Riis admits that the economy of the Tenth Ward and neighboring districts, home to the Jewish population, has remained a mystery to him despite intense attempts to figure out how it works. Jews have monopolized the business of making cheap clothing, he says. Through ruthless competition they’ve driven down the price such that it’s impossible for workers to make a decent wage.
As with the Chinese neighborhoods, here Riis claims that certain groups’ traditions and customs are so alien to him that it’s impossible, despite his earnest desire to be an ambassador to his readers, for him to “explain” these communities to others.
Most of the work in making sweaters happens in the tenements, free from factory labor laws like a ten-hour work-day limit and child labor restrictions. Riis invites his readers to take the Second Avenue Elevated Railroad to the sweaters’ district, where one might glimpse into the shops, with half-naked workers ironing clothes by the window.
The Second Avenue Elevated Railroad, already mentioned in the book, is one of the few means of linking the tenement neighborhoods to the more privileged areas of New York home to those Riis assumes will be his readers.
Riis recommends getting off at Rivington Street: it’s a Sunday evening, the first day of the week in Hebrew law. Up four flights of dark stairs in a Ludlow Street tenement, the smells of frying fish and cabbage pervading the landings, he reaches an apartment with five adults and three teenagers (who lie about their age) sewing knickerbockers or “knee-pants.” The faces are black with the color of the cloth; the teenagers glance around, but the adults seem unaware that there’s a visitor. The wife of the boss is instructing these newcomers to America in the trade. Riis goes over the workers’ weekly wages and the shop profits with her: he wonders how anyone makes a living, but she is ready with a list of exactly how much bread, milk, meat, coffee, and potatoes costs per week.
Riis’s literary strategy is to first write a kind of tourist guidebook, and then to take his readers by the hand and ask them to imagine that they are visiting a tenement at a particular moment in time—here a Sunday evening. In this imagined visit, we can even smell the fish and cabbage cooking in the tenements. Riis relies on the wife of the boss in this tenement to provide the kind of specific financial accounts that he’s always looking for, as he marvels at how anyone is able to make a living and feed their children in such places and with such employment.
In the next room knee-pants are also in the process of production, of a still lower quality: the profit is only three and a half cents per item. Each floor here has at least two shops. Riis points out one more hopeful-seeming family: the husband and wife work together with their children and manage to save up money each week. But across the hall is a worker whose four children are too young to work, and can barely manage to pay the rent.
Moving from one tenement apartment to the next, Riis observes a certain level of stability in, for instance, the family that is able to make a living by everyone, including the children, pitching in. Yet such stability immediately proves precarious, especially for any family whose children cannot yet work.
Back on Ludlow Street, Riis passes another double tenement owned by a Jewish politician who is also a liquor dealer. The cheapest apartment there is $13 per month, and barely deserves the name. One hallway is turned into a shoemaker’s shop: to crawl into bed he has to jump over the footboard.
Riis often characterizes owners as powerful and absent, but he’s also interested in how people in the same community can be either victims or exploiters, or both at different times.
Further down on Broome Street, another tenement is home to a number of different manufacturing shops inside. On the roof, three men are making boys’ jackets: Riis describes how the 20 cents for which they’re sold are divided among the sewer, ironer, finisher, button-hole-maker, and others. They are lucky enough to have a filling meal at lunch every day, reminding Riis of one Orchard Street restaurant popular with Polish Jews, where large amounts of food are ladled out for 13-15 cents. The major expense in this neighborhood, indeed, is rent, and still the overcrowding is severe—no privacy is to be found. And yet most prefer to live in dire poverty while putting money away in the bank each week.
Riis’s aim in detailing exactly how the 20 cents of the jackets are spent is to show how far such a small sum must go, and how little each laborer can extract individually—a result, he argues, of the way in which ruthless competition has worked to squeeze both wages and profits. Although this is true regardless of ethnic group, Riis also wants to claim that it’s the tendencies of Jews to save rather than spend that, ironically, also contributes to their dire living conditions.
These, says Riis, are the conditions that enable his manufacturing friend to boast of New York’s primacy in making cheap clothing. Riis describes a few unsuccessful tactics at raising standards of living here, but suggests that what first must be done is to teach immigrants English so that they can assimilate. As evening falls, Riis watches exhausted people step outside for a moment’s rest. A small, dirty baby tumbles off a tenement step and comes to rest on the stones, its head on his boot.
Riis contrasts the self-satisfied claims of his “manufacturing friend” to the real situation of those working to make New York a prime location for making clothing. Again, Riis emphasizes the Progressive-Era truisms that education is the key to eliminating poverty and that assimilation to a mainstream norm is just as necessary.