How The Other Half Lives Essay

2842 words - 12 pages

History textbooks seem to always focus on the advancements of civilization, often ignoring the humble beginnings in which these achievements derive. How the Other Half Lives by journalist-photographer Jacob A. Riis explores the streets of New York, using “muck-racking” to expose just how “the other half lives,” aside from the upbeat, rich, and flapper-girl filled nights so stereotypical to New York City in the 1800s. During this time, immigrants from all over the world flooded to the new-born city, bright-eyed and expecting new opportunities; little did they know, almost all of them will spend their lives in financial struggle, poverty, and crowded, disease-ridden tenements. Jacob A. Riis will photograph this poverty in How the Other Half Lives, hoping to bring awareness to the other half of New York.
On the very first page, Riis states, “Long ago it was said that ‘one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.’ That was true then. It did not know because it did not care (5).” In first-person, Riis discusses his observations through somewhat unbiased analysis, delivering cold, hard, and straightforward facts. Following the War of 1812, New York City had a population of roughly half a million, desperately in need of homes. The solutions were mediocre tenements: large spaces divided into cheaper, smaller rooms, regardless of whether or not there were windows. Some families were lucky, being able to afford the rooms with windows, while others had to live in pitch-black, damp, and tiny rooms literally in the center of the building. These tenements contained inadequate living conditions; disease murdered many citizens, causing a shortage of industrial workers. The Board of Health passed the “Tenement-House Act” in 1867, one of the first laws toward reform. The “Tenement House Act” called for windows to be made in the dark, middle rooms, primarily for ventilation and light. Furthermore, taxes were heavy in the city to support jails and charities. Young criminals were reported to thrive in “low social conditions of life and unhealthy, overcrowded lodgings (18),” growing up in both literal and figurative darkness. Even with the immense efforts implemented, there was little improvement; new, slightly better tenements were built, but the previous ones were usually cleared, not torn down. Three or more families, often of varying ethnics, were often times separated by only a wall. In lower New York, Riis describes the lack of native-born people; usually, “an Italian, a German, a French, African, Spanish, Bohemian, Russian, Scandinavian, Jewish, and Chinese colony (21),” and even an Arab, are easily found. Although each group within the community handles the poverty in their own, unique way, most struggle to withstand the city.
Going on, Riis states the city is always safe, provided a man does not draw any attention. In “Blind Man’s Alley,” hardly enough food exists for the overcrowded population. The Department of Health recommended that...

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