Sunday, April 11, 2010

How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York

Bandit's Roost by Jacob Riis, New York, 1888. Image from

How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890) was a pioneering work of photojournalism by Jacob Riis,  documenting the squalid living conditions in New York City slums in the 1880s. During the 1880's many in upper- and middle-class society were unaware of the dangerous conditions in the slums among the poor immigrants. Jacob Riis, an immigrant himself who could not originally find work, hoped to expose the squalor of the 19th century lower East side of  Manhattan. After a successful career as a police reporter he decided to publish a photojournal documenting these conditions using graphic descriptions, sketches, photographs, and statistics. Riis blamed the apathy of the monied for the condition of the New York slums, and assumed that as people were made more aware of these conditions they would be more apt to help eradicate them. ( This immigrants’ book should be in the top list of whoever wants to learn about the experience of immigration in America. The stories have a parallel in Buenos Aires, by the time we had the “conventillos”, the fruit of realtors’ speculations.
David Phillips edited the html and we have the great book in a hypertext. This is an excerpt of chapter 1:

1. THE first tenement New York knew bore the mark of Cain from its birth, though a generation passed before the waiting 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.
2. 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."

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