Riis continues discussing the influence of the “growler,” which can easily accompany a child through life. There are few other options for play and leisure for children of the tenements. Instead, they fall in to the life of gangs, another New York institution, made up of the American-born sons of immigrants. Gangs, too, reflect the conditions of the tenements that formed them.
The “growler” is a jug used to carry and pass around beer. Riis uses the term as a metonymy: that is, “growler” actually refers to the beer that it contains and, more abstractly, to the temptation of alcoholism that will remain with these children for life.
Riis characterizes the purpose of the gangs as one of bravado and robbery. In one week last spring, six murder-assaults were recorded by the newspapers in the streets—and Riis imagines that the police probably suppressed more stories. Gang violence usually breaks out in sporadic pockets, rising up first in one neighborhood, then in another.
Having guided his readers imaginatively around the various tenement neighborhoods of New York, Riis now invites us to imagine the “disease” of gang violence spreading throughout the various areas with which we are now familiar.
Riis describes the typical gang member as cowardly rather than fierce, only able to hunt in a pack. Eager to drink and curse, he is as likely to attack a policeman as to try to save a drowning child or woman. Riis acknowledges that his degradation might well have been turned to nobleness if he had been raised in different conditions. Riis describes one famous New York tough, McGloin, who murdered an unarmed saloonkeeper one night, but then refused to run for it and instead was arrested and sent to the gallows.
Riis’s ethnographic language is now used to describe another urban “type,” the gang member. Riis does emphasize, again, how conditions can create crime: his anecdote about McGloin suggests that there may be a certain underlying nobility, though unfortunately misdirected by life circumstances, among some gang members.
Riis once tried to photograph a group of young gang members passing the growler around after some kind of raid. “Toughs” love to pose for pictures, he says, and they soon were staging the photographs themselves. Not long after he took the photos, he called at the police station and found a few of the boys under arrest for robbing a Jewish peddler just after Riis had left them. Not far from their haunts, a young boy was recently beaten to death by the “Alley Gang”; Riis found some members of the gang asleep the next morning in same row of rear tenements home to the murdered boy. The other residents seemed terrified of the young boys. In other neighborhoods, though, all the residents collude in the gangs’ crimes and help them avoid the police. As a result, the police leave them alone, unless they come within swinging distance and can hit them with their clubs.
The photographs that accompanied How the Other Half Lives were sometimes meant to seem candid, but Riis also explicitly acknowledges that many of them were also staged (indeed, given the camera technology available at the time, it would have been quite difficult to take entirely un-staged pictures). Here Riis fills in some of the context and background for the photographs that his readers may already have seen in his articles. As is the case throughout the book, photographs and narrative are meant to work together in support of reform.
Riis has heard of one “Murderers’ Alley” that had become a well-trodden lair for gangs. The Board of Health suggested that the owner build a brick wall so that it would be impossible to reach the small passage from the streets; in a few months, the entire character of the tenement house changed.
This is another example of Riis’s penchant for proposing minor aesthetic changes to the housing landscape—arguing that such changes can ultimately have major effects on a neighborhood.
This area was also the home of Whyo Gang, finally disbanded a few years ago when its leader was caught and hanged for murder; but other gangs have sprung up in its place. Inspector Byrnes has told Riis that the younger members are tougher and cleverer than the more seasoned criminals. Indeed, over 10,000 of the more than 82,000 people arrested in 1889 were under 20 years old.
Inspector Byrnes makes another appearance as a crucial source of insider information for Riis. Here, his major point is that gangs are especially successful at corrupting the city’s most vulnerable youth, and that crime, violence, and insecure childhoods are intertwined.
Riis lists the names of some of the most well-known groups, including the Rock Gang, the Rag Gang, and the Stable Gang. They hide along the streets late at night, rarely bothering the quiet, dutiful worker but instead pouncing on the tipsy or otherwise vulnerable. They keep up the pretense of belonging to a social “club” in order to blackmail local politicians or storekeepers during their annual “thieves’ ball.” They ask for “voluntary” contributions for this affair, though under threat of a late-night visit from the gang if no contribution is forthcoming.
Riis continues his ethnography-infused account of New York’s neighborhoods by chronicling different kinds of groups: each gang has its own characteristic identity. For Riis, who is such a believer in the power of voluntary associations and educational and social clubs, it’s particularly perverse that these gangs masquerade as such organizations.
Eventually, thieves usually do end up being caught, the most serious among them hanged. Only a few manage to be reformed; the rest return to their old ways after prison. There’s only one silver lining that Riis can find in this situation: he and others have learned that any anti-gang initiative must start with the economic conditions that gave rise to such groups.
Even as Riis condemns the behavior and actions of these gangs, he continues to stress that it is less the innate character of the members themselves than their environment that bears responsibility.