How the Other Half Lives is an important example of—and in many ways helped to spark—the Progressive Era in American history, which is usually dated to the period between the 1890s and the 1920s. The Progressive Era was a period of diverse and wide-ranging social reforms prompted by sweeping changes in American life in the latter half of the nineteenth century, particularly industrialization, urbanization, and heightened rates of immigration. Rising levels of social and economic inequality also helped to galvanize a growing middle class of professionals—including Riis himself—into seeking change. Progressive reformers like Riis were convinced that vast problems like greed, poverty, health problems, and corruption could best be solved through good education, a safe environment, and reformed government: they sought change within the law but also promoted control and planning on the level of individual family life as well.
One way Riis and many others sought to expose social problems was through “muckraking,” a kind of journalism by which writers sought to uncover scandalous, detailed accounts of corruption—particularly in ways that would expose powerful people to public view. The moments in How the Other Half Lives of dramatic irony and explicit cries for sympathy are key elements of the muckraking style, which Riis and others found vital to promoting progress. The Tenement Act of 1901 was one direct result of Riis’s Progressivist efforts: others turned trust-busting (that is, getting rid of powerful corporate monopolies) or the shocking conditions in factories and sweatshops to similar ends.
At the end of the nineteenth century, much of the most difficult and backbreaking labor in the country was performed by immigrants. While the United States had always been a country of immigrants, certain historical trends in Europe at the time, from the Irish potato famine to Central European revolutions and persecutions, caused immigration to swell at an unprecedented rate. Riis, a Danish immigrant himself, struggled to find work for many years. But he and other Progressive reformers, while eager to improve the lot of recent immigrants, were also convinced that they could only do so by “Americanizing” them in the ways they found best. The liberal, open character of the Progressive Era was thus also defined by a certain authoritarian streak, one that can be found threaded throughout the pages of How the Other Half Lives—a sense that the poorest and most vulnerable need to be told how to act and live in a certain way if they want their lot to improve.
The Progressive Era and Immigration ThemeTracker
The Progressive Era and Immigration Quotes in How the Other Half Lives
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”?
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.
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.