In response to the question of what has been done for the tenement-house problem in New York for the past 20 years, Riis notes that the law has made attempts, though there have been many obstacles to its success. Still, one improvement has been to make it illegal to construct tenements over an entire lot, so as to entirely block out air and sunlight. Similarly, public outcry has increased, even if it usually only rears up sporadically in response to a particularly blatant or disgraceful affair. This unsteady interest accounts in part for the slow progress of the authorities in dealing with the problem. Much stronger effort is needed to pressure landlords against neglect. It’s harder to convince a landlord that he’s killing his tenants just as a thief steals property, since the process is so slow and gradual.
Throughout his narrative, Riis has expressed support for various reforms and improvements that have been implemented both by government action and by private philanthropy. Still, part of his purpose has been to draw attention to the partial and even haphazard nature of such changes, arguing instead that the kind of reform needed is systematic and comprehensive. Exposing the causal connections between landlords’ neglect and the deprivation—and even illness and starvation—of many tenants is one step forward.
Riis acknowledges that housing the poor must probably, though sadly, remain a business: as a charity it will always fail. Still, he reflects that if model tenements are expertly managed, it would do a great deal of good. Riis compares the work of business in wiping out the worst tenements to Napoleon III, the French emperor who ordered the demolition and modern rebuilding of Paris in the 1850s. Riis recalls returning to one tenement after a few short weeks to find it entirely gone, with an army of workmen laying a new foundation for a warehouse.
Riis characterizes as a necessary evil the need for housing reform to remain tied to business. Many Progressive reformers fought against what they saw as the overweening domination of corporations and business interests in America; but the Progressivist insistence on a strong work ethic also made these reformers sympathetic to smaller-scale business initiatives.
Riis describes one well-intentioned tenement building effort that failed. Called “Big Flat” and built as a model tenement, it soon became home to thieves and gangs, who took advantage of two open streets—which the builders had assumed would be a decent means of ventilation—to turn the neighborhood to their own advantage.
Riis acknowledges that some attempts at reform and improvement will inevitably fail: nonetheless, he implies that it’s only by learning from mistakes such as this one that tenement-housing reform has any chance of success.
Riis describes the poorest New Yorkers as “shiftless, destructive, and stupid,” but also says that the tenements have made them this way. He tells the story of a philanthropist who decided to fit out the tenement house he owned with tubs, decent plumbing, and wood-closets: rather than be grateful, his tenants used the wood-closet boards for kindling and sold the pipes and faucets for cash at the junk shop. Since then he’s been convinced of the depravity of tenement residents, without understanding the importance of education.
Here Riis does agree with those of his contemporaries who were eager to characterize the poor as lazy and thus deserving of their lot. Without entirely dismissing this diagnosis, Riis reiterates what he’s been arguing all along: that people’s moral status is a product, not a cause, of their economic and social conditions, and that landlords and others need to understand that background.
Riis admits that education works slowly: he’s seen the police break up beer dives only to see them rearrange themselves and become ever more destructive. The rapid increase in and heightened crowding of the tenement population only worsens the issue: from 468,492 residents in 1869, the number is now over 1,250,000, and people continue to stream into the cities. Workers will always sacrifice comfort to live near their work, he says.
Again, Riis admits that any attempts at improvement will have to struggle against various factors, including immigration, population increase, and wage stagnation (which makes workers even more likely to prefer to live closer to where they work). Any hope of housing reform in particular will have to navigate such realities.
Another problem Riis cites is the absentee landlord, who owns the building but washes his hands of anything that happens there: as a result, any official attempts to improve accountability prove highly difficult, when the landlords can hardly be found.
While Riis has examined the ways that people within the same neighborhood can be victims or exploiters (or both), he also stresses subtler, more nefarious kinds of corruption.
But good management is, Riis argues, the key to reform: the best idea is to have a competent manager who can be accountable to everything that’s going on there. Tenants respond eagerly to fair efforts on their behalf. The change in the African-American population’s “character” since they’ve moved to more decent tenements in Yorkville is one example. Riis also recalls visiting a dingy, dark tenement in the Tenth Ward which he knew had a bad reputation, but which was now home to a new housekeeper who had single-handedly improved the surroundings—and, as a result, the character of those living there.
Riis has already argued that the best way to reform tenements is to make housing into a sustainable business plan. Here, one way that he proposes this be done is through the introduction of intermediaries like managers or housekeepers, whose main purpose and objective is to keep these homes safe, clean, and well-maintained. Those simple changes, he argues, will have profound effects.
Riis acknowledges the benefits of philanthropy in the tenements, especially in that charitable missions have brought the well-to-do and the poor within speaking distance of each other in a way that rarely otherwise happens—even if much remains to be done.
Riis continues to balance his arguments in favor of business-based reform with his largely positive outlook on private philanthropy (perhaps at least in part due to his readership).