Jacob Riis: How The Other Half Lives

1811 words - 8 pages

How The Other Half LivesAs the nineteenth century came to a close and the industrial revolution continued gathering momentum, the Victorian ideal of social responsibility was also coming to an end. The strong moral values the Victorian held to such things as self-control, order, sobriety, and being respectful of property seemed to be dieing along with public conscientiousness. These strong ethical beliefs held by Victorian society were slowly being replaced by greed, envy, anger and complacency. In his book How The Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis examines how the lack of social responsibility by the elite of society, civil servants and even the common laborer which lived in the tenements, ...view middle of the document...

The images of run down houses on pages seven and nine and the filthy streets and alleyways on pages twelve and fifty five provide the perfect picture of how far away the Victorian ideal of social responsibility had really gotten. Why did this great idea of caring for the comfort and security of your fellow man come to such a screaming end? Perhaps it was because of the new pace that the industrial revolution had set for society and the new place in society the revolution created for the huge labor pool. Due to the invention of machinery, the need for unskilled labor had decreased, therefore a growth in the pool of unemployed people needing work increased, so the unskilled worker who was once valued and cared about intern became like a cog in one of the machines, easily replaceable if some mishap were to occur. Jacob Riis reduces the issue to bare bones when he says (speaking of the upper half of society about the lower half) "It did not know because it did not care. The half that was on top cared little for the struggles, and less for the fate of those who were underneath..." (Riis, p.1).Riis illustrates the lack of social concern by the civil servants in New York City through a story he recounts of a time when he was photographing some blind men in one of the tenements. Riis states that he was astonished at the reaction of the police office, who "laughed immoderately" when he tells him that he has just accidentally caught a building on fire with five blind men living on the top floor of this building, but was able to put the fire out. Riis recalls " 'Why don't you know,' he said, 'that house is the Dirty Spoon? It caught fire six times last winter, but it wouldn't burn. The dirt was so thick on the walls, it smothered the fire!'" (Riis, p.30). The statement made by Riis directly after this quote demonstrates how people in general had a conscious lack of concern for one another saying "Which, if true, shows that water and dirt, not usually held to be harmonious elements, work together for the good of those who insure houses." In this statement Riis seems to be siding more with the social elite that he does with those others who are forced to live in mud covered houses.The lives lived by the inhabitants of the tenements were nothing short of horrid. Understandably this caused anger and hostility among the downtrodden tenant residents of New York City. The lack of social responsibility among these people is almost as immense as the lack displayed by the well to do toward the subjugated. Riis describes an incident when he asks a certain man if he can "take" one hundred of the women in view of his camera, and the mans response to such a question... "And he threw his arms around me in an outburst of enthusiasm over the wondrous good luck that had sent a friend indeed to his door. I felt it to be a painful duty to undeceive him. When I told him that I simply wanted the old women's picture, he turned away in speechless disgust..." (Riis, p.202)....

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