Riis now turns to the reign of saloons in downtown New York: he once counted 4,065 below 14th Street, compared to 111 Protestant churches and chapels. They are more prevalent wherever the poorest tenements are to be found, and take the place of any reading-room or coffee-shop that might otherwise occupy the storefronts of these neighborhoods.
Riis quotes Health Department statistics that show just how concentrated the saloons are in the city’s most wretched areas. Many of these saloons are owned by wealthy and prominent New York citizens, a number of whom have positions as city and state politicians. There are also, though, many saloons that remain unlicensed and largely uncounted.
Though the saloons may hang signs announcing that they won’t sell to children, that ostensible submission to the law is little more than a joke. Riis recounts a story from the newspaper about a boy who carried beer all day one Saturday to his father’s shop on the East Side, and who crept into a cellar to sleep off the effects of his own drinking: not until Monday morning was he found dead. The saloon breeds poverty, corrupts politics, and fosters crime, Riis says—but its worst influence is on the child, trapped by the “growler” (slang for a container holding beer).
Riis’s direct experience with these saloons is supplemented by other stories, including this anecdote from a newspaper. Many Progressive reformers of the time wanted to ban the sale of alcohol entirely (and by 1920, they would temporarily succeed). The fact that children in these neighborhoods reportedly drank beer like their parents would have been particularly shocking to many readers.