Riis quotes a French Renaissance writer Rabelais who once said that one half of the world doesn’t know how the other half lives. Riis adds that this is because the top half has never cared about those below it, until recently—when the discomfort and despair of the most vulnerable have finally made the privileged wonder about them.
Only gradually, Riis says, did New York attain a similar level of crowding to other cities. The boundary line between one half of the population and the other, in New York, depends on who lives in the tenements. Today three-quarters of New York’s population lives in them, and even more are arriving. Riis calls the tenement system one of public neglect and private greed, a system that creates evil, spreads epidemics, and leads to pauperism and crime.
Riis gives some historical background that will better allow us to understand the contemporary tenements, as well as the relationship between housing and immigration (both foreign and internal, from the countryside to the city). Here he makes an early claim for the relationship between housing and poverty.
Riis argues that while some have said that these problems are due to the drunkenness of the poor, for instance, he wants to emphasize other data: that certain social conditions lead to immoral behaviors, and that the destitution of the poor often continues to the benefit of tenement owners. The only way to counter this issue, he argues, is to stop the process of speculation and profit that is exploiting the tenements’ inhabitants. He agrees with a Brooklyn builder who has asked how Christian feeling can possibly be encouraged in those who have witnessed only greed.
Riis never denies that certain behaviors considered immoral or depraved by his Progressive-Era peers are more common among the poor. But he wants to dig deeper than surface-level observations, uncovering the causes that have led to such behaviors—meaning that the blame ultimately lies in the greed of the most powerful, who set a standard for the behavior of the poor.