Long ago it was said that ‘one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.’ That was true then. It did not know because it did not care. The half that was on top cared little for the struggles and less for the fate of those who were underneath…
In fighting extreme poverty, it's sometimes easy to lose sight of just how recently the conditions that we're seeking to combat existing in our own countries. That's why today, we're excited to review 'How the Other Lives,' an 1890 classic about slum life in New York, which offers lots of lessons and points of reflection for us today, four generations on.
Jacob A. Riis’ How the Other Half Lives (1890) is a factual, first-hand account of poverty in 19th century New York. Through his revolutionary use of flash photography, Riis takes us on a visual tour through slum life in Lower East Side Manhattan. Riis was writing during a time of immense social upheaval, when the city was experiencing a large influx of immigrants from Europe and many other parts of the world. This was creating a rapidly growing population which the city needed to accommodate. This was done through large scale tenements which would often house hundreds of people at a time in mostly squalid conditions.
He brought the plight of the New York working classes to the largely ignorant middle and upper classes, who often viewed their poverty as deserved or chosen. His use of hard facts, statistics and photographic evidence help guide us through the many overcrowded tenements, filthy streets, and exploitative sweatshops of the city. He was considered a great social reformer who was concerned with bringing about real change to attitudes and policy.
It is the conditions of the overcrowded tenements that serve as Riis’ central focus as, at the time, the tenements harboured three-fourths of the city’s population. Accompanied by visuals, he guides us through what the rooms look like at different rates and across different parts of the city: “The twenty-five cent lodging house keeps up the pretence of a bed-room, though the head-high partition enclosing a space just large enough to hold a cot and a chair and allow the man room to pull off his clothes…The ten-cent level the locker for the sleeper’s clothes disappears. There is no longer need of it. The tramp limit is reached, and there is nothing to lock up…” The unlicensed lodging houses of the city could even offer a small space on the floor for five cents or a squatting space in the hallway for three.
With the increase in demand brought about by the swelling population, the tenement apartments began to be portioned into several smaller rooms, often with no access to light or ventilation. In the pursuit of profit and with no regard to health, landlords would fill these rooms well over capacity with poor lodgers. “There are numerous examples of tenement-houses in which are lodged several hundred people that have a pro rata allotment of ground area scarcely equivalent to two square yards upon the city lot…” It was thought that the tenement houses in East Side Manhattan were once the most densely populated district in the world, not excluding China, as they were “packed at the rate of 290,000 to the square mile.” Riis saw how the poor had no voice to protest against the degradation of their condition, because the tenements were the only option open to them other than a life on the streets.
In such high density living the spread of diseases such as Cholera, Typhus fever, and Smallpox were inevitable. Riis reveals how the mortality rate of the city went up from 1 in 41.83 in 1815, to 1 in 27.33 in 1855 as a result of diseases associated with slum living. The Bureau of Vital Statistics commented that solely due to “suffocation in the foul air of an unventilated apartment…there are annually cut off from the population by disease and death enough humans to people a city, and enough human labour to sustain it.” The stifling air in the warmest of months was the cause of many cases of suffocation and ill health, particularly amongst young children.
The effect of slum living for children of the city is perhaps the most touching in all of Riis’ account. He uses facts and statistics to expose the scores of children dying before their 5th birthday. He also highlights how child mortality rates dramatically decline in cases where the same number of people are living together, but basic sanitary conditions are upheld. He uses examples like this through his account to remind us of the crucial relationship between sanitation and health.
With many children falling victim to vices such as alcohol and petty crime, young lives were often wasted outside of school and education. The use of child labour in the many sweatshops of the city is also brought to light. Sweatshops were created in tenements, so that the same law which applied to workers in the factories could be evaded. People would work long hours without any breaks for a wage that barely covered rent let alone food expenses. Families in these situations would be living on the very fringes of survival and close to starvation. Emigrating to America from Denmark in 1870, Riis struggled to find steady work for much of his early life in the new land. Without food or opportunity, he experienced first-hand the life of poverty documented in this account.
Although it has been described as more of a factual account than an emotive one, what Riis accomplished was to give a face to the under-represented issue of urban poverty in New York. His account uses real case studies from those experiencing the worst of the conditions. As the intimate portraits peppered through his account show, he documented everything from the clothing to the sombre expressions of those living in poverty. It is what makes this account of 19th century slum living so unique and compelling.
How the Other Half Lives also documents the changes and organizations brought about in 19th century New York to create changes in legislation. For example the birth of the Board of Health, and the Tenement House Act of 1867 and The Society for Improvement of the Condition of the Poor. Riis proposed real tangible routes to overcoming the overpopulation and tenement housing crisis. Many of his proposals were to be adopted in the years to come. The attention his work received led to reforms in laws, the tearing down of New York's worst tenements and sweatshops, reformation of the city's schools and the construction of new safer tenements. This work represents the importance of awareness - Riis not only shows how we each have a moral obligation to recognise the plight of the poor, but that real lasting change is achievable.
*All images from Jacob A. Riis’ How the Other Half Lives (1890)