One of the elements of tenement-house life that Riis examines is the high rate of saloons packing the neighborhoods home to the poorest residents of New York. Riis characterizes “stale-beer dives” and other alcohol shops as a natural outgrowth of poverty. A typical Progressive-era reformer in this way, Riis assumes a moral connection between alcohol and moral depravity, even if he sees alcoholism as the result and not the cause of the unjust social and economic conditions of the poor. Drinking alcohol is, in his characterization, what the poor do because they are in need of some kind of solace for their situation. But stale-beer dives are also some of the only spaces of leisure open to this population. Places like reading rooms, cafés, and gardens, for instance, are absent from tenement neighborhoods: as a result, Riis argues, the saloons are both an emblem and a source of the worst things that can be found in the poorest areas of the city.
Beer Quotes in How the Other Half Lives
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.
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.
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!