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Jacob A. Riis – How The Other Half Lives

Jacob Riis book How the Other Half Lives is a detailed description on the poor and the destitute in the inner realms of New York City.  Riis tries to portray the living conditions through the eyes of his camera.  He sneaks up on the people flashes a picture and then tells the rest of the city how the other half is living.  As shocking as the truth was without seeing such poverty and horrible conditions with their own eyes or taking in the experience with all their senses it still seemed like a million miles away or even just a fairy tale.

The reality of this book hit the people of New York right between the eyes.  Riis was once ascribed the label of lower class society, but worked his way up the ladder of success and entered into a higher class among humanity.  Riis tried to write this book with pure objectivity but given his background and emotional connection to the tenement dwellers it was hard to keep that objectivity throughout his book.  The references he uses to describe some of the immigrant live-ins were negative and very much stereotypical.  For example on page 92 when hes referring to Italians and their ability to speak, English.  Unlike the German, who begins learning English the day he lands as a matter of duty, or the Polish Jew, who takes it up as soon as he is able as an investment, the Italian learns slowly, if at all.  By referring to Italians in such a way gives, the effect that he holds a personal grudge against them.  He makes it seem like they have personally offended him by not knowing the English language, when in reality I dont think he cares at all about what they have to say or what they think about him.  He feels that if they (Italians or any of the minority groups) come to the United States they should be well briefed enough know the basic communication needs of his language or dont come at all because your wasting his time and frankly just being a pain in the ass.

He refers to all the immigration groups in a judgmental way.  He complains about the intelligence levels of the Italians, how dirty and deceitful the Jews are, and even the immaculate cleanliness of the Chinamen.  Although he does possess quite a bit of bigotry that boarders on the line of prejudice when it comes to African Americans he recognizes that they are suffering from racism and he sympathizes with them.  With his sympathy comes an attitude of superiority, he looks down on the people in poverty because he was once there and knows with hard work, like he has done, you can pull yourself up by the bootstraps and make something better with your life.
Riis covers many aspects of the poverty that has stricken the tenement lodgers but when talking about one end of the spectrum (poor) you also need to discuss the other (rich).

With out telling people how the other half of the other half lives hes leaving out a crucial part of how people live in New York.  By avoiding, that topic hes giving the illusion that all people in New York live in such cramped housing as tenements.  When in reality New York was and is presently not composed of strictly tenement housing.  There was a rich part of town where the thought of not having any money was never even contemplated.  In addition, where the industrial revolution only touched higher societies on positive outcomes such as economics the industrial revolution only made it harder for the immigrants to get ahead.  By this, meaning, that they worked harder, got paid little to nothing, and still had to compensate for the short comings that where being pressed against them because they were in fact immigrants.

Although the industrial industry played a major role, in how all the tenement dwellers made their incomes Riis never discussed that issue at any great length.  He focused purely on the housing and the conditions of it.  One of the examples of the conditions in the book refers to how dusty and full of dirt the buildings are.  On page 81, one of the tenement buildings caught fire but was smothered out before it could spread throughout the complex, with all the dirt inside the fire had no oxygen to keep the blaze going.  Why, dont you know, he said, that house is the Dirty Spoon?  It caught fire six times last winter, but it wouldnt burn.  The dirt was so thick on the walls, it smother the fire! The showing of these conditions that the lodgers lived in was a way of telling the people that the stereotypes of them are because of their living conditions.

They are that way because the conditions make them that way.  If they could be in decent homes they could be good, clean and maybe even have middle class status.  All the city and landlords needed to do was to reform the housing and it would have solved all the cities problems.  The first step would be in trying to get the landlords from exploiting the renters and start respecting them enough to care how they live.  Once that was done you could take the care they discovered for those people and use it to better their homes.  And the city would well be on its way to improvement.

Riis writes his book effectively and manages to grasp the attention of the nation with his expos of real life stories and his snap photography of the tenements of New York City.  His point of view wasnt always objective and he had many stereotypes burned into his brain, but at the same time without some of those preconceived ideas I dont think his writing would have been as effective as it was.  There were real emotions and deep feelings that went into his work.  Without his connection to the poverty stricken, he would not have an understanding of where those immigrants were mentally, the pain they were going through and the rough road ahead of them.  The main purpose of his book was to try to help open the eyes of the people in New York to the conditions in which the immigrants are living.  By opening their eyes, he hoped that there would be compassion growing in their hearts and maybe open up to that community and aid in the reconstruction of the tenements in which they resided.

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