Although the experiences and struggles of the urban poor that Riis documents are complex, for him they can ultimately be reduced to a single glaring issue: housing. In How the Other Half Lives, living conditions are isolated as the source of moral ills, of poverty and corruption, and of the alarming gap between rich and poor. But as a result, housing is also identified as the major means of counteracting poverty, becoming the centerpiece to Riis’s appeals for reform.
The narrator often employs a tone of horror and dismay at the conditions in tenement houses, a kind of housing whose history Riis explores and whose degeneration he recounts in detail. Indeed, part of the story Riis is telling is a historical account of housing in New York, a story about the gradual abandonment of the city center by the wealthy, who moved out to the suburbs and left the tenements to immigrants and the poor. Described as dark, dingy, loud, and even dangerous, these tenements are crowded and filled to the brim. Their inhabitants are thus deprived of the stable, pleasant domestic sphere that Riis considers to be a human right. Outside the tenements, the situation is no better: Riis is almost as appalled by the lack of parks and gardens in these neighborhoods as by the unsafe living conditions he explores. While more privileged New Yorkers can enjoy places like Central Park, he argues, the poor are deprived of green, beautiful spaces, which for him is just as harmful to their well-being as living in a squalid, rundown apartment.
The avowed aim of How the Other Half Lives is a didactic one—by instructing readers of the real state of affairs in certain areas of New York, Riis hoped to spark political and social reform. The evocative descriptions of the tenements are thus meant not just to bewail unjust conditions but to reveal how city leaders and private citizens might transform them for the better, even if the solutions Riis proposes might sometimes seem minor and inadequate. Indeed, an ethos of improvement pervades How the Other Half Lives, one that situates Riis within a general confidence during his time that society’s problems could be resolved through gradual, limited change rather than, for instance, political revolution or extreme transformations. But by limiting his sphere of analysis to the question of housing, Riis is able to propose specific, actionable schemes such as repairing ailing tenement buildings or creating small pockets of urban gardens, which could go some way toward improving the standard of living in the city.
Housing, Reform, and Improvement ThemeTracker
Housing, Reform, and Improvement Quotes in How the Other Half Lives
Where are the tenements of to-day? Say rather: where are they not?
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
There is often tragic interest in the struggles of the ensnared wretches to break away from the meshes spun about them. But the maelstrom has no bowels of mercy; and the would-be fugitives are flung back again and again into the devouring whirlpool of crime and poverty, until the end is reached on the dissecting-table, or in the Potter’s Field.
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.