Jacob Riis launches into his book, which he envisions as a document that both explains the state of lower-class housing in New York today and proposes various steps toward solutions, with a quotation about how the “other half lives” that underlines New York’s vast gulf between rich and poor. Indeed, he directs his work explicitly toward readers who have never been in a tenement and who know little about the living conditions there (even if Riis will go on to expose such ignorance as disingenuous).
Riis first fills in some background about the history of New York tenements, which once belonged to some of the city’s wealthiest families. As industrialization increased over the course of the nineteenth century, the rising rates of immigration (both from abroad and from more rural areas of the country) that ensued caused these families to move out of the city. The buildings’ owners then began to subdivide them into cramped, windowless apartments for the new arrivals streaming in. Riis describes these tenements as increasingly overcrowded, filthy, and prone to disease: while cholera epidemics led to some desire for reform, owners pushed back, loath to spend more money on tenement buildings than they were forced to.
Riis moves on to describing the current state of tenements, which more and more can be found all over the city, though concentrated in “lower New York.” Tenements are home to a population that is cosmopolitan but also segregated by national origin, ethnicity, and race, between the Irish, Chinese, Germans, Italians, Bohemians, Jews, African-Americans, and other groups. Riis asks his reader to visit places like Blind Man’s Alley with him, a particularly squalid area home to shocking corruption. Then he describes the Italian population of New York tenements, characterizing it as hard-working but also violent and sometimes corrupt. Nearby, the “Bend” is home to a number of “stale-beer dives” hidden inside tenements, at least until police raids attempt to stamp them out. Riis is particularly critical of the “tramps” who spend time there without even trying to work, compared to thieves who, often desperate from poverty, find themselves involved in a life of crime.
Riis describes another neighborhood, Chinatown, although here he is also highly suspicious of and prejudiced toward this population, which he thinks is at least for now incapable of assimilating to “mainstream” American society. From there he moves to discussing the “Hebrew quarter,” home mostly to Jews, whom Riis describes with the aid of ethnic stereotypes and prejudices. These neighborhoods are also the places where much of New York’s relatively cheap clothing is made, and Riis explores the appalling conditions that have enabled the city to become such a manufacturing center. While Jews tend to work making clothing, Bohemians, according to Riis, are clustered around cigar factories. Riis defends Bohemians against the prejudices that are often leveled against them: he thinks that for this group, as for others, education will enable them to learn English and eventually convert to Christianity. Similarly, he argues that African-Americans, only several decades outside of slavery, have shown themselves to be capable of moral “improvement” as a group (here as elsewhere, even when Riis defends a group against certain prejudices, he continues to make sweeping judgments about entire groups of people).
Riis argues that the lack of light, ventilation, green spaces, and any kind of beauty is highly detrimental to those living in New York’s tenement neighborhoods. Instead, they live in desperation and precariousness until their death, when too many of them (since their families lack money for burial) are dumped in the Potter’s Field, that is, in a common grave. Children are in an especially precarious position in these areas, although Riis acknowledges the work of some charities and houses, like the Foundling Asylum, specifically directed toward children—although these are not enough to mitigate other dangers specific to poor babies and children, like the practice of “baby-farming,” letting infants die so that their life insurance can be collected.
Riis is particularly concerned about the danger of alcohol on young people, since beer is so prevalent in these neighborhoods and so easily accessible to children. If they aren’t properly cared for and given direction from a young age, he argues, they can easily become gang members; Riis then spends some time giving an ethnographic sketch of New York’s gangs, both condemning their crime and asking readers to understand how certain conditions have led to their behaviors. He uses similar reasoning to defend women who have become prostitutes, arguing that the economic realities of tenement neighborhoods often leave them without other options. At the same time, Riis reserves some of his greatest scorn for beggars and paupers, those who are unwilling to work (even in illegal work) and prefer to receive charity from the state. Work is one key part of ending the cycle of poverty, he argues, though the city’s current institutions, from asylums and hospitals to prisons to workhouses, hardly create a proper work ethic.
Riis introduces another reason for his readers to care about and want to transform New York’s housing crisis: the vast difference between the wealthy and the poor will only continue to increase discontent, he argues, and eventually the poor will rise up in violence against the privileged. He traces certain attempts at reform and begins to propose others: he suggests, for instance, that businesspeople consider investing in tenement-house reform—but only as long as they accept moderate, not greed-driven profits. It’s not practical to get rid of tenements entirely, he thinks: instead, it’s important to think creatively about how to build new model tenements, reform existing ones through improved business models, and in general work within public-private partnerships in order to transform living conditions. As he concludes, he cautions again that inaction is just as dangerous as trying and failing to reform, since the most desperate elements of New York’s population cannot last much longer without rebelling and inciting violence throughout the city.