How the Other Half Lives

by

Jacob A. Riis

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on How the Other Half Lives can help.

How the Other Half Lives: Chapter 12 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Riis turns to the Bohemian quarter, where Jewish landlords make lodging contingent on the tenants working for them at exploitative wages: essentially modern serfdom. The Bohemians are comparatively isolated as an ethnic group: Riis says that this is due to stubborn pride, but also to the prejudice that Bohemians are enemies of organized labor and disturbers of the peace. (Riis says this is unfair.)
While Riis continues to trade in ethnic stereotypes—Bohemians tend to be “proud” and stubborn—here he argues that the specific prejudice about Bohemian anarchism is not based in reality. (At the same time, he seems to link these landlords’ exploitation to their Jewish identity.)
Themes
Diversity, Cosmopolitanism, and Ethnic Prejudice Theme Icon
The Progressive Era and Immigration Theme Icon
Many Bohemian immigrants work for cigar factories and live nearby. Owners fill up the tenements around their shops and overcharge for rent, demanding onerous deposits that prevent the tenants from rebelling and leaving. Unlike Polish Jews, Bohemians rarely have large savings, preferring to live as well as their means permit. Men, women, and children work seven days a week in these tenements. The fact that trade unions originally refused to admit women, who in this area are often vital to the families’ economy, is a major source of their mutual antagonism.
Some of what Riis chronicles about ethnic groups is based in objective fact rather than ethnic stereotype: certain groups at the time did, for a variety of historical reasons including immigration trends, tend to be associated with certain occupations. Riis does expose some of the underlying historical factors behind prejudices in explaining the Bohemians’ antagonism to trade unions.
Themes
Diversity, Cosmopolitanism, and Ethnic Prejudice Theme Icon
The Progressive Era and Immigration Theme Icon
Riis declares that his own personal inspections have convinced him that, despite severe poverty, the residents of these tenements live much better than the clothing-makers in the Tenth Ward (despite a recent panic about consumption in this neighborhood). Riis does find that the major source of suffering is the wretched wages and extortionate rents. On East Tenth Street, for instance, one family rents a tiny bedroom at $12.25 per month and can make about $10 per week only by working there from six in the morning until nine at night. Bohemian families tend to be large, so when the children are too small to work the situation is constantly precarious.
While Riis is committed to exposing shocking levels of poverty and destitution, he also wants to paint a more nuanced picture of the variations in living conditions—in this case, countering other people’s panics about high levels of disease. At the same time, he continues to trace a major continuity in all these tenement-house neighborhoods: low wages combined with high rents, leading to unsustainable labor conditions.
Themes
Housing, Reform, and Improvement  Theme Icon
Diversity, Cosmopolitanism, and Ethnic Prejudice Theme Icon
An old man in the next house answers some of Riis’s questions through an interpreter: after nine years, he’s learned no English. Though he was a blacksmith in the old country, his lack of English means he can’t be here. He and his wife sigh as they admit that they have to make a living, though they would love to start their old trade again.
Riis expresses a certain amount of moralistic disapproval toward the old man for his lack of English, even as he also relies upon this resident for access to a longer history of immigration and labor.
Themes
Diversity, Cosmopolitanism, and Ethnic Prejudice Theme Icon
The Progressive Era and Immigration Theme Icon
Get the entire How the Other Half Lives LitChart as a printable PDF.
How the Other Half Lives PDF
Ash-barrels stand in front of the tenements on 71st and 73rd Streets, filled with stems of stripped tobacco leaves. One cigar maker who does suffer from consumption lives close by. Until his health gave out, he and his wife could make $17-25 per week; but now she alone has to support her young children and husband on $8 per week. She describes how she tries to make that go as far as possible for meals; the week rent is due they have to shrink rations even more.
Sometimes the objective data that Riis cites seem at odds with the impressionistic anecdotes that he recounts. For instance, he’d recently characterized consumption as statistically insignificant. But stories like this one rely on evocative personal experience to supplement, if not replace, hard data.
Themes
Poverty and Morality  Theme Icon
Photography and Visual Language Theme Icon
Riis responds to the accusation that Bohemians are anarchists: he counters that Bohemians love peace like they love music and song. They’ve been ground down by poverty, isolated and ignorant of English—and yet they are not the “infidels” that many think they are. Education, Riis argues, is the key to instructing them both in English and in Christianity. 
It’s unclear why Riis has chosen to attack Chinese and Jewish populations while defending Bohemians, although in part it seems to be because he thinks it might be easier to encourage them to assimilate to Christian norms. 
Themes
Diversity, Cosmopolitanism, and Ethnic Prejudice Theme Icon
The Progressive Era and Immigration Theme Icon