How the Other Half Lives

by

Jacob A. Riis

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How the Other Half Lives: Chapter 25 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Riis briefly sketches out what he sees to be the housing situation in New York, centered around the rights of tenement inhabitants to live in Manhattan and to be housed decently for the high amount that they’re paying. The sanitary, moral, and economic security of both “halves” of New York depends on the decent housing of the poor—and creating such housing can be a good and productive business model.
As Riis concludes, he returns to the argument he’s been making that reforming the tenement-housing situation will not just help New York’s poorest while costing its most privileged—instead, the entire population will benefit from such changes.
Themes
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Poverty and Morality  Theme Icon
The Progressive Era and Immigration Theme Icon
Riis admits that it may well be ideal to get rid of the tenement itself, but that is entirely impracticable: instead we must figure out what to do with it. Riis recently watched a landlord give a rundown building a coat of paint: that alone will not solve things. Instead, he argues that there are three ways of dealing with tenements: by law, by remodeling old houses, and by building new model tenements. Private enterprise must take up the latter two options, while the arrest and punishment of landlords who violate law and decency will go a long way. Riis throws out a few other suggestions about legal reforms.
In some sections of the book, Riis simply points out and draws attention to horrifying living and working conditions; now, his major concern is to propose pragmatic solutions, including partial ones. He does seem to suggest that purely aesthetic solutions alone—giving a building a new coat of paint—will be insufficient, but in this context, such an argument seems mainly meant to encourage more radical change in addition.
Themes
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Poverty and Morality  Theme Icon
Corruption   Theme Icon
The Progressive Era and Immigration Theme Icon
Riis suggests that landlords should ally themselves to the law rather than fighting it. Ideally their investment in their property now will pay for itself in future value. He cites the example of a Miss Ellen Collins, who bought three old tenements ten years ago and has worked to rehabilitate and remodel them, in part by letting light into the hallways. She set the rents as low as possible to both get a return on her investment and promote stability among the tenants; she outfitted the houses with proper plumbing; and today the homes are bright and cheerful, with no tenant problems.
In the ideal society envisioned by many Progressive-era reformers, the law would not be an impediment to social change but a key aspect of social reform, working together with the private sector rather than against it. Here, Riis notes one example of how public-private partnerships might work: Miss Collins is not just a philanthropist but also a successful businesswoman.
Themes
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Riis admits that others have tried such reforms with little success—though this, he says, is because they’ve tired of it before the tenements had been fully “redeemed,” so they lapsed back into their former condition. Sadly, the lack of interest in the poor on the part of landlords is partly responsible for this. 
Riis argues that the failures of other reformers before him are not because reform itself is doomed, but because the changes actually didn’t go far enough—what’s needed is to maintain and expand such reforms, not curtail them.
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 Personal interest in the affairs of the poor must also be the case for the building of model tenements. Riis argues that, while many are skeptical that such projects will work in New York as they have in other cities, he’s personally aware of several successful initiatives. Riis admits that other cities’ plans, like Philadelphia’s to house the working classes in cottages, won’t work in Manhattan—but that’s why more concentrated, but not overcrowded, tenements are a potential solution. He cites the example of 13 houses built by the Improved Dwellings Association nine years ago. Despite unexpected expenses and amenities unknown among the poor, like coal lifts and common laundry in the basement, Riis has visited and found the operation to be fully successful.
Here, Riis continues to elucidate a central belief driving his book—that if readers, shocked and appalled by the stories of New York’s tenement neighborhoods and by the photographs that serve as evidence for such tales, truly begin to care about the lives of the poor, they will be more likely both to give time and money themselves and to lobby for government reforms. Riis also stresses that each city is unique, so while it is possible to learn from other cities’ techniques, any change must be adapted to the specific needs of New Yorkers.
Themes
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Poverty and Morality  Theme Icon
Photography and Visual Language Theme Icon
The Progressive Era and Immigration Theme Icon
Riis describes another “experiment” by the Tenement House Building Company in Cherry Street, home to many Russian Jews, in an area that’s more dangerous. Still, even these houses are well-kept and have also returned an interest on the invested capital. There was an original idea of making the tenants themselves profit-sharers on rent insurance, but it hasn’t yet come to fruition, though similar projects are happening elsewhere. Riis cites the example of a Brooklyn builder, Mr. A.T. White, who has built homes for 500 poor families and allowed good tenants a share in the profits in exchange for prompt payment and order.
Riis preempts the objection that he’s focusing on comparatively well-to-do tenements and more orderly populations, by arguing that the models he’s proposing are reproducible and expandable. The Brooklyn builder that Riis cites here may well be the same he had quoted at the beginning, who’d asked how the poor could ever have a model for good behavior if all they see is greed: his work is meant to counter that standard.
Themes
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Poverty and Morality  Theme Icon
Diversity, Cosmopolitanism, and Ethnic Prejudice Theme Icon
The Progressive Era and Immigration Theme Icon
Riis argues that if owners can be content with a 5-6 percent return on investment, model tenements can be successful: additional greed will ruin the opportunity. Just building a single good tenement is the first step to reforming the entire neighborhood, he says.
While Riis is encouraging tenement-house reform as a business investment, he also cautions that moderation is the key to success both for tenants and owners.
Themes
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Corruption   Theme Icon
Riis concludes that he’s attempted to tell the truth as he saw it in order to do his part in encouraging justice. He recalls a recent visit to the sea, watching children playing in the surf: he was told as he watched that during winter storms this same sea swept easily across any manmade barrier in a destructive wave. Riis compares this wave to the sea of the tenement population: if it swells again from despair and enclosure, nothing will be strong enough to hold it back. Returning to the Lowell poem that served as epigraph, Riis ends on a note of warning about what might happen if the poor continue to be crushed.
This final anecdote reflects Riis’s ongoing union of journalistic objectivity with metaphoric, highly literary imagery. While he could have ended on the previous note of optimism about the possibility of reform, his choice to end with a more ominous image is part of his general didactic and moralizing purpose—this is his final chance to encourage his readers to embrace reform.
Themes
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Photography and Visual Language Theme Icon
The Progressive Era and Immigration Theme Icon
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