From Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In 1890, New York Evening Sun reporter Jacob Riis published an extensive book on life in the slums of the East Side of Manhattan. Riis’s book, which served as the inspiration for social reformers in New York, graphically depicted the life of squalor in which the residents–particularly the children–of this area lived. This excerpt describes how a number of children lived in these conditions, avoiding school, the reformatory, and the dangers of life on the street. Riis calls upon readers to combat poverty in New York by focusing on improving the lives of children, such as the ones he describes in the book.

Summary Overview

In 1890, New York Evening Sun reporter Jacob Riis published an extensive book on life in the slums of the East Side of Manhattan. Riis’s book, which served as the inspiration for social reformers in New York, graphically depicted the life of squalor in which the residents–particularly the children–of this area lived. This excerpt describes how a number of children lived in these conditions, avoiding school, the reformatory, and the dangers of life on the street. Riis calls upon readers to combat poverty in New York by focusing on improving the lives of children, such as the ones he describes in the book.

Defining Moment

The American Industrial Revolution represented a great set of opportunities for those seeking employment, not only for Americans but also for countless immigrants. German Jews fleeing the 1848 revolution, Irish men and women escaping the 1846–51 potato famine, and many other groups of laborers unable to find work in their homelands all braved harsh travel conditions and long delays in New York Harbor to arrive in what they thought would be a better way of life. According to the census data, New York’s population just prior to the Civil War was 805,658; by 1890, the population had exceeded 1.5 million.

The tremendous influx of immigrants in New York City occurred without corresponding development. To be sure, New York City had been constructing tenement houses, but immigrants simply packed into them in numbers far too great to make any space hospitable. Apartments were tiny, overpriced, poorly ventilated and lit, and dilapidated. Many tenements were not fit properly for sewage and water, resulting in widespread public health dangers and the spilling of waste into alleys and roads. In the streets, the situation was no better: according to an 1866 report, tons of garbage and other waste littered the streets and blocked sewers, and cattle marched through crowded streets, endangering anyone in their paths.

The issue was not lost on the government, but it could do little to address the problems. In 1867, the New York City Council of Hygiene, for example, passed regulations that required tenements to be built with such features as proper ventilation, fire escapes, bathrooms, and sewer linkage. While such laws were largely ineffective (enforcement was extremely difficult), they did at least generate awareness about this issue. In fact, these laws laid the groundwork for later local, state, and federal laws.

In 1890, Riis, who at the time was a police reporter whose work occasionally appeared in the New York media, launched a personal investigation into the conditions in New York City’s slums. Riis had the benefit of using a new piece of technology: a flash camera, capable of illuminating dark tenement apartments, alleys, basements, and other places where immigrants lived and took shelter. A social reformer, Riis was himself an immigrant who had arrived in 1870. He used this experience and motivation to pen an in-depth book on life in the slums of New York’s East Side, complete with stark photos of the most vulnerable of the slums’ residents: the children.

Author Biography

Jacob Riis was born on May 3, 1849, in Ribe, Denmark. In 1870, at the age of twenty-one, he immigrated to the United States in search of work. However, he found little success and resorted to begging and taking shelter in police barracks. Riis performed a wide range of odd jobs before he found employment as a police reporter. Committed to correcting the social ills that he had experienced, he continued to take tours of the slums and tenements in New York after the success of How the Other Half Lives. He was befriended by New York City police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt and was later offered a chance to serve in Roosevelt’s presidential administration but declined. Riis continued to advocate for open space and parks in New York until his death on March 26, 1914.

Document Analysis

Although considered one of the nation’s first “investigative reporters,” Riis, in How the Other Half Lives, does not shy away from showing his own emotion when he reports the sights and stories encountered in the tenements, alleys, and streets of the East Side. In this excerpt, Riis puts particular focus on the children living in this environment, reminding readers of the fact that the “future rulers” of the nation are living in abject squalor and in near-constant danger.

Riis takes the reader on a tour of a tenement in which so many people reside that it is nearly impossible to count them all. In one house, Riis takes an informal census but, acknowledging that there were more than a dozen children missing, instead makes a rough estimate of exactly how many children were living in the small, dark enclosures in each apartment. Riis is hardly alone in his inability to count all of the children living in these houses; he says that truant officers are similarly handicapped, knowing that there could be thousands of children who should be in school but go missing. Bodies wash up in the river, he reports, with no one coming forth to identify them.

Without formal schooling and even a stable home in which to rest and eat, the children of the East Side slums were largely left to their own devices, Riis reports. Many may actually have serviceable skills worthy of gaining them good-paying jobs, but strict restrictions imposed by labor unions have kept these children from honing their skills in trade schools. A large number of these children would, therefore, find unskilled positions at meager wages with long hours.

Those children who do not find employment, Riis says, fall victim to their idleness. They spend their days hiding from truant officers and other officials because if they are caught, they could be sent to a reformatory. There, life does not necessarily improve, as they encounter other delinquent children, who could force and/or influence them into a life of crime. A child in such conditions becomes a “rough young savage,” Riis says.

These young savages, however, are still children, Riis states. They still have a willingness to make the world a better place, citing an example of children gathering flowers for a deceased woman, whose coffin was in the street. These children need school, he argues, as well as clothes and attention. Riis provides a number of case studies as evidence: a young boy who does not attend church because he fears he has no decent clothes; a young girl who only knows of Jesus Christ because she has heard people using his name when swearing; and still another girl whose stepmother has turned her out on the streets because the woman “could not afford to keep her.”

Riis states that the protection and nurturing of New York’s children is central to successfully combating urban decay and poverty. Adults should change their views of the children on the streets, looking past their “savagery” and at their innocence and potential, Riis writes. In doing so, society can relieve children of the burdens of poverty and crime and help them reach their full potential.

Essential Themes

Riis was himself an immigrant, living much in the same conditions as those he documented and photographed when developing How the Other Half Lives. As a result, his book both enlightens the reader and serves as an imperative for the social reform Riis advocated throughout his career. New Yorkers were likely aware of the city’s slums as well as the plight of the immigrants who crowded into the city’s tenements and streets. However, his book painted an in-depth portrait of the dangers and horrors of life in the slums of New York.

Riis had the benefit of using a camera and flash powder during his investigation. Flash technology, newly developed in the 1880s, enabled him to photograph the faces of the children and others living in the alleys and basements as well as the overcrowded and dark apartments in the tenement houses. He also documented the countless images he saw in the streets: the children who spent their days either working in low-skilled, low-wage jobs or evading truant officers in order to keep away from the even worse criminal behavior found in the reformatories and social service centers. This use of photographic equipment made Riis a pioneer in the field of photojournalism.

As shown in this excerpt, Riis uses the images and experiences of the children he encountered to create a social and moral imperative for others to follow. Riis unflinchingly details the extent to which slum dwellers suffered–the sewage in the streets, the bodies in the river, and the people packed in small, dark quarters. Riis challenges his readers to use this information to influence the future of New York. According to Riis, the rest of the population had an obligation to ensure that these children had every opportunity to become educated and upstanding members of society.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “About Jacob Riis.” Victorian Richmond Hill. New York: Richmond Hill Chapter, Queens Hist. Soc., 1980. Web. 8 Apr. 2014.
  • Anbinder, Tyler. Five Points: The Nineteenth Century New York City Neighborhood that Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum. New York: Simon, 2001. Print.
  • Baba, Mary. “Irish Immigrant Families in Mid-Late Nineteenth Century America.” Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute. Yale-New Haven Teachers Inst., 1990. Web. 8 Apr. 2014.
  • Lubove, Roy. The Progressives and the Slums: Tenement House Reform in New York City, 1890–1917. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1963. Print.
  • Markel, Howard. Quarantine! East European Jewish Immigrants and the New York City Epidemics of 1892. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1999. Print.
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