How the Other Half Lives

by

Jacob A. Riis

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How the Other Half Lives: Chapter 23 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Riis tells a recent anecdote of a man, poor and hungry, who was in such despair at the sight of carriages rolling up Fifth Avenue, at the contrast between the wealthy shoppers and his children crying for bread, that he jumped into the crowd with a knife and starting slashing about. He was arrested and probably lies forgotten in an asylum today: but the carriages continue to roll by.
This especially vivid and haunting anecdote doesn’t tell us much that is new about the inequality between rich and poor in New York itself: instead it underlines the damaging psychological (as well as economic and social) effects of such vast differences in living conditions.
Themes
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Riis says that this man was only resorting to a possibility that many have long feared, that the lower classes will rise up in violence. The only other option, he says, is that of justice. Riis imagines a reasonable-sounding person telling him that the tenements aren’t so bad as he claims, that they don’t look too shabby—some even have brown-stone fronts. This is true, he admits, in some of the newer tenements: but in any case, one must look beneath the surface to truly understand the situation.
As Riis prepares to conclude his book, he introduces yet another reason (though one latent throughout) that his readers should join him in seeking reform: the alternative is that the desperation and insecurity hidden behind the placid brown-stone fronts will break out, and the effects of such desperation will finally reach the more privileged.
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Riis says that we are all products of our physical and moral conditions, but that in the case of the tenements this is hardly reassuring. But the “dangerous classes” of New York are dangerous less because of their crimes than because of the “criminal ignorance” of the privileged. A class of whom nothing is expected, he says, will remain ignored as well as impoverished.
Riis delivers a stinging rebuke to the complacency of New York’s more privileged residents, denying them the right to claim ignorance by arguing that their ignorance itself is not just immoral but criminal.
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Riis recalls an important meeting at Chickering Hall two years ago, where many discussed how to instruct this mass of over a million people in good Christian morals. But at no point, he says, was the question asked how love of God can be inculcated in people who have only witnessed human greed. A minister once asked him if he’s forgetting the inner man in exchange for focusing on people’s material conditions: Riis responded that there’s no inner man to appeal to in the tenements, and that the first action should be to situate someone in a place where he can respect himself.
Riis returns to a moment earlier in the book, when he’d cited the words of an unnamed Brooklyn builder who had asked how those who have only seen greed can possibly learn how to be proper moral Christians. Many Progressive-era reformers were concerned with how to develop a moral, usually Christian, citizenry: here Riis argues that there are material pre-conditions that must be met before such instruction can prove effective.
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