must do the lion’s share … .” The balance of the chapter is devoted to case studies of investors who constructed decent housing that provided both a solution to the problems of the tenement and a profit for the investor.

It is enlightening to note that, in each of these case studies, there were two differences between how the projects were run and the typical tenement management of the day, differences that echo what we see now as necessary distinctions between standard corporate practice and those that underlie a sustainable business model – a focus on the long run maintenance of the property rather than the extraction of high, short run profits, and the active involvement of the owner on location rather than absentee ownership.

1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_the_Other_Half_Lives
2 This sentiment later immortalized in song by Sinatra, in the song New York, New York – “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere”
3 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_the_Other_Half_Lives