How the Other Half Lives

by

Jacob A. Riis

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Jacob Riis Character Analysis

The narrator and protagonist of the book, Riis is a Danish immigrant himself—though we would never know that from simply reading How the Other Half Lives. Instead, although Riis faced similarly precarious conditions as those of the New York tenement residents he portrays, he positions himself as a “true” (that is, white, Christian) American like his imagined reader. However, he also adopts the viewpoint of a privileged observer and guide: as a newspaper reporter, he’s familiar with the tenement-house system and is eager to lead his readers metaphorically through the alleys and buildings he describes. Riis has a deep-seated commitment to reducing poverty by exposing unsafe living conditions, corruption, and shocking tales of destitution, and his social commitments and sensationalist literary techniques would prove enormously influential for other Progressive-era reformers. Suspicious of certain ethnic identities—especially those he believes are not properly assimilating—and quick to characterize entire groups as a whole, whether pejoratively or not, he also asks for compassion rather than condemnation on behalf of lower-class African-Americans and women. Riis also denounces greed and corruption among New York’s wealthiest classes, as well as among those who have climbed the economic ladder within tenement neighborhoods; but he also sees business and commercial interests as a possibly productive source of collaboration for reform.

Jacob Riis Quotes in How the Other Half Lives

The How the Other Half Lives quotes below are all either spoken by Jacob Riis or refer to Jacob Riis. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
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). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Martino Fine Books edition of How the Other Half Lives published in 2015.
Introduction Quotes

Long ago it was said that “one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.” That was true then. It did not know because it did not care. The half that was on top cared little for the struggles, and less for the fate of those who were underneath, as long as it was able to hold them there and keep its own seat. There came a time when the discomfort and crowding below were so great, and the consequent upheavals so violent, that it was no longer an easy thing to do, and then the upper half fell to inquiring what was the matter.

Related Characters: Jacob Riis (speaker)
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

Might not the conference have found in the warning of one Brooklyn builder, who has invested his capital on this plan and made it pay more than a money interest, a hint worth heeding: “How shall the love of God be understood by those who have been nurtured in sight only of the greed of man?”

Related Characters: Jacob Riis (speaker)
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2 Quotes

Where are the tenements of to-day? Say rather: where are they not?

Related Characters: Jacob Riis (speaker)
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

In their place has come this queer conglomerate mass of heterogeneous elements, ever striving and working like whiskey and water in one glass, and with the like result: final union and a prevailing taint of whiskey.

Related Characters: Jacob Riis (speaker)
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

Leaving the Elevated Railroad where it dives under Brooklyn Bridge at Franklin Square, scarce a dozen steps will take us where we wish to go. With its rush and roar echoing yet in our ears, we have turned the corner from prosperity to poverty. We stand upon the domain of the tenement.

Related Characters: Jacob Riis (speaker)
Page Number: 22
Explanation and Analysis:

Danger and trouble—of the imminent kind, not the everyday sort that excited neither interest nor commiseration—run even this common clay into heroic moulds on occasion; occasions that help us to remember that the gap that separates the man with the patched coat from his wealthy neighbor is, after all, perhaps but a tenement. Yet, what a gap! and of whose making?

Related Characters: Jacob Riis (speaker)
Page Number: 31-32
Explanation and Analysis:

Suppose we look into one? No.—Cherry Street. Be a little careful, please! The hall is dark and you might stumble over the children pitching pennies back there.

Related Characters: Jacob Riis (speaker)
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

What if I were to tell you that this alley, and more tenement property in “the Bend,” all of it notorious for years as the vilest and worst to be found anywhere, stood associated on the tax-books all through the long struggle to make its owners responsible, which has at last resulted in a qualified victory for the law, with the name of an honored family, one of the “oldest and best,” rich in possessions and in influence, and high in the councils of the city’s government?

Related Characters: Jacob Riis (speaker)
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7 Quotes

The meanest thief is infinitely above the stale-beer level. Once upon that plane there is no escape. To sink below it is impossible; no one ever rose from it. One night spent in a stale-beer dive is like the traditional putting on of the uniform of the caste, the discarded rags of an old tramp.

Related Characters: Jacob Riis (speaker)
Related Symbols: Beer
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 9 Quotes

At the risk of distressing some well-meaning, but, I fear, too trustful people, I state it in advance as my opinion, based on the steady observation of years, that all attempts to make an effective Christian of John Chinaman will remain abortive in this generation; of the next I have, if anything, less hope.

Related Characters: Jacob Riis (speaker)
Page Number: 67
Explanation and Analysis:

Granted, that the Chinese are in no sense a desirable element of the population, that they serve no useful purpose here, whatever they may have done elsewhere in other days, yet to this it is a sufficient answer that they are here, and that, having let them in, we must make the best of it.

Related Characters: Jacob Riis (speaker)
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10 Quotes

As scholars, the children of the most ignorant Polish Jew keep fairly abreast of their more favored playmates, until it comes to mental arithmetic, when they leave them behind with a bound. It is surprising to see how strong the instinct of dollars and cents is in them. They can count, and correctly, almost before they can talk.

Related Characters: Jacob Riis (speaker)
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 11 Quotes

I state but the misgivings as to the result of some of the practical minds that have busied themselves with the problem. Its keynote evidently is the ignorance of the immigrants. They must be taught the language of the country they have chosen as their home, as the first and most necessary step.

Related Characters: Jacob Riis (speaker)
Page Number: 99-100
Explanation and Analysis:

As we stop in front of a tenement to watch one of these groups, a dirty baby in a single brief garment—yet a sweet, human little baby despite its dirt and tatters—tumbles off the lowest step, rolls over once, clutches my leg with unconscious grip, and goes to sleep on the flagstone, its curly head pillowed on my boot.

Related Characters: Jacob Riis (speaker)
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 13 Quotes

If, when the account is made up between the races, it shall be claimed that [the Negro] falls short of the result to be expected from twenty-five years of freedom, it may be well to turn to the other side of the ledger and see how much of the blame is borne by the prejudice and greed that have kept him from rising under a burden of responsibility to which he could hardly be equal.

Related Characters: Jacob Riis (speaker)
Page Number: 118
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 14 Quotes

The changing of Tompkins Square from a sand lot into a beautiful park put an end for good and all to the Bread and Blood Riots of which it used to be the scene, and transformed a nest of dangerous agitators into a harmless, beer-craving band of Anarchists. They have scarcely been heard of since. Opponents of the small parks system as a means of relieving the congested population of tenement districts, please take note.

Related Characters: Jacob Riis (speaker)
Page Number: 123-124
Explanation and Analysis:

There is nothing in the prospect of a sharp, unceasing battle for the bare necessaries of life, to encourage looking ahead, everything to discourage the effort. Improvidence and wastefulness are natural results.

Related Characters: Jacob Riis (speaker)
Page Number: 130
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 18 Quotes

One may walk many miles through the homes of the poor searching vainly for an open reading-room, a cheerful coffee-house, a decent club that is not a cloak for the traffic in rum. The dramshop yawns at every step, the poor man’s club, his forum and his haven of rest when weary and disgusted with the crowding, the quarreling, and the wretchedness at home.

Related Characters: Jacob Riis (speaker)
Related Symbols: Beer
Page Number: 159
Explanation and Analysis:

A number of [saloons], on the contrary, had brought their owners wealth and prominence. From their bars these eminent citizens stepped proudly into the councils of the city and the State. The very floor of one of the bar-rooms, in a neighborhood that lately resounded with the cry for bread of starving workmen, is paved with silver dollars!

Related Characters: Jacob Riis (speaker)
Related Symbols: Beer
Page Number: 160
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 20 Quotes

But of the thousands, who are travelling the road they trod to the end, with the hot blood of youth in their veins, with the love of life and of the beautiful world to which not even sixty cents a day can shut their eyes—who is to blame if their feet find the paths of shame that are “always open to them”?

Related Characters: Jacob Riis (speaker)
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 21 Quotes

Tenement-house reform holds the key to the problem of pauperism in the city. We can never get rid of either the tenement or the pauper. The two will always exist together in New York. But by reforming the one, we can do more towards exterminating the other than can be done by all other means together that have yet been invented, or ever will be.

Related Characters: Jacob Riis (speaker)
Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 23 Quotes

The man was arrested, of course, and locked up. To-day he is probably in a mad-house, forgotten. And the carriages roll by to and from the big stores with their gay throng of shoppers. The world forgets easily, too easily, what it does not like to remember.

Related Characters: Jacob Riis (speaker)
Page Number: 200
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 25 Quotes

The sea of a mighty population, held in galling fetters, heaves uneasily in the tenement. […]

I know of but one bridge that will carry us over safe, a bridge founded upon justice and built of human hearts.

Related Characters: Jacob Riis (speaker)
Page Number: 226
Explanation and Analysis:
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How the Other Half Lives PDF

Jacob Riis Character Timeline in How the Other Half Lives

The timeline below shows where the character Jacob Riis appears in How the Other Half Lives. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Epigraph/Preface
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Jacob Riis’s preface describes his belief that there is something to be learned from anyone’s experience, even... (full context)
Introduction
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Riis quotes a French Renaissance writer Rabelais who once said that one half of the world... (full context)
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Only gradually, Riis says, did New York attain a similar level of crowding to other cities. The boundary... (full context)
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Riis argues that while some have said that these problems are due to the drunkenness of... (full context)
Chapter 1
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Riis begins a short history of tenements by tracing them back to early Manhattan, when they... (full context)
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...even more, while the middlemen turned a blind eye to rampant disease and overcrowding. Today, Riis says, the East Side of Manhattan is still the most densely populated district in the... (full context)
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Riis argues that the situation has hardly improved since the 1857 report. He’s heard one story... (full context)
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...wealthy neighborhoods east, west, and north, sometimes packing up to forty families in one building. Riis quotes a report from the Society for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor... (full context)
Chapter 2
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Riis claims that it was the fear of cholera, which recurred several times throughout the nineteenth... (full context)
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...brought up in overcrowded, unsanitary homes—even after the initial attempts at improvement had been made. Riis quotes several authorities that concluded that new tenements were continuing to spring up, as badly... (full context)
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Riis transitions to defining a tenement, first legally, as a house occupied by three or more... (full context)
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...of shoddy plumbing, though beer can easily quench thirst during rooftop picnics in the summer, Riis says. (full context)
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Asking rhetorically where tenements are not to be found, Riis describes their spread from the Fourth Ward slums to the Annexed District, crowding all the... (full context)
Chapter 3
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Riis describes lower New York as cosmopolitan, and touches on the many nationalities that can be... (full context)
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Riis describes how the Irish, once discriminated against, are now triumphant in the tenements, often becoming... (full context)
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Riis says that a color-coded map of lower New York based on national origin would have... (full context)
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Riis describes how Russian and Polish Jews are filling the Seventh Ward tenements on the river,... (full context)
Chapter 4
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Riis invites his readers to visit with him the Other Half of New York at home,... (full context)
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Riis describes leaving the Elevated Railroad under the Brooklyn Bridge, glancing at the old Knickerbocker homes... (full context)
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Riis explains that this alley, Blind Man’s Alley, until recently was home to a number of... (full context)
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Riis recounts having once taken a flash picture of a group of blind beggars here: the... (full context)
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Riis points out one tenement in this alley that was a later addition to the court,... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Riis recounts how ten women and children died from a fire in one of the Madison... (full context)
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Riis invites us across the boundary of the Seventh Ward, past Penitentiary Row, a block of... (full context)
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Riis suggests we stop inside one of the ubiquitous saloons adjoining the tenements. He asks his... (full context)
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Riis asks us to step over a child huddled by the fire escape and outside, past... (full context)
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Riis wonders how these people might answer the question “Is life worth living?”, were they to... (full context)
Chapter 5
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Riis describes the Italian population in New York tenements as stubbornly reproducing conditions of “destitution and... (full context)
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Riis describes how the “padrone” or Italian boss has gained a monopoly over the industry of... (full context)
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...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. (full context)
Chapter 6
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Riis describes the “Bend,” located in Mulberry Street where cows once grazed at pasture and now... (full context)
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...with an old woman over faded yarn. The Italian language sounds far more pleasant to Riis than the Hebrew around the corner. (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Six blocks up Mulberry Street, Riis points out a ragpicker’s settlement, packing forty families in two houses meant to hold five.... (full context)
Chapter 7
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Riis describes a midnight raid on one of the stale-beer dives in the Bend. Riis accompanies... (full context)
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...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,... (full context)
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Riis argues that once a tramp begins his career, laziness keeps him to it: he begins... (full context)
Chapter 8
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Riis argues that the cheap lodging-houses lining Chatham Street and the Bowery also feed the “tramps’... (full context)
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Riis quotes the report from the Society for the Prevention of the Cruelty to Children about... (full context)
Chapter 9
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Riis moves on to describing Chinatown, and argues from the start that any attempts to make... (full context)
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...secret, like all the important affairs are happening behind closed doors—not because crime is happening, Riis says, but because the Chinese are naturally secretive and untrustworthy. (full context)
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While the Chinese smoke opium like Caucasians smoke tobacco, Riis says, the danger is for the white people who are gripped by this drug. Chinese... (full context)
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These tenements are striking for their cleanliness: Riis says it makes sense that the laundry is the chosen field of the Chinese. Riis... (full context)
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Riis relates one time when he and a policeman tried to stop a Chinese man from... (full context)
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...pole in Mott Street the gambling news of the neighborhood—the nightly games and rivalries—is announced. Riis says he doesn’t fully understand the politics of the “colony,” though he argues that the... (full context)
Chapter 10
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Leaving Chinatown, Riis arrives in the “Hebrew quarter,” centered around Baxter Street. He doesn’t need to tell us... (full context)
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This neighborhood is the most densely populated anywhere in the world, Riis says. 58 babies and 38 children occupied one tenement building that officially contained 36 families.... (full context)
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Riis characterizes Jews as eager to fight for their rights in business transactions and to find... (full context)
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Riis recounts a story of criminals who made a business of setting fire to tenements in... (full context)
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Riis calls the weekly “Pig-market” the best place to study Jewish people’s customs. The stalls are... (full context)
Chapter 11
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Riis admits that the economy of the Tenth Ward and neighboring districts, home to the Jewish... (full context)
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...tenements, free from factory labor laws like a ten-hour work-day limit and child labor restrictions. Riis invites his readers to take the Second Avenue Elevated Railroad to the sweaters’ district, where... (full context)
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Riis recommends getting off at Rivington Street: it’s a Sunday evening, the first day of the... (full context)
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...three and a half cents per item. Each floor here has at least two shops. Riis points out one more hopeful-seeming family: the husband and wife work together with their children... (full context)
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Back on Ludlow Street, Riis passes another double tenement owned by a Jewish politician who is also a liquor dealer.... (full context)
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...number of different manufacturing shops inside. On the roof, three men are making boys’ jackets: Riis describes how the 20 cents for which they’re sold are divided among the sewer, ironer,... (full context)
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These, says Riis, are the conditions that enable his manufacturing friend to boast of New York’s primacy in... (full context)
Chapter 12
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Riis turns to the Bohemian quarter, where Jewish landlords make lodging contingent on the tenants working... (full context)
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Riis declares that his own personal inspections have convinced him that, despite severe poverty, the residents... (full context)
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An old man in the next house answers some of Riis’s questions through an interpreter: after nine years, he’s learned no English. Though he was a... (full context)
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Riis responds to the accusation that Bohemians are anarchists: he counters that Bohemians love peace like... (full context)
Chapter 13
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Riis begin this chapter by making literal the metaphor of the “color line,” the boundary that... (full context)
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Riis explains that since the Civil War, black people have moved to New York from Southern... (full context)
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Riis points out that though black tenants’ cleanliness is much higher than that of Italians and... (full context)
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Riis discusses the black population’s cheerfulness and optimism in the face of poverty, abuse, and injustice.... (full context)
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Riis asks whether “Africa” has been improved now that Italians have begun to move into Thompson... (full context)
Chapter 14
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Riis describes another “boundary line” that really defines the Other Half: the line that distinguishes the... (full context)
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Riis adds that, incredibly, many thousands of people do manage to make a living here: wives... (full context)
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Riis then asks his readers to accompany him uptown to the tenement blocks recently built after... (full context)
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Riis says that the Irish have been most vulnerable to the degrading influences of such spaces.... (full context)
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...diseases like the measles that are mere annoyances for the wealthy. It was recently discovered, Riis notes, that the highest tenements have the lowest death rates: this is because these were... (full context)
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Riis recounts a recent visit to a Mott Street tenement where a child was dying: the... (full context)
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While rare cases of starvation cause an uproar in the newspapers, Riis notes that in truth death from starvation is much more common than people know, though... (full context)
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Riis notes the popular myth that there are more evictions in New York each year than... (full context)
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If the poor live while paying a premium for shoddy services and lodging, Riis says, then they continue such a practice in death. He questions the “habit” of expensive... (full context)
Chapter 15
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Riis turns to the “problem of the children” in the tenements: he’s often tried to count... (full context)
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Riis argues that the boys growing up in tenements could be profitably trained from an early... (full context)
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Riis argues that these young “savages” are still children at heart: they have a love of... (full context)
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Last summer, Riis encountered a small boy at the Police Headquarters. No one knew where he came from,... (full context)
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Riis has also seen little girls whose alcoholic father had put them out on the street... (full context)
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Riis describes the work of the Children’s Aid Society, which is attempting to combat this situation... (full context)
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Riis argues that the key to combating poverty is to focus on children before they are... (full context)
Chapter 16
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...25,000 from the streets over the last twenty years. Only the poor abandon their children, Riis says, and those that are picked up by the police in hallways, on the doorsteps... (full context)
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Riis describes the shocking practice of baby-farming, or starving babies to death, in which people make... (full context)
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Riis expresses relief at turning to the many charities that have sprung up to help the... (full context)
Chapter 17
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Unfortunately, Riis says, such charities and institutions are not enough. Another New York institution is that of... (full context)
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Street Arabs are, Riis says, to be found throughout the city, not just on Newspaper Row: they have been... (full context)
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One child Riis encountered at the Newsboys’ Lodging House told him that he was one of six children,... (full context)
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Riis describes the night schools and Sunday night meetings that foster a sense of community in... (full context)
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...keeps tabs on all of them, and nearly all become successful members of their communities. Riis describes the work of the wealthy Mrs. Astor, who sent a total of 1,300 homeless... (full context)
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Riis also describes an uptown lodging house that was built by the young men who now... (full context)
Chapter 18
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Riis now turns to the reign of saloons in downtown New York: he once counted 4,065... (full context)
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Riis quotes Health Department statistics that show just how concentrated the saloons are in the city’s... (full context)
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...sell to children, that ostensible submission to the law is little more than a joke. Riis recounts a story from the newspaper about a boy who carried beer all day one... (full context)
Chapter 19
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Riis continues discussing the influence of the “growler,” which can easily accompany a child through life.... (full context)
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Riis characterizes the purpose of the gangs as one of bravado and robbery. In one week... (full context)
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Riis describes the typical gang member as cowardly rather than fierce, only able to hunt in... (full context)
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Riis once tried to photograph a group of young gang members passing the growler around after... (full context)
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Riis has heard of one “Murderers’ Alley” that had become a well-trodden lair for gangs. The... (full context)
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...for murder; but other gangs have sprung up in its place. Inspector Byrnes has told Riis that the younger members are tougher and cleverer than the more seasoned criminals. Indeed, over... (full context)
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Riis lists the names of some of the most well-known groups, including the Rock Gang, the... (full context)
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...the rest return to their old ways after prison. There’s only one silver lining that Riis can find in this situation: he and others have learned that any anti-gang initiative must... (full context)
Chapter 20
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Riis quotes a report from the Working Women’s Society, which argues that men’s wages never sink... (full context)
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Riis lists the expenses of one woman employed in the manufacturing department of a Broadway store.... (full context)
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Riis describes the testimony of one girl before the State Board of Arbitration during a recent... (full context)
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Riis recounts visiting a West Side tenement last Christmas, where an old woman had just been... (full context)
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Riis notes that most New York working girls are hard-working, virtuous, and reluctant to complain, always... (full context)
Chapter 21
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Riis imagines that at this point the reader won’t be shocked to learn that over the... (full context)
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Riis records that the families receiving charity lived in more than 31,000 different tenements, where he... (full context)
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Riis compares the beggar to the “tough” who thinks the world owes him a living, but... (full context)
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Making begging a crime has lowered the number of offenses, Riis says, but there are still thousands arrested each year. He is struck by the fact... (full context)
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Riis lists a number of other cases of fraud, in which families prefer to elicit donations... (full context)
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Riis says that $8,000,000 is spent on public and private charity each year in New York,... (full context)
Chapter 22
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Riis blames pauperism for the process by which society associates poverty with the need for punishment... (full context)
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Riis next watches the women of Blackwell’s Island Asylum walk by, strapped to a rope because... (full context)
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Riis now turns to the “alcoholic cells” at Bellevue Hospital, which held 3,694 prisoners last year.... (full context)
Chapter 23
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Riis tells a recent anecdote of a man, poor and hungry, who was in such despair... (full context)
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Riis says that this man was only resorting to a possibility that many have long feared,... (full context)
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Riis says that we are all products of our physical and moral conditions, but that in... (full context)
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Riis recalls an important meeting at Chickering Hall two years ago, where many discussed how to... (full context)
Chapter 24
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...has been done for the tenement-house problem in New York for the past 20 years, Riis notes that the law has made attempts, though there have been many obstacles to its... (full context)
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Riis acknowledges that housing the poor must probably, though sadly, remain a business: as a charity... (full context)
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Riis describes one well-intentioned tenement building effort that failed. Called “Big Flat” and built as a... (full context)
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Riis describes the poorest New Yorkers as “shiftless, destructive, and stupid,” but also says that the... (full context)
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Riis admits that education works slowly: he’s seen the police break up beer dives only to... (full context)
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Another problem Riis cites is the absentee landlord, who owns the building but washes his hands of anything... (full context)
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But good management is, Riis argues, the key to reform: the best idea is to have a competent manager who... (full context)
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Riis acknowledges the benefits of philanthropy in the tenements, especially in that charitable missions have brought... (full context)
Chapter 25
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Riis briefly sketches out what he sees to be the housing situation in New York, centered... (full context)
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Riis admits that it may well be ideal to get rid of the tenement itself, but... (full context)
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Riis suggests that landlords should ally themselves to the law rather than fighting it. Ideally their... (full context)
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Riis admits that others have tried such reforms with little success—though this, he says, is because... (full context)
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...affairs of the poor must also be the case for the building of model tenements. Riis argues that, while many are skeptical that such projects will work in New York as... (full context)
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Riis describes another “experiment” by the Tenement House Building Company in Cherry Street, home to many... (full context)
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Riis argues that if owners can be content with a 5-6 percent return on investment, model... (full context)
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Riis concludes that he’s attempted to tell the truth as he saw it in order to... (full context)