Riis, Jacob A. How the Other Half Lives

ISBN 13: 9780131938298

How the Other Half Lives

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9780131938298: How the Other Half Lives

How the Other Half Lives" by Jacob Riis sheds fascinating light on how our immigrants in the 1800's lived in New York City. A must-read for Americans whose family has been in the U.S. for only a few generations, this book tells what it was really like in the slums. Whether Irish, Italian, Jewish, Chinese or Polish, German, Russian, hordes of refugees ended up in New York on the promise of a better life. Entrepreneurs lured poor people from Eastern Europe and contracted out their labor in sweat shops in the US. The laborers lived in tenements, which were dark, unventilated cages in blocks of buildings that rented for a surprising high rent to people who died by the thousands in the unsanitary conditions. The conditions described by Jacob Riis in this classic are heart-rending, especially the part about foundling babies (abandoned newborns). A cradle was put outside a Catholic Church and instead of a baby each night, racks of babies appeared. The Church had to establish foundling hospitals run by nuns, who persuaded the unwed or impoverished mothers to nurse the baby they gave up, plus another baby. The child mortality rate, especially in the "back tenements" or buildings built on to the back of others (dark and airless) was incredible. Riis also provides interesting information about the gangs of New York in "How the Other Half Lived.

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About the Author:

ABOUT THE EDITOR Lorenzo Domínguez is a best-selling author, writer and an award-winning street photographer. He has written numerous books, interviews and articles about fine art and photography.

Throughout most of 2010, his book, 25 Lessons I’ve Learned about photography Life! has been the #1 Best Selling Photo Essay on Amazon.com. Paul Giguere, guru for the popular podcast thoughts on photography, considers 25 Lessons one of the "classic" essays on photography. For more information go to www.25Lessons.com.

In October of 2010, Lorenzo served as the NYC photography adviser for the recently launched Microsoft foursquare photography app. In 2008, he was chosen to be the HP Be Brilliant Featured Artist. He has been called an "Internet photography sensation" by Time Out New York and is considered a "Flickr star" by Rob Walker, Consumed columnist, for New York Times Magazine. His work is represented worldwide by Getty Images.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

List of Illustrations

Introduction by Luc Sante

Suggestions for Further Reading

A Note on the Text

How the Other Half Lives



1  Genesis of the Tenement

2  The Awakening

3  The Mixed Crowd

4  The Down Town Back-alleys

5  The Italian in New York

6  The Bend

7  A Raid on the Stale-beer Dives

8  The Cheap Lodging-houses

9  Chinatown

10  Jewtown

11 The Sweaters of Jewtown

12 The Bohemians — Tenement-house Cigarmaking

13 The Color Line in New York

14 The Common Herd

15 The Problem of the Children

16 Waifs of the City’s Slums

17 The Street Arab

18 The Reign of Rum

19 The Harvest of Tares

20 The Working Girls of New York

21 Pauperism in the Tenements

22 The Wrecks and the Waste

23 The Man with the Knife

24 What Has Been Done

25 How the Case Stands


Explanatory Notes



Jacob A. Riis (1849–1914) was the first reformer to effectively convey to a wide public the unacceptable nature of living conditions endured by the urban poor. His use of the relatively new medium of photography brought an unprecedented power to his message.

In 1870 Riis, born in Ribe, Denmark, arrived in New York as a Danish immigrant, one among thousands of the poor, friendless, and unskilled. Like so many, he frequently spent nights in police station lodging houses, the shelters of last resort in late nineteenth-century New York. He soon left the city to work at an assortment of rural jobs, but returned in 1877 to find steady employment as a police reporter for the Tribune (1877–88) and, later, the Evening Sun (1888–99). New York’s police headquarters was then on Mulberry Street, in the heart of the Lower East Side slum district. As Riis’s familiarity with the neighborhood’s squalid living conditions deepened, he began to employ his journalistic skills to convey his revulsion to the public.

For ten years (1877–87) Riis wrote and lectured stressing his view that the poor were victims rather than makers of their fate, a concept then emerging among social reformers. However, despite his considerable rhetorical skills and instructional use of statistics, architectural plans, and maps, Riis was unable to communicate the elemental shock he felt on his nightly sorties through the worst slums. It was the 1887 invention of flash photography — which allowed photographs to be taken in the darkest tenements — that provided Riis with a powerful new resource. Initially employing amateur and professional photographers, and later on his own, Riis photographed the horrors of slum life specifically to shift prevailing public opinion from passive acceptance to a realization that such living conditions must be improved.

Armed with this visual evidence, Riis added “magic lantern” slide shows to his lectures. Local newspapers reported that his viewers moaned, shuddered, fainted, even talked to the photographs he projected, reacting to the slides not as images but as a virtual reality that transported the New York slum world directly into the lecture hall. Riis’s predominantly middle-class audiences may never have experienced slum life, but they immediately understood it as a severe and intolerable threat to human dignity. But for Riis, even the verisimilitude of photography, made doubly powerful by the novelty of the medium, was not enough. At times he manipulated his subjects in an attempt to heighten the impact of his pictures. In some of his photographs, for example, young boys huddle over a ventilation grate as though it is their only refuge against the cold. But some of the boys can be seen smiling slyly at the camera. They know the picture is posed.

Once technical methods were developed for printing photographs with integrated text, Riis condensed his magic lantern shows into a series of half-tone photographic illustrations (together with line drawings) for his first book, How the Other Half Lives (1890). Its runaway success proved that he had captured the public’s interest in the everyday life of the urban poor. Many publications followed in the wake of this path-breaking book, each incorporating the rapidly improving technology of photographic reproduction. As his reputation continued to grow nationally, Riis became a major influence in launching tenement housing reform, improving sanitary conditions, creating public parks and playgrounds, and documenting the need for more schools.

The thirty photographs reproduced in this Penguin Classics edition are drawn from The Jacob A. Riis Collection at the Museum of the City of New York. (Statement by Leslie Nolan, Curator, Prints & Photographs, reprinted courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.)

Luc Sante was born in Verviers, Belgium, and emigrated to the United States as a child. He has lived in New York City since 1972. He is the author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (1991), Evidence (1992), and The Factory of Facts (1998). He has also worked as a book, film, art, and photography critic for many publications.



Studies Among the Tenements
of New York





All photographs are part of the Jacob A. Riis Collection of the Museum of the City of New York. The Collection’s catalog numbers appear in parentheses following the captions.

Hell’s Kitchen and Sebastopol (#115)

The Ashbarrel of Old (#112)

Upstairs in Blindman’s Alley (#192)

Gotham Court (#24)

An Old Rear-Tenement in Roosevelt Street (#97)

In the Home of an Italian Rag-picker, Jersey Street (#157)

The Mulberry Bend (#114)

Bandits’ Roost (#101)

Bottle Alley (#109)

Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement — “Five Cents a Spot” (#155)

An All-Night Two-Cent Restaurant in “The Bend” (#104)

The Tramp (#91)

Bunks in a Seven-Cent Lodging House, Pell Street (#28)

Smoking Opium in a Joint (#F)

“The Official Organ of Chinatown”: Telephone Pole with Notices Stuck On (#260)

“Knee-pants” at Forty-Five Cents a Dozen — a Ludlow Street Sweater’s Shop (#149)

Bohemian Cigarmakers at Work in Their Tenement (#147)

A Black-and-Tan Dive in “Africa” (#163)

In Poverty Gap, West Twenty-Fourth St. An English Coal-Heaver’s Home (#154)

Prayer Time in the Nursery, Five Points House of Industry (#124)

Street Arabs, Mulberry Street, Retreat in Church Corner (#122)

“Didn’t Live Nowhere” (#DE)

Street Arabs at Night, Mulberry Street (#123)

Getting Ready for Supper in the Newsboys’ Lodging House (#165)

A Downtown “Morgue” (#162)

Typical Toughs (From the Rogues’ Gallery) (#6-s)

A Growler Gang in Session (#140)

Hunting River Thieves (#144)

Sewing and Starving in an Elizabeth Street Attic (#146)

A Flat in the Pauper Barracks, West Thirty-Eighth Street, with All Its Furniture (#151)


Tenement of 1863, for twelve families on each flat

Tenement of the old style. Birth of the air-shaft

At the cradle of the tenement. Doorway of an old-fashioned dwelling on Cherry Hill

Woman at well

Opium pipe

A tramp’s nest in Ludlow Street

A market scene in the Jewish quarter

The old clo’e’s man — in the Jewish quarter

The open door

Bird’s-eye view of an East Side tenement block (from a drawing by Charles F. Wingate, Esq.)

The white badge of mourning


The trench in the Potter’s Field

Coffee at one cent

Evolution of the tenement in twenty years

General plan of the Riverside Buildings (A. T. White’s) in Brooklyn

Floor plan of one division in the Riverside Buildings, showing six “apartments”



How the Other Half Lives is one of those unusual books that changed history in a material way, directly affecting the lives of millions of people. Jacob Riis wrote it for no other purpose than to call attention to the horrendous living conditions of the poor in New York City, and to insist on reform. It had an immediate impact, selling out numerous printings and being hailed in the press and preached from the pulpit, and the reforms it recommended were largely undertaken, albeit gradually.

Riis begins his most famous work with a brief historical overview: tenements were initially single-family dwellings, cut up into apartments to accommodate the masses, and by and by speculators began building them from scratch, using cheap materials and employing shortcuts in every aspect of construction, making houses that were unsafe, unhealthy, and uncomfortable even when new. He then takes the reader on a tour of the downtown slums, taking on a guide’s voice — “Be a little careful, please! The hall is dark and you might stumble over the children pitching pennies back there” — that echoes the one employed by Charles Dickens on similar excursions in his American Notes (1842) and subsequently exploited by numerous anonymous authors of pamphlets who described the slums for the titillation of middle-class readers.

Then Riis displays the city’s numerous and varyingly shadowy ethnic groups: the Italians, the Jews, the Bohemians (Czechs and Slovaks), the blacks, the Chinese. He does not spare the reader his opinion of the habits and practices of these groups, some of which, while time-honored, are barely comprehensible to the Danish-born author. He goes on to describe the plight of the city’s poor children, many of them homeless, having been cast out by families no longer able to support them. He writes of the disastrous effects of alcohol, alludes circumspectly to the opportunity and danger that prostitution presents to poor girls, deplores mendicants and others dependent on charity. Then he briefly outlines the work of reform groups and private charities, and lauds those few builders who have invested in the planning and erection of model tenements, solid and sanitary. He is a moralist, but one grounded in daily reality, who believes that cleanliness is quite literally next to godliness, or at least an absolute prerequisite for it. Sunlight, air, and the eradication of filth are for him the agents that will drive out crime, disease, illiteracy, inertia, and despair. He concludes with an appendix of sobering and inarguable statistics. That the density of population in the Lower East Side’s Thirteenth Ward was nearly ten times greater than for the city as a whole speaks volumes all on its own. To be sure, such facts were available elsewhere to interested parties at the time Riis wrote, but he had to make his readers interested. The book’s 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 very likely never imagined that How the Other Half Lives, his first book, would still be widely read over a century after its publication in 1890. He certainly did not write the book with posterity in mind; he was a pragmatist above all, and his concern was social change, not aesthetics or philosophy. He did not polish his prose style to a fine sheen, and he did not unduly indulge in large, chiseled truths, both matters that preoccupied his contemporaries. Literary writers of the time who chose as a subject the conditions of the poor in New York City tended, when they were not content with picturesque surface, to emphasize universal qualities, transcending the merely local and transient. Yet Riis, who dealt rigorously in specifics, has endured where most of them have not. Neither was Riis a social prophet, properly speaking. He did not have a vision of historical destiny or a program for redressing social ills so that they would stay redressed. His agenda restricted itself to the apparently mundane: proper housing and sanitary conditions, along with parks, playgrounds, and decent schools. But in its very simplicity his work qualified then as revolutionary.

In other ways Riis might seem an odd candidate to be our elective contemporary, as any classic worth its shelf space must be. He is very much of his time, meaning among other things that he is pious and judgmental. He does not hesitate to qualify or even dismiss entire ethnic groups according to the received wisdom of the era, which held that blood was destiny, and he liberally applies the word “heathen” to non-Western traditions. For him as for many of his peers, Roman Catholicism is the very limit of the exotic. He is always ready to broadcast his impatience with practices and views he does not understand. His idea of morality, for that matter, often rings strangely to our ears — not that his standards aren’t scrupulous, but that they sometimes seem confounded with mere sentimentality. His belief in the uplifting power of nature, for example, is unexamined and can at times resemble a fetish, not unlike his fixation on Christmas, which to him is a necessity that overrides differences of religion. He can sound by turns like an overgrown child, a town scold, a paternalistic dispenser of virtue, a tourist of misery. His incessant invocation of such mantras as “home” and “family” and “work” might provoke us to brand him a demagogue.

And he does not inquire very deeply into the causes of the conditions he describes. Perhaps he cannot afford to, we might think. It is one thing, after all, to attack slumlords who are themselves immigrants, or pennyante Tammany Hall bosses whose influence does not extend beyond their ward, and quite another to take on those native-born aristocrats who own so much of the total wealth of the nation that the rest of society is forced into a cycle of mutual predation in order to survive on the margins. He certainly seems to accept wealth and poverty as given — he is content to cite the adage “The poor will always be with us.” His solutions all hinge on private charities; he opposed to the end of his life such anodyne propositions as public housing and municipal land ownership. And his reverence for order is unflagging; his view of slumlords and bosses is nearly matched by his contempt for the radicals who might have been his allies. These he lumps under the heading of “anarchists,” at the time a buzzword equivalent to “terrorists.”

But then, he got things done. Very few works of social criticism have ever had an effect as immediate, concrete, and measurable as How the Other Half Lives. The worst of the rookeries he describes were torn down. New laws were passed and old ones enforced to ensure minimal standards of hygiene and comfort in multiple-family dwellings. The infamous lodgings for the homeless in the cellars of police stations, intended for emergencies but persistently overcrowded and rife with abuses of all kinds, were closed and replaced by a much cleaner and better appointed shelter on a barge in the East River. Parks were established; public bath-houses were built. New schools whose design incorporated playgrounds went up one by one. The settlement-house movement was born and flourished. At length, and not without grave difficulties, child-labor laws were enacted, eventually on a national level.

Riis’s impact...

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