Riis describes the “Bend,” located in Mulberry Street where cows once grazed at pasture and now rag-pickers graze for trash. The tenements here are particularly unsafe, and are now packed with tramps crowding a maze of narrow passages. One can gain a view of this area from the corner of Bayard Street, the high road to “Jewtown” where one can hear what Riis calls the “queer lingo” of Hebrew. Around the corner is a street where Italians crowd the sidewalks, carrying on all their work outside when the sun shines (whereas Jews, he says, prefer to stay indoors).
Riis’s description of ragpickers “grazing” for trash is meant to signal a longer history of urbanization, of the country’s transformation into the city; but it also allows him to emphasize the dehumanizing aspect of ragpicking by comparing it to the grazing of cows. Now Riis turns to another ethnic group for which he will reserve particular suspicion and prejudice.
Bandit’s Roost is one well-known set of shops, including a tobacco barrel, a fish-stand full of strange, foreign-looking creatures, and a butcher with unappetizing sausages. The women bustle through the streets carrying firewood and vegetables, while the men loiter. One pretty girl with amber beads in her hair is bargaining earnestly with an old woman over faded yarn. The Italian language sounds far more pleasant to Riis than the Hebrew around the corner.
Riis finds the customs and lifestyles in the Jewish neighborhood highly foreign, and thus off-putting. While he sometimes seems genuinely interested in different cultures, here he is eager to dismiss everything he sees as negative and suspect, its distinctiveness a source of scorn more than curiosity.
In the street itself, there’s a bit of an effort to keep things clean; but inside one of the “Bend” tenements, a small child was recently discovered covered with sores, dried blood streaking her hair. One year 155 children died in this block alone—infant mortality being a decent sign of sanitary conditions. The general death rate for 1888 there was 35.75 (compared to 26.27 for the entire city). In contrast, in a model tenement across the way, only two children’s deaths were recorded. That tenement’s agent will tell you that Italians are good tenants, while in the Bend the owner will say that they’re the worst. Riis reveals that much of the “Bend” is owned by one of the most well-known, privileged families in New York, which spent years fighting against paying to improve the tenements.
The fact that several tenements in the same neighborhood can hold populations with such strikingly different conditions might seem to challenge the causal connection Riis draws between environment and poverty. But what he’s trying to show here is how the state of the building itself—either improved or neglected by the powerful and often absent owners—can be decisive, and that this state has little to do with the ethnic makeup of the inhabitants (even though Riis himself certainly isn’t immune from essentializing about ethnic groups).
Around the corner is Bottle Alley, where in one tenement Riis counts five, then six people sleeping in a single cramped bedroom. There are also five children. Riis quotes one of them saying that rent is “nine and a half,” and that the landlord won’t repair the peeling wallpaper. Riis remembers a health inspector’s visit to one of these tenements in July, where a dying baby’s temperature was 115, dying for lack of fresh air in a city full of charities.
As a reader today, it’s sometimes difficult to feel the full force when Riis cites monthly rents like this one: he expects that a reader of the time would be shocked at the high amount. The stories of babies and children are particularly meant to tug at the heartstrings of upper- and middle-class readers.
Six blocks up Mulberry Street, Riis points out a ragpicker’s settlement, packing forty families in two houses meant to hold five. The sanitary officer, he says, has cut down the standard of required breathing space from six to four hundred cubic feet, and turns a blind eye at even the cases when this requirement is unfulfilled. But the families do have to fear calls by other health officers, who might open the door to a dozen men and women sleeping on bunks or on the floor. After they scatter, though, and the officer or policeman leaves, the situation resumes as usual.
Ragpickers were a much more common occupation for the poor in the nineteenth century, though precarious and often transitory. Here Riis documents the erratic relationship between the authorities and tenement residents: officers are alternately strict and careless, though ultimately the attempts of an individual policeman to reduce overcrowding prove futile.