How the Other Half Lives

by

Jacob A. Riis

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How the Other Half Lives: Chapter 10 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Leaving Chinatown, Riis arrives in the “Hebrew quarter,” centered around Baxter Street. He doesn’t need to tell us where we are, he says: the inhabitants’ faces and language make it obvious. The youngest women are entrancing, while the older ones are “hags.” Here the public schools essentially have to close on Jewish holidays, since only a handful come to school.
Again, Riis relies on common stereotypes and prejudices about what Jewish people look like just as much as he relies on his own powers of observation. Here, his documentary anecdotes are combined with summary judgments about appearance.
Themes
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This neighborhood is the most densely populated anywhere in the world, Riis says. 58 babies and 38 children occupied one tenement building that officially contained 36 families. Dirty children crowd the hallways and cellars of these places, but tramps are out of place in this area of busy industry, where hard work is the reigning way of life. Thrift is both Jewtown’s virtue and its disgrace, Riis says. Materialism is rampant here: he’s seen Polish and Russian Jews starving themselves to exhaustion in order to save a little money. The diseases here are due not to intemperance but to lack of suitable food and ventilation, especially since the residents work in their cramped, dingy rooms. Here, everyone stays inside: sometimes a child recovering from small-pox is found crawling around heaps of clothing that will be finished and sold in a Broadway store the next day. 
Just as Riis had noted the relative cleanliness of the Chinese neighborhoods in order to argue that that quality was actually disreputable, here he makes the tendency to save into a sign of Jews’ “materialism” and greed. At the same time, there is some continuity between this and other neighborhoods in terms of the overcrowding and spread of disease so common in the tenements. Riis expects his readers to be particularly shocked that the clothes they are currently wearing may well have been crawled over by a smallpox-ridden child in one of these tenements.
Themes
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Riis characterizes Jews as eager to fight for their rights in business transactions and to find relief for petty feuds in the power of the law. Riis relates the story of one missionary who, when attempting to preach about Jesus Christ, was afraid he was about to be stoned: for Riis, this is characteristic of the Jews’ “stubborn” adherence to their customs and faith. A public school teacher tells Riis of the difficulty he’s had in getting his students to wash and keep clean. On the other hand, even the most “ignorant” Polish Jew children know how to count almost before they can talk.
Riis’s avowed commitment to assimilation to a Christian, white American way of life means that it’s difficult for him to imagine other reasons for Jews not to convert to Christianity other than their “stubbornness.” He also continues to draw on stereotypes of Jewish people as money-grubbing as he describes the counting skills of Jewish children. 
Themes
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Related Quotes
Riis recounts a story of criminals who made a business of setting fire to tenements in order to collect furniture insurance, exposing their fellow-tenants to danger. Once Riis himself saw people throw themselves from windows during a fire, and policemen lined up 13 bodies in the street.
Riis often relies on anecdotes like this one as evidence for his (in this case racist) arguments: the story of arsonists is meant to underline just how far Jewish immigrants will go in order to make money.
Themes
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Riis calls the weekly “Pig-market” the best place to study Jewish people’s customs. The stalls are dingy but the prices low: the main staples are chickens and geese, once sold live but now finally, as a result of the sanitary authorities, killed at a fowl-market earlier. Haggling is widespread and intense. Riis wonders why the suspender peddler is omnipresent, since he never sees men wearing them in the neighborhood. People push and shove at each other and shout in foreign tongues, then scatter as the health officers shovel up the musty bread and stale vegetables on the street and carry them to the dump, while people curse at them from the stoops and windows.
Moving throughout the market, Riis recounts how certain traditions have already been abolished, including the killing of poultry, which now happens off-site. In some ways, this section is one more example of Riis’s interest in recording the evocative sights, sounds, and smells of each neighborhood in order to give his readers a better sense of the spaces of which they are so ignorant. But there is also a healthy dose of ethnic prejudice in the way Riis describes the market.
Themes
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Photography and Visual Language Theme Icon