How the Other Half Lives

by

Jacob A. Riis

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How the Other Half Lives: Chapter 14 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Riis describes another “boundary line” that really defines the Other Half: the line that distinguishes the “flat” from the tenement. Legally these are lumped together—but in reality they’re quite different. First, flats are usually locked, a sign that there is some gesture toward privacy. Below Houston Street there is barely a doorbell to be seen, as well as East of Second Avenue and west of Ninth, and anywhere close to work shops. Gas-houses, slaughter-houses, and docks lead to clusters of tenements, not flats, around them.
From the “color line” that divides tenement inhabitants by race, Riis moves to another equally invisible but also powerful boundary line. It’s significant that Riis refers to privacy as a key to the distinction between flat and tenement: the Progressive-era commitment to social reform saw a stable, safe family life as the key to a thriving society.  
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Riis adds that, incredibly, many thousands of people do manage to make a living here: wives and mothers are faithful and daughters are innocent even in the worst slums. But these stories are relatively rare, and only serve to show how further many could go if the smallest opportunity were offered to them. He asks readers to enter even “respectable” tenement areas full of hard-working Irish and German immigrants and their descendants, and to learn their way of life, their aims, and ambitions. Then the reader will agree with him that life doesn’t seem “worth living” even there.
Riis wants to emphasize not the optimistic conclusion that people do make ends meet in the worst circumstances but rather that it’s a miracle they manage to do so—and that even when they do, the philosophical question of life’s value (here he again seems to make a dig at fancy philosophical societies in New York) finds a much more sobering answer.
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Riis then asks his readers to accompany him uptown to the tenement blocks recently built after the last cholera scare: these are set at every which angle, and while there is air here, there is little to see other than rows of board fences and hard brown soil without a single blade of grass. There are no “aesthetic resources” in these tenement houses, only the drab, dreary halls, air shafts, and pumps that characterize what cannot quite be called a home.
Riis often lingers over the aesthetic elements of tenement life, drawing attention to things like the lack of green spaces or light. But for him such aspects are not peripheral but rather central to the needs of New York’s poorest citizens, for whom ugliness, poverty, and immorality are inevitably intertwined.
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Riis says that the Irish have been most vulnerable to the degrading influences of such spaces. The Germans have tried to mitigate these by planting flowers—which, on a tenement block, do the work of many police clubs, Riis argues. The less green there is to be found, the more policemen have to do: the transformation of Tompkins Square from a sand lot into a park got rid of the riots that used to happen there, for instance.
Once again, Riis tries to nuance his argument by making distinctions between different identity groups (even if these distinctions end up seeming less, not more, nuanced), and he continues to stress the connection between beautiful or at least decent-looking spaces and a safe, stable neighborhood.
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In hot weather, when life indoors is unbearable, the tenement expands outside and onto the roofs, with residents even sleeping up there. July and August are also the months of heightened infant mortality, despite the Board of Health’s work to send “summer doctors” into the tenements and organize fresh-air excursions out of the city. Any epidemic unduly affects the children of the poor, including diseases like the measles that are mere annoyances for the wealthy. It was recently discovered, Riis notes, that the highest tenements have the lowest death rates: this is because these were built in the last decade since sanitary reform, and have followed its laws in everything except overcrowding.
Riis tracks the effects of the lack of ventilation that is so characteristic of these tenements. On one hand, it means that people are more likely to loiter on the streets and children are more likely to be tempted into crime, but on the other hand, those who do stay inside become affected by epidemics like measles. Riis does acknowledge certain improvements that laws such as sanitary reform have enacted, even if these have proved insufficient.
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Riis recounts a recent visit to a Mott Street tenement where a child was dying: the “charity doctor” pronounced the cause as improper nutrition, that is, starvation. The father was unable to work as a result of lead poisoning, while the mother and another son were nearly blind from a contagious eye disease. For months, the family had lived on two dollars a week from the priest. The doctor gave directions for treatment, knowing that it would be impossible for them to do more than alleviate the child’s suffering.
This anecdote allows Riis to expose the severe and manifold effects of unsafe, dilapidated living conditions on a single family, from lead poisoning to the spread of contagious disease to starvation stemming from the family’s inability to pay exorbitant rents. Such dramatic stories would become a key tool for Progressive-era muckrakers after Riis.
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While rare cases of starvation cause an uproar in the newspapers, Riis notes that in truth death from starvation is much more common than people know, though also more insidious, taking place over a length of time. Sometimes this happens because of drunkenness or carelessness on the part of the parents; but Riis says that in his experience, the condition of the tenements is far more to blame. Scarcity of water contributes directly to drunkenness among the poor, he says. In addition, when people are struggling each day for the bare necessities of life, nothing encourages them to look far ahead; instead, they do whatever they can to get through each day. Children soon learn to live this way as well.
Even while engaging in sensationalist reporting himself, Riis also criticizes the intermittent interest of the public in sensational stories, arguing that the truth is both worse and subtler than his readers can imagine. He also stresses that destitute housing conditions cause moral conditions like (in his view) alcoholism and not the other way around. Here, he traces certain ways that these causal connections unfold in the lives of tenement inhabitants from childhood to adulthood.
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Riis notes the popular myth that there are more evictions in New York each year than in all of Ireland—in fact, he thinks it would be a good thing to be put out of a tenement. But he does argue that the civil courts are among the few places that uphold tenants’ rights, making it difficult for landlords to kick out tenants.
While Riis’s reporting sometimes tries to counter popular myth with objective fact, he also freely inserts his own opinions and beliefs into his exposé—a use of the first-person perspective that would also become quite influential for later muckrakers.
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If the poor live while paying a premium for shoddy services and lodging, Riis says, then they continue such a practice in death. He questions the “habit” of expensive funerals among the tenement-residents, which only adds to debt and poverty. Though such expense is some consolation to relatives, it is mitigated by the undignified burial in the common trench of the City Cemetery’s Poor Burying Ground (or Potter’s Field), “saving space” by being crowded as they were in life. 
While Riis tries to sympathetically imagine the reasons for wanting an expensive funeral, he also falls back on a typical moralist argument about the recklessness and extravagance of the poor, and their tendency to overspend on inessentials. Still, he stresses here the indignities of death as well as life for New York’s poorest.
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