How the Other Half Lives

by

Jacob A. Riis

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How the Other Half Lives: Chapter 7 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Riis describes a midnight raid on one of the stale-beer dives in the Bend. Riis accompanies the sergeant into one tenement, where they stumble over tramps in the hallway until reaching a dark room in the back. Men and women are grouped around a beer keg over a filthy floor, with a wrinkled old “hag” dispensing out the beer into tomato cans.
Riis moves between describing excursions into the tenements as a photographer or as a police reporter. Here, it’s the latter, as he may have more sympathy for the residents, but finds himself protected and guided by the authorities.
Themes
Housing, Reform, and Improvement  Theme Icon
Poverty and Morality  Theme Icon
Photography and Visual Language Theme Icon
The Progressive Era and Immigration Theme Icon
Related Quotes
The sergeant knocks a can out of the woman’s hand with his club, and some people sprint for the door, meeting the policemen outside. After they’re caught, the sergeant counts thirteen in all, pronouncing that they’ll be sent to the “island” for six months. Seventy-five tramps are then arrested in the four small rooms beyond the beer cellar, including a woman with a new-born baby on a heap of dirty straw. Back at the station, 275 tramps are crammed into cells to await conviction on the charge of vagrancy.
Riis describes the raid on the stale-beer dive as intense and dramatic, while also implying that the solution to alcoholism is not to be found by the violent swing of a policeman’s club and the mass arrest on vagrancy charges of people crammed into the tenements. Part of what Riis is tracking is the regular vicious circle of tenement to prison and back.
Themes
Poverty and Morality  Theme Icon
Photography and Visual Language Theme Icon
The Progressive Era and Immigration Theme Icon
The stale-beer dive is known in the Bend as the “two-cent restaurant,” home to home-brewed and unlicensed beer. It’s run by an Italian, a black man, or sometimes a woman, its customers professional tramps. Some Italian dive-keepers have climbed the economic ladder as a result of keeping these places. In the summer, the hallways in tenements to these places are lined with “sitters”—tramps who have been unable to earn enough that day to enter the stale-beer dive. They squat overnight or until the police arrive.
Riis emphasizes the identity of the dive owner as something unusual, suggesting that the lack of “American” white male bartenders is already a sign that these places are unsavory and illegitimate. He also pays some attention to these dives as de facto lodging for people without a stable place to stay for a night, the “squatters” and “tramps.”
Themes
Housing, Reform, and Improvement  Theme Icon
Poverty and Morality  Theme Icon
Photography and Visual Language Theme Icon
In the winter, barkeepers in saloons sometimes allow these “sitters” to huddle around the stove, though they must stay awake or risk losing sympathy: if they fall asleep they’re kicked out. Once Riis asked one tramp, smoking his pipe with evident contentment around a set of miserable ragpickers, if he could take a picture: he said he’d pay the man ten cents, but then the tramp took his pipe out of his mouth and demanded a quarter for that to be included in the picture. He’d barely lasted ten seconds at “honest labor” before striking.
While Riis seems in some ways sympathetic to the plight of “tramps” who lack even the most basic stability of a roof over their heads and a room to sleep in, he also scorns what he sees as their laziness and manipulative ways of making a few pennies. Vagrants thus lie largely outside Riis’s framework of the complex causal factors at play in poverty.
Themes
Poverty and Morality  Theme Icon
Corruption   Theme Icon
Photography and Visual Language Theme Icon
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Riis argues that once a tramp begins his career, laziness keeps him to it: he begins to be certain that the world owes him a living. Step by step, he loses his stability, until reaching bottom in the “Bend.” After being brought, inevitably, to the police station, he might return to honest work, but might also return to the beer dives, as one sergeant tells Riis.
Indeed, Riis does characterize the source of the tramps’ instability as laziness: in prizing housing security above all, Riis also is suspicious of those who seem not even to want to achieve some measure of housing stability.
Themes
Housing, Reform, and Improvement  Theme Icon
Poverty and Morality  Theme Icon