Riis invites his readers to visit with him the Other Half of New York at home, telling readers there’s nothing to fear. They won’t excite interest, unless they’re suspected of being a truant officer.
After an initial sketch of the landscape, Riis now takes on the role of a tour guide who will show rather than simply tell readers his tale.
Riis describes leaving the Elevated Railroad under the Brooklyn Bridge, glancing at the old Knickerbocker homes on Cherry Street (the word refers to early Dutch settlers in New York), now surrounded by ugly, run-down buildings, and dilapidated themselves. Now their arched gateways lead to dark alleys where dirty children are playing around a dripping hydrant, cars whizzing by on the highway overhead.
Riis explains that this alley, Blind Man’s Alley, until recently was home to a number of blind beggars who were tenants of a landlord, “Old Dan” Murphy. Before he went blind himself in old age, he grew rich off this population and refused to repair or clean up his buildings until forced to argue his case before the Board of Health.
While Riis is often eager to expose the corruption of far-away landlords and owners, he also spends time showing how people are exploited by others much closer to them in class and geography: “Old Dan” is both victim and abuser.
Riis recounts having once taken a flash picture of a group of blind beggars here: the flash sparked a fire among the paper and rags hanging on the wall. He smothered the fire himself, then told a policeman, who found the story a great joke: it was the dirt that smothered the fire, he said. Once a year, though, the gloom lifts, as the city disperses the twenty thousand dollars allotted to the poor blind and Blind Man’s Alley holds a party with singing and dancing.
Flash photography, a relatively new technology when Riis was using it, allowed him to record realities hitherto ignored by the more privileged. But this anecdote also exposes the gap between Riis’s own mobility and privilege and the desperation of the beggars’ apartment he was recording.
Nearby is Gotham Court, where the mortality rate rose to 195 in 1000 inhabitants during the last cholera epidemic, an unprecedented rate. Irish and Italians live on this block, which was originally built in 1851 as a model tenement by a Quaker philanthropist. By its second decade, however, rates of sickness were swelling. Finally, the police drove out the entire population in order to prevent criminals (“Swamp Angels”) from hiding in the sewers and cellars.
Riis depicts Gotham Court in a visually precise way, but he’s also interested in the longer history that has led to its current condition. Riis examines the ways in which former attempts at housing reform have often failed: one of his questions will include how to prevent such failure from happening again.
Riis points out one tenement in this alley that was a later addition to the court, formerly the property of the brother of Gotham Court’s builder. A family feud prompted the man to build the tenement directly behind his brother’s buildings, shutting out light and air—and it remained vacant for years.
One element of tenements that Riis finds particularly appalling is the lack of light and air. Here, he shows how greed and pettiness on the part of owners can have a direct negative impact on residents.
Nearby a saloon bears the name “The Rock of Ages,” blocking the entrance to yet another alley. In Cherry Street, according to Superintendent Murray, the police have uncovered more criminals than the rest of New York’s wards together. Riis invites his reader to stroll from one street to the next and notice the contrast between the old, low houses in front and the tall tenements in back. Riis notes how important sunlight is for people’s health, but argues that an employer cares less about laborers loading and unloading carts than about the horse pulling the carts.
Again, Riis draws on the anecdotes and experience of others familiar with these areas, including the police, in gathering evidence for his arguments. He then places such quantitative evidence (here the prevalence of crime on Cherry Street) in the background, asking his readers to see this area with him on an experiential basis, but also equipped with more objective knowledge.
Riis recounts how ten women and children died from a fire in one of the Madison Street tenements (he points to that street): the fire escapes had been inaccessible. A few neighbors had acted heroically in saving people’s lives, and Riis ask us to remember such everyday, oft-forgotten heroism.
Riis invites us across the boundary of the Seventh Ward, past Penitentiary Row, a block of Cherry Street tenements. These have recently been filled by Jews, all peddlers and tailors who silently bear insults about their eagerness to buy up real estate. Riis points to a pleasure party passing by on an ash-cart, stopping in front of an old building called “the Ship,” though no one knows why it bears that name.
Riis pays careful attention to the ethnic makeup of each neighborhood and housing block, here relying on a common stereotype that accused Jews of being greedy and miserly. He also takes on the role of the tourist guide, simply asking his readers to observe and notice alongside him.
Riis suggests we stop inside one of the ubiquitous saloons adjoining the tenements. He asks his readers to be careful in the dark hall lest they stumble over children playing. He passes by a set of sinks, shared by all the residents, and listens to a hacking cough on the other side of a wall. Before the end of the day the coughing child, sick with measles, will be dead. The mother tells Riis about it, as her husband says bitterly that they shouldn’t complain if they couldn’t afford to keep the baby anyway.
Riis’s visual language works to create a conceit of immersive experience on the part of the reader, who can imagine navigating through the dark hall of the tenement while led by a confident guide who knows what to look for. Again, the ability of Riis to move in and out of such spaces is contrasted with the desperation of this family.
Riis asks us to step over a child huddled by the fire escape and outside, past the gap between brick walls (the “yard) and into the rear tenement, which is even darker and smaller. He points out one room that’s neater than others, with a woman at the wash-tub who apologizes for the state of the place. The smell of hot soapsuds mingles with that of boiling cabbage and rags. Every day is wash day here, since the residents own so few clothes.
Riis’s warnings to the imagined reader accompanying him are also meant to underline the acute levels of deprivation suffered by families here, from children who seem to be on their own to hard-working women constantly toiling just so that their families can have clean clothes to wear.
Riis wonders how these people might answer the question “Is life worth living?”, were they to be asked. He recounts a few examples of especially desperate lodging situations, including a case in which the mother tried to kill herself from jumping out the window. Riis’s “optimistic friend” argues that philosophy finds a natural place in the tenements, where people don’t take death as hard.
Riis ironically refers to a question that a wealthy philosophical society in New York might discuss over a lavish meal. His anecdote of suicide is meant as a dramatic rebuttal to his friend’s upbeat argument about stoic philosophical attitudes in the tenements.