How the Other Half Lives [NOOK Book]


This is the first modern edition of Jacob Riis's classic work to follow, in both content and layout, the original 1890 edition. The only teaching edition that includes all 51 of the book's original illustrations, this volume provides students with the full impact of tenement life and the living conditions of New York City's immigrant poor in the late nineteenth century. An extensive introduction by David Leviatin—both a historian and a professional photographer—places Riis and his work in the context of ...
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How the Other Half Lives

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This is the first modern edition of Jacob Riis's classic work to follow, in both content and layout, the original 1890 edition. The only teaching edition that includes all 51 of the book's original illustrations, this volume provides students with the full impact of tenement life and the living conditions of New York City's immigrant poor in the late nineteenth century. An extensive introduction by David Leviatin—both a historian and a professional photographer—places Riis and his work in the context of turn-of-the-century urban reform. Also included are extensive gloss notes on the text, a chronology, questions for consideration, a bibliography, and an index.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780557670055
  • Publisher:
  • Publication date: 9/10/2010
  • Sold by: LULU PRESS
  • Format: eBook
  • Sales rank: 668,191
  • File size: 181 KB

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How the Other Half Lives

By Jacob Riis

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1971 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-12992-1



THE first tenement New York knew bore the mark of Cain from its birth, though a generation passed before the writing was deciphered. It was the "rear house," infamous ever after in our city's history. There had been tenant-houses before, but they were not built for the purpose. Nothing would probably have shocked their original owners more than the idea of their harboring a promiscuous crowd; for they were the decorous homes of the old Knickerbockers, the proud aristocracy of Manhattan in the early days.

It was the stir and bustle of trade, together with the tremendous immigration that followed upon the war of 1812, that dislodged them. In thirty-five years the city of less than a hundred thousand came to harbor half a million souls, for whom homes had to be found. Within the memory of men not yet in their prime, Washington had moved from his house on Cherry Hill as too far out of town to be easily reached. Now the old residents followed his example; but they moved in a different direction and for a different reason. Their comfortable dwellings in the once fashionable streets along the East River front fell into the hands of real-estate agents and boarding-house keepers; and here, says the report to the Legislature of 1857, when the evils engendered had excited just alarm, "in its beginning, the tenant-house became a real blessing to that class of industrious poor whose small earnings limited their expenses, and whose employment in workshops, stores, or about the warehouses and thoroughfares, render a near residence of much importance." Not for long, however. As business increased, and the city grew with rapid strides, the necessities of the poor became the opportunity of their wealthier neighbors, and the stamp was set upon the old houses, suddenly become valuable, which the best thought and effort of a later age have vainly struggled to efface. Their "large rooms were partitioned into several smaller ones, without regard to light or ventilation, the rate of rent being lower in proportion to space or height from the street; and they soon became filled from cellar to garret with a class of tenantry living from hand to mouth, loose in morals, improvident in habits, degraded, and squalid as beggary itself." It was thus the dark bedroom, prolific of untold depravities, came into the world. It was destined to survive the old houses. In their new role, says the old report, eloquent in its indignant denunciation of "evils more destructive than wars," "they were not intended to last. Rents were fixed high enough to cover damage and abuse from this class, from whom nothing was expected, and the most was made of them while they lasted. Neatness, order, cleanliness, were never dreamed of in connection with the tenant-house system, as it spread its localities from year to year; while reckless slovenliness, discontent, privation, and ignorance were left to work out their invariable results, until the entire premises reached the level of tenant-house dilapidation, containing, but sheltering not, the miserable hordes that crowded beneath mouldering, water-rotted roofs or burrowed among the rats of clammy cellars." Yet so illogical is human greed that, at a later day, when called to account, "the proprietors frequently urged the filthy habits of the tenants as an excuse for the condition of their property, utterly losing sight of the fact that it was the tolerance of those habits which was the real evil, and that for this they themselves were alone responsible."

Still the pressure of the crowds did not abate, and in the old garden where the stolid Dutch burgher grew his tulips or early cabbages a rear house was built, generally of wood, two stories high at first. Presently it was carried up another story, and another. Where two families had lived ten moved in. The front house followed suit, if the brick walls were strong enough. The question was not always asked, judging from complaints made by a contemporary witness, that the old buildings were "often carried up to a great height without regard to the strength of the foundation walls." It was rent the owner was after; nothing was said in the contract about either the safety or the comfort of the tenants. The garden gate no longer swung on its rusty hinges. The shell-paved walk had become an alley; what the rear house had left of the garden, a "court." Plenty such are yet to be found in the Fourth Ward, with here and there one of the original rear tenements.

Worse was to follow. It was "soon perceived by estate owners and agents of property that a greater percentage of profits could be realized by the conversion of houses and blocks into barracks, and dividing their space into smaller proportions capable of containing human life within four walls.... Blocks were rented of real estate owners, or 'purchased on time,' or taken in charge at a percentage, and held for under-letting." With the appearance of the middleman, wholly irresponsible, and utterly reckless and unrestrained, began the era of tenement building which turned out such blocks as Gotham Court, where, in one cholera epidemic that scarcely touched the clean wards, the tenants died at the rate of one hundred and ninety-five to the thousand of population; which forced the general mortality of the city up from 1 in 41.83 in 1815, to 1 in 27.33 in 1855, a year of unusual freedom from epidemic disease, and which wrung from the early organizers of the Health Department this wail: "There are numerous examples of tenement-houses in which are lodged several hundred people that have a pro rata allotment of ground area scarcely equal to two square yards upon the city lot, court-yards and all included." The tenement-house population had swelled to half a million souls by that time, and on the East Side, in what is still the most densely populated district in all the world, China not excluded, it was packed at the rate of 290,000 to the square mile, a state of affairs wholly unexampled. The utmost cupidity of other lands and other days had never contrived to herd much more than half that number within the same space. The greatest crowding of Old London was at the rate of 175,816. Swine roamed the streets and gutters as their principal scavengers. The death of a child in a tenement was registered at the Bureau of Vital Statistics as "plainly due to suffocation in the foul air of an unventilated apartment," and the Senators, who had come down from Albany to find out what was the matter with New York, reported that "there are annually cut off from the population by disease and death enough human beings to people a city, and enough human labor to sustain it." And yet experts had testified that, as compared with uptown, rents were from twenty-five to thirty per cent. higher in the worst slums of the lower wards, with such accommodations as were enjoyed, for instance, by a "family with boarders" in Cedar Street, who fed hogs in the cellar that contained eight or ten loads of manure; or "one room 12 x 12 with five families living in it, comprising twenty persons of both sexes and all ages, with only two beds, without partition, screen, chair, or table." The rate of rent has been successfully maintained to the present day, though the hog at least has been eliminated.

Lest anybody flatter himself with the notion that these were evils of a day that is happily past and may safely be forgotten, let me mention here three very recent instances of tenement-house life that came under my notice. One was the burning of a rear house in Mott Street, from appearances one of the original tenant-houses that made their owners rich. The fire made homeless ten families, who had paid an average of $5 a month for their mean little cubbyholes. The owner himself told me that it was fully insured for $800, though it brought him in $600 a year rent. He evidently considered himself especially entitled to be pitied for losing such valuable property. Another was the case of a hard-working family of man and wife, young people from the old country, who took poison together in a Crosby Street tenement because they were "tired." There was no other explanation, and none was needed when I stood in the room in which they had lived. It was in the attic with sloping ceiling and a single window so far out on the roof that it seemed not to belong to the place at all. With scarcely room enough to turn around in they had been compelled to pay five dollars and a half a month in advance. There were four such rooms in that attic, and together they brought in as much as many a handsome little cottage in a pleasant part of Brooklyn. The third instance was that of a colored family of husband, wife, and baby in a wretched rear rookery in West Third Street. Their rent was eight dollars and a half for a single room on the top-story, so small that I was unable to get a photograph of it even by placing the camera outside the open door. Three short steps across either way would have measured its full extent.

There was just one excuse for the early tenement-house builders, and their successors may plead it with nearly as good right for what it is worth. "Such," says an official report, "is the lack of houseroom in the city that any kind of tenement can be immediately crowded with lodgers, if there is space offered." Thousands were living in cellars. There were three hundred underground lodging-houses in the city when the Health Department was organized. Some fifteen years before that the old Baptist Church in Mulberry Street, just off Chatham Street, had been sold, and the rear half of the frame structure had been converted into tenements that with their swarming population became the scandal even of that reckless age. The wretched pile harbored no less than forty families, and the annual rate of deaths to the population was officially stated to be 75 in 1,000. These tenements were an extreme type of very many, for the big barracks had by this time spread east and west and far up the island into the sparsely settled wards. Whether or not the title was clear to the land upon which they were built was of less account than that the rents were collected. If there were damages to pay, the tenant had to foot them. Cases were "very frequent when property was in litigation, and two or three different parties were collecting rents." Of course under such circumstances "no repairs were ever made."

The climax had been reached. The situation was summed up by the Society for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor in these words: "Crazy old buildings, crowded rear tenements in filthy yards, dark, damp basements, leaking garrets, shops, outhouses, and stables converted into dwellings, though scarcely fit to shelter brutes, are habitations of thousands of our fellow-beings in this wealthy, Christian city." "The city," says its historian, Mrs. Martha Lamb, commenting on the era of aqueduct building between 1835 and 1845, "was a general asylum for vagrants." Young vagabonds, the natural offspring of such "home" conditions, overran the streets. Juvenile crime increased fearfully year by year. The Children's Aid Society and kindred philanthropic organizations were yet unborn, but in the city directory was to be found the address of the " American Society for the Promotion of Education in Africa."



THE dread of advancing cholera, with the guilty knowledge of the harvest field that awaited the plague in New York's slums, pricked the conscience of the community into action soon after the close of the war. A citizens' movement resulted in the organization of a Board of Health and the adoption of the "Tenement-House Act" of 1867, the first step toward remedial legislation. A thorough canvass of the tenements had been begun already in the previous year; but the cholera first, and next a scourge of small-pox, delayed the work, while emphasizing the need of it, so that it was 1869 before it got fairly under way and began to tell. The dark bedroom fell under the ban first. In that year the Board ordered the cutting of more than forty-six thousand windows in interior rooms, chiefly for ventilation—for little or no light was to be had from the dark hallways. Air-shafts were unknown. The saw had a job all that summer; by early fall nearly all the orders had been carried out. Not without opposition; obstacles were thrown in the way of the officials on the one side by the owners of the tenements, who saw in every order to repair or clean up only an item of added expense to diminish their income from the rent; on the other side by the tenants themselves, who had sunk, after a generation of unavailing protest, to the level of their surroundings, and were at last content to remain there. The tenements had bred their Nemesis, a proletariat ready and able to avenge the wrongs of their crowds. Already it taxed the city heavily for the support of its jails and charities. The basis of opposition, curiously enough, was the same at both extremes; owner and tenant alike considered official interference an infringement of personal rights, and a hardship. It took long years of weary labor to make good the claim of the sunlight to such corners of the dens as it could reach at all. Not until five years after did the department succeed at last in ousting the "cave-dwellers" and closing some five hundred and fifty cellars south of Houston Street, many of them below tide-water, that had been used as living apartments. In many instances the police had to drag the tenants out by force.

The work went on; but the need of it only grew with the effort. The Sanitarians were following up an evil that grew faster than they went; like a fire, it could only be headed off, not chased, with success. Official reports, read in the churches in 1879, characterized the younger criminals as victims of low social conditions of life and unhealthy, overcrowded lodgings, brought up in "an atmosphere of actual darkness, moral and physical." This after the saw had been busy in the dark corners ten years! "If we could see the air breathed by these poor creatures in their tenements," said a well-known physician, "it would show itself to be fouler than the mud of the gutters." Little improvement was apparent despite all that had been done. "The new tenements, that have been recently built, have been usually as badly planned as the old, with dark and unhealthy rooms, often over wet cellars, where extreme overcrowding is permitted," was the verdict of one authority. These are the houses that today perpetuate the worst traditions of the past, and they are counted by thousands. The Five Points had been cleansed, as far as the immediate neighborhood was concerned, but the Mulberry Street Bend was fast outdoing it in foulness not a stone's throw away, and new centres of corruption were continually springing up and getting the upper hand whenever vigilance was relaxed for ever so short a time. It is one of the curses of the tenement-house system that the worst houses exercise a levelling influence upon all the rest, just as one bad boy in a school-room will spoil the whole class. It is one of the ways the evil that was "the result of forgetfulness of the poor," as the Council of Hygiene mildly put it, has of avenging itself.

The determined effort to head it off by laying a strong hand upon the tenement builders that has been the chief business of the Health Board of recent years, dates from this period. The era of the air-shaft has not solved the problem of housing the poor, but it has made good use of limited opportunities. Over the new houses sanitary law exercises full control. But the old remain. They cannot be summarily torn down, though in extreme cases the authorities can order them cleared. The outrageous overcrowding, too, remains. It is characteristic of the tenements. Poverty, their badge and typical condition, invites—compels it. All efforts to abate it result only in temporary relief. As long as they exist it will exist with them. And the tenements will exist in New York forever.


Excerpted from How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis. Copyright © 1971 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Suggestions for Further Reading
A Note on the Text
How the Other Half Lives 1
Preface 3
Introduction 5
1 Genesis of the Tenement 9
2 The Awakening 17
3 The Mixed Crowd 21
4 The Down Town Back-alleys 26
5 The Italian in New York 41
6 The Bend 46
7 A Raid on the Stale-beer Dives 58
8 The Cheap Lodging-houses 66
9 Chinatown 73
10 Jewtown 82
11 The Sweaters of Jewtown 92
12 The Bohemians - Tenement-house Cigarmaking 103
13 The Color Line in New York 112
14 The Common Herd 120
15 The Problem of the Children 135
16 Waifs of the City's Slums 141
17 The Street Arab 147
18 The Reign of Rum 159
19 The Harvest of Tares 164
20 The Working Girls of New York 176
21 Pauperism in the Tenements 183
22 The Wrecks and the Waste 191
23 The Man with the Knife 196
24 What Has Been Done 199
25 How the Case Stands 209
Appendix 219
Explanatory Notes 225
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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 31 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 2, 2006

    Exploitation of thousands by few greedy men

    Christian builder¿s cry: ¿How shall the love of God be understood by those who have been nurtured in sight only of the greed of man¿ (Riss, J., 1997. p. 198)? This book is written by Jacob A. Riis with introduction and notes by Luc Sante. The main theme of this book is the pervasive exploitation of thousands by a few greedy men. Riis blatantly describes the stark heinous ways and methods by which men prey upon those who are less educated, fortunate, and ignorant. He delves into the naked truth of the depth of depravity by which the lives of thousands are trapped in a hopelessly dark vicious cycle of suffering and struggles for meager wages, and living conditions within the walls of tenement buildings which stand between hell and death. In chapter 3, titled, The Mixed Crowd, Riis also describes the many ethnic groups who quickly learn that the evil they fled from in their native lands, stalks freely unrestrained in America. They are preyed upon for they are easily deceived and hooked by even their own fellow countrymen who slyly make their fortunes without the least acknowledgment of the evilness they perpetuate. Walter Isaacson in Benjamin Franklin An American Life motivates and inspires his readers to take actions to improve the life of the common men. Riis also motivates his readers to acknowledge the wickedness and greed by a few men of power. Riis exposes the plight of those who are uneducated, uninformed, and thus are easily exploited and preyed upon. Riis and Benjamin Franklin both clearly appear to acknowledge the importance of knowledge and the exposing of a few elite men who control the lives of ¿common men¿. The passion to arrest the treachery brought on by greed for money, fame, and control by exposing through print is shared by Riis and Benjamin Franklin. Benjamin Franklin was motivated to make life better, for the prevalence of freedom and exposition of corruption in government and the elite class. Riis, one could easily claim, had the same utopian mindset that we have studied and discussed thus far in this ¿Adult Education Movement¿ course. Utopian views and goals encompass the importance of equal opportunities and rights of every American to be able to be free to pursue steps to self preservation, self improvement, and success unfettered by all that is evil, unjust, and corrupt. In the introduction, the authors purpose for writing, How the Other Half Lives, is clearly stated: ¿The books immediate mission was to take on the willed ignorance of the middle and upper classes, who knew that there was human misery in their city but preferred to believe that it was deserved, perhaps even chosen, by its victims ¿(Riis, J. & Sante, L., 1997. x). Riis has blatantly described the plight of emigrants who flocked to the shores of New York in the early 18-19 century in hopes of a better life: ¿ 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¿ (Riis, `1997, p. 23). Riis has been very successful in his purpose for writing this vividly exposing book. Like Benjamin Franklin, he too understands the power of ¿printing¿ as an effective way to educate the general public. Riis does not leave the reader with the sense of total helplessness of the state of New York cities tenement residents: In chapter 25, titled, How the Case Stands, Riis presents: Three effective ways of dealing with the tenements in New York: 1. By law, 2. By remodeling and making the most out of the old houses, 3. By building new, model tenements (Riis, 1997, p. 210). These solutions were gradually incorporated in a movement for reform. My personal reaction to this book initially was of immense sadness. Reading about the evil dark actions of men against men did not surprise me. What grieved me the most was the very absence of compassion or kindness, the inhuman living conditions, and the coldhearted exploitation of the poor a

    7 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 26, 2011

    Not what I thought!

    I was totally disappointed in this book! I thought it would be written in the 'people of the era's' words and their descriptions! Extremely boring... pushed myself to finish it!

    4 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 17, 2006

    How the Other Half Lives

    How the Other Half Lives by Jacob A. Riis (1997). As I read this book I became appalled at how the poor were forced to live. As I continued to read it became apparent that the poor just did not know any other way of life and those improvements that were forced upon them failed unless they were taught how to live in improved conditions. I have visited New York City a couple of times, and find it a lively city to visit but not my cup of tea for living. I did not understand how the poor lived until I read this book. Each lived from day to day, etching out a life that somehow was better than the one they left behind when they came to America. The children seem to suffer the most. For most, they have nothing to compare to and it is a matter of the strongest who shall survive. Without time in the day to educate themselves, adult or child, to somehow better their way of life because the overwhelming hunger lurked at their door. As I read this book I became appalled at how the poor were forced to live in New York City when we have clearly read about Benjamin Franklin that life was not that way for everyone. As I continued to read it became apparent that the poor in New York City just did not know any other way of life or want any other way of life. The improvements that were forced upon them failed unless they were taught how to live in improved conditions, educated. As I finished this book I realized that without having this piece of ugliness in our history we may not be were we are today, people began to see that being educated does not always mean a formal education. Education can mean that you need to learn ¿how to live¿ or defend yourself. We have Health Departments that set standards that hold to our values in the way we live today. I think anyone interested in Americas History should read this book. I also think that all our youth should be required to read this book, to understand how an education is so important to the way we live today. An education will keep us from returning to the filth of the poorest of the poor.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 12, 2006

    How the Other Half Lives

    ADED 5510 Book Review Riis, J. (1890 original, 1997 this edition). How the Other Half Lives. New York, New York: Penguin Classics Introduction How the Other Half Lives was written at a time when none of the social safety nets to contemporary society were in place. As an author, Riis provides us with an observational study of the squalid conditions that existed in urban New York for the working poor during the period near the end of the 19th century. The text is an unvarnished look at the circumstances that existed at the time of writing this observational study, during the urban industrial revolution. The author employs his journalistic abilities to illuminate the facts of the circumstances he was documenting, but avoids employing what we would call contemporary journalistic objectivity inasmuch as his inherent prejudice to the ethnic subjects of the study. A contemporary biologist would recognize the term ¿rookery¿ in terms of animal enclaves, but in the context of this study, the term is used in terms of the horrendous living conditions of the poor, working class. Major Themes The central message of the book is the indifference that contemporaries of the time, operating in capitalist industrial revolution, simple saw and acted upon the financially adventitious actions of harvesting profits based on the living or existing needs of the working poor. This message is outlined in the book by the author¿s historical accounts of the initial evolution of the living conditions during the mid-1800s in New York. The evolution of decay in sanitary and general behavioral conditions due to perennial neglect of the poorer neighborhoods is highlighted by the strong statements of the author in his recount of the efforts around 1869 after the disease outbreaks of cholera and smallpox had hampered the efforts of the 1867 remedial legislation (p. 17). It was interesting that Riis observed that efforts of remediation in dwelling lighting and sanitation was greeted with resistance not only from the profiteers of the squalor, but of the inhabitants themselves. It is also interesting that the initial efforts to correct the most basic health and sanitation issues took over five years of effort. The author¿s description of the inhabitants of the situation as ¿cave dwellers¿ to route the dark, cellar dwelling of circumstances is further evidence of his thesis that behavioral patterning can influence or twist the outlook and expectations of any cultural situation. As previously mentioned, the author does not relinquish his ¿cultural categorization¿ of peoples in the deplorable conditions of the time, he reinforces the challenge of change for the better in examples such as in the chapter The Sweaters of Jewtown where a friend of Riis notes the cost-efficient manufacturing scenario (p. 101) and it is noted that at that time, the ¿gregarious¿ aspect of that culture was not inclined to ¿herding¿ the masses into a farming circumstance outside the present situation. In this same light, the idea of trade schools for manual training could not be something of reality as the implied scenario would be one of ¿who support them while they are training?¿ The theme of ¿no way out¿ in the financial and behavioral circumstance is displayed in the circumstance if there is not an outside intervention. Integration of Themes in Adult Education The broad picture presented by How the Other Half Lives displays a circumstance that can evolve when a mantra of a singular, pure economic and political policy is enabled over decades. The circumstances set forth by Jacob Riis demonstrate what was possible when social constructs were not concerned with such issues as individual potential or environments that can foster looking at potentials beyond the present economic realities. In the timeline of changes in attitudes and outlooks, Eduard Lindeman (1926) provided a philosophical view of what can be done if the social construct looks outside t

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 11, 2012

    Very disappointing

    I got the bok mostly because I was interested in the photos. In the nok version the photos are so small, and of such poor resolution, as to be nothing more than graytone smears. Dont waste your money!

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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