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How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York Paperback – November 1, 1997

3.6 out of 5 stars 105 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From the Back Cover

In How The Other Half Lives New Yorkers read with horror that three-quarters of the residents of their city were housed in tenements and that in those tenements rents were substantially higher than in better sections of the city. In his book Riis gave a full and detailed picture of what life in those slums was like, how the slums were created, how and why they remained as they were, who was forced to live there, and offered suggestions for easing the lot of the poor. --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

About the Author

Jacob Riis (1849-1914) was a journalist and photographer born in Denmark.

Luc Sante teaches writing and the history of photography at Bard College. His books include Low Life, Evidence, and The Factory of Facts.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 228 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics; Reprint edition (November 1, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140436790
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140436792
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.4 x 7.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (105 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #352,405 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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How did our grandfathers and great-grandfathers (and great-great, I suppose) survive immigration and the slums? What was life like on the Lower East Side of New York? For those of us whose family has only been in the US for a few generations, this is a must-read. Whether Irish, Italian, Jewish, Chinese or Polish, German, Russian, hordes of refugees ended up in New York on the promise of a better life.
Reading Riis' book reads like the newspaper in some ways; entrepreneurs lured poor people from Eastern Europe and contracted out their labor in sweat shops in the US. Sound familiar? But what is not so familiar are the living conditions in the tenements, dark, unventilated cages in blocks of buildings that rented for a surprising high rent to people who died by the thousands in the unsanitary conditions. Farm animals had it better. Why was rent so high? Supply and demand. Cheaper rent was to be had in Brooklyn and the outlying (as yet unincorporated) boroughs, but the WORK was in Manhattan, where you could get by as a tailor, a seamstress, a peddler or in some illegitimate activity.
The conditions will make you cry; the story of foundling babies (abandoned newborns) is astonishing. A cradle was put outside a Catholic Church and instead of a baby each night, racks of babies appeared. The Church had to establish foundling hospitals run by nuns, who persuaded the unwed or impoverished mothers to nurse the baby they gave up, plus another baby (women can usually nurse two, though these malnourished women must have been hard-pressed.) The child mortality rate, especially in the "back tenements" or buildings built on to the back of others (dark and airless) was incredible.
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Format: Paperback
This edition of How the Other Half Lives is astoundingly bad. It contains innumerable typos (the edition was clearly the result of scanning an old edition with sub-par OCR software). Moreover the illustrations and tables are 72dpi maximum making them a nearly illegible blur on the printed page. The blurb on the back claims the book was "first published in 1901" (in fact it was 1890). The same amount of care went into this edition as went into a New York Tenement.
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Format: Paperback
"The business of housing the poor, if it is to amount to anything, must be business, as it was business with our fathers to put them where they are. As charity, pastime, or fad, it will miserably fail, always and everywhere" (p. 201). Jacob A. Riis, in his book, How the Other Half Lives, vividly describes the human condition of the tenements of New York during the late 1800's. The author provides not only a physical description of the tenement buildings but delves deeper into the people who live there and why they don't leave the pits of filth and despair.
Jacob Riis, presents a compelling account of the intricate business of managing the slums of New York and maintaining the status quo among the hundreds of thousands of immigrants who came to America to seek a new and prosperous life. After arriving they found they were trapped in a life of high rents and low wages with little hope for improvement of their circumstances. What little help was available seemed to be in the form of charity that couldn't sustain the prideful immigrants desire to succeed in this country.
The reader is taken on a tour of the slums and introduced to the groups of immigrants nationality by nationality and given a full account of the author's stereotypical ideas about their good and bad points. Of the Italian Riis says he only spends time indoors when it's raining or he is sick. When the sun shines the entire population seeks the streets carrying on all facets of life (p. 47). He further says the Italian is a born gambler (p 44) and learns slowly, if at all (p. 42) so that his job of working the ash carts is simply suited for him. On the positive side Riis says the Italian is as honest as he is hot-headed (p. 45).
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Format: Paperback
For all intents and purposes, Jacob Riis' HOW THE OTHER HALF LIVES is the birth of photojournalism. And this new genre, like the first movies and radio programs, fascinated its audience. Riis' sharp essays are matched only by his sharp eye for photography. I don't know which made more of an impact on me: the text or the pictures of unspeakable misery. But I think it's a safe bet to say that Riis' contemporaries were fixated more on the photographs. (After all, Riis turned to photography AFTER his published essays seemed to have little effect.) In any event, the result, then as now, is a provocative, compassionate, and angry work that exposed to the middle and upper classes of his time the effects of their indifference, at best, or the effects of their roles as slumlords and sweatshop owners, at worst.
The only jarring aspect of the book is Riis' use of ethnic stereotyping. He makes several not-nice remarks about Jews, Chinamen, Italians, etc. However, we must not impose our early 21st Century values on a late 19th Century man. These types of remarks were commonplace back in the pre-politically correct times. In any event, Riis' overall intention was to help these people get out of their horrid conditions and not to slur their heritages.
One last note, Luc Sante's introduction is brilliant and serves the book very well.
Rocco Dormarunno, author of The Five Points Concluded, a Novel
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