Riis describes the Italian population in New York tenements as stubbornly reproducing conditions of “destitution and disorder” from one generation to the next. Italian-Americans coax their countrymen into buying a ticket to the U.S. with promises of high wages, but once they arrive they are lost. Usually these immigrants are uneducated, and they put their trust in middlemen who make them pay at every turn.
Here Riis turns to one specific national community, studying its customs and conditions. Again, he emphasizes the ways in which people’s countrymen can themselves be the source of corruption (even though his work also reflects how true causes of corruption are absent from direct sight).
Riis describes how the “padrone” or Italian boss has gained a monopoly over the industry of rag-picking by attaining a contract from the city for this work, so that anyone who wants to participate has to go through him. Rival factions, representing different contractors and padrones, fight over the dumps where this work takes place.
Riis is particularly interested in the role of the padrone as a kind of middleman, who adds to the exploitation of some of the most vulnerable elements of New York’s population, even for a job like rag-picking that is hardly lucrative.
Italians, in this depiction, are mostly hard-working, but on Sundays they gamble and let their passions run wild: the games often turn violent. Still, the Italian men are also honest, the women are devoted wives and mothers, and the Italian personality is light-hearted and cheerful. These people’s main fault is their tendency to drink, Riis says, as saloon owners make a profit off their misery.
Riis is unconcerned about making sweeping judgments that characterize an entire ethnic group as behaving in a certain way. Even if these descriptions are not always negative, they work to deny the individuality of specific members of the population, and reinforce popular stereotypes.