Riis describes lower New York as cosmopolitan, and touches on the many nationalities that can be found there, from Italians to Russians to Chinese immigrants. But there is no American community, he says. He once asked one elderly slum inhabitant where all the Americans went, and the man said he didn’t know: they’re certainly not here. Instead, Riis says, they are a strange mass of different elements, united mostly by the smell of whisky.
Many of the people of different ethnic backgrounds that Riis studies are indeed American citizens: here, he seems to mean by “Americans” white Christians whose families have been in the U.S. for more than a generation. The description of their affinity for whisky underlines Riis’s suspicion of New York’s diversity.
Riis describes how the Irish, once discriminated against, are now triumphant in the tenements, often becoming landlords themselves and exploiting Italians and other communities. Riis acknowledges that not all those living in the tenements are verging on beggardom: those who earn wages often have nowhere else they can afford to live. There is some upward mobility in these areas—second-generation Irishmen become bricklayers, the Chinese begin to own laundry businesses—but the slums continue to grow as well.
Riis tracks a certain level of upward mobility among immigrants, though here he critiques that trend as supporting the worst of the tenement system. That is, those who become wealthier, he says, often do so by exploiting the newest crop of immigrants, who are trapped there because of the lack of affordable housing in the city.
Riis says that a color-coded map of lower New York based on national origin would have more colors than a rainbow, though split into two great halves, one for the Irish in the West and one for Germans on the East Side. But woven throughout would be strips of neighborhoods housing Italians in the West, pushing up against the black population north from Thompson Street. Riis describes these colors and populations as “tides” and “waves” moving throughout the city.
For much of this chapter, Riis’s metaphor of the rainbow will structure how he moves from one ethnic neighborhood to the next. The metaphor is meant to show both the great diversity of tenement areas as well as the ways in which people of the same background tend to live and work together.
Riis describes how Russian and Polish Jews are filling the Seventh Ward tenements on the river, jostling for space with Italians (red on Riis’s hypothetical map, with “dull gray” for the Jews). In between is the “yellow” of Chinatown and the “dirty stain” of the Arab population, as well as the smaller pockets of Finnish sailors, the Greeks, and the Swiss. Riis claims that the Germans are the most successful at making a home out of their lodgings, without letting drunkenness or vagrancy corrupt them.
As Riis continues color-coding Lower Manhattan by ethnic group, he begins to trade in ethnic stereotypes and prejudices: “yellow” was a pejorative word for Chinese people, for instance, while “dull gray” and “dirty stain” reflect a bigoted characterization of certain other ethnic groups and nationalities.