Riis claims that it was the fear of cholera, which recurred several times throughout the nineteenth century, that began to spur people to action. The “Tenement-House Act” of 1867, which ordered the installation of windows in thousands of rooms for ventilation, was met with opposition from many owners who were loath to pay anything for repairs (though also from some tenants who objected to what they saw as the infringement of individual rights).
Several cholera epidemics swept New York throughout the nineteenth century, worsened by unsanitary living conditions and overcrowding. Here Riis signals a key obstacle to reform, one that he’ll return to often: the unwillingness of owners to invest any more than they are forced to in the upkeep of the tenements.
Reports began to chronicle young criminals in the city’s slums, brought up in overcrowded, unsanitary homes—even after the initial attempts at improvement had been made. Riis quotes several authorities that concluded that new tenements were continuing to spring up, as badly planned as older ones. Nothing, he says, has done more than offer temporary relief to the chronic overcrowding and squalor.
By narrating this history in a certain way, Riis emphasizes the causal connection between crowding and crime: it’s not that people in tenements are naturally morally inferior to others, but rather that the uncleanliness and overpopulation create the ideal conditions for crime.
Riis transitions to defining a tenement, first legally, as a house occupied by three or more families, or two or more living on the same floor. But since that includes other kinds of apartments, he also quotes another description: a tenement is usually 4-6 stories high, often with a store that sells liquor on the first floor; four families are on each floor, with a dark windowless staircase at the center of the house.
Part of Riis’s effort toward making his work an objective, even scientific argument involves defining his terms; here, though, he supplements the legal definition of a tenement with an evocative description of what it’s actually like to live there.
The poor pay a third more rent downtown than they would for a flat in Harlem, since they must live close to where they work. Sometimes reports emerge of 70-80 children living in a single tenement. Usually water doesn’t reach higher than the second floor because of shoddy plumbing, though beer can easily quench thirst during rooftop picnics in the summer, Riis says.
Riis continues his vivid description of a typical tenement: rather than moving systematically from one aspect to another, he uses literary techniques like juxtaposition to contrast the stagnation of water with the ready flow of beer in order to characterize these homes.
Asking rhetorically where tenements are not to be found, Riis describes their spread from the Fourth Ward slums to the Annexed District, crowding all the lower wards of the city. Riis argues that today’s tenements, holding three quarters of New York’s population, are New York: but any characterization of them as a home is a “bitter mockery.”