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The System'S Hardships

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The System's Hardships

In How the Other Half Lives, the author Jacob Riis sheds light on the darker side of tenant housing and urban dwellers. He goes to several different parts of the city of New York witnessing first hand the hardships that many immigrants faced when coming to America. His journalism and photographs of the conditions of the tenant housing helped led the way of reformation in the slums of New York. His research opened the eyes of many Americans to the darker side of the nation's lower class. Though it seems that he blamed both the victims and the board forces of society, I believe that he placed more of the blame on the board forces for the conditions that many immigrants faced.

In the first few sentences of the introduction of his book, Riis wrote:

"Long ago it was said, "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. The half that was on top cared little for the struggles, and less for the fate of those who were underneath, so long as it was able to hold them there and keep its own seat."

He is saying that it was the lack of concern from the upper class that caused the lower class to get as bad as it did. Their greed and selfishness caused many of the problems for the lower class. "...the 'system' that was the evil offspring of public neglect and private greed has come to stay, a storm-centre forever of our civilization." (p. 6) Riis also thought that the "other half" justly punished the community because the community gave them no other choice. These poorer people did not have the same resources and education opportunity as most of the rest of the classes in America, which many tenement owners took advantage of. Many property owners divided their homes and blocks into barracks to gain more profit off the property. Most contracts never mentioned the safety and comfort of tenants (p. 10). In addition, many of the tenants were working and needed to be close to where they worked. The costs of living in these tenement houses were ridiculously high for the condition and size of the rooms.

Riis described how some Italians were given board as long as the Italian made enough ash-barrels to feed him, which unfortunately caused many Italians to get use to free rent and thus many were driven to another dump. Riis did not care much for the Italians, because of their lack of focus and life style. One of the well-known tenement housing "the Bend" was labeled as one of the bad tenement houses, and even the optimists agreed. It was said that the more you had done the less it has seemed to accomplish in the way of real relief (p 46). Also under the pressure of the growing Italian community, the standard of breathing space required for an adult by the health officers was cut from six hundred to four hundred cubic feet. With such increase in population in certain tenement housing the sanitary policeman would locate the bulk of his four hundred, and the sanitary reformer gives up the task in despair (p. 55). I personally think what he is saying is that the community and government waited too long to start helping the lower class. That the problem of overcrowding and of health regulations had gotten too far out of reach for us to help them. I had mentioned in the beginning of my essay that he seemed that Riis placed the blame in both victim and community for the hardships of the slums. When Riis took one of his visits to "the Bend" he came across a ragged and disreputable tramp who Riis offered money to take a photo of him. The man accepted but right before the picture was taken, he put his clay pipe in his pocket and said that it would be an extra quarter for him to be photographed with it. I believe what Riis said after this had a lot of meaning:

"The man, scarce ten seconds of employed at honest labor, even at sitting down, at which he was an undoubted expert, had gone on strike. He knew his rights and the value of 'work,' and was not to be cheated out of either" (p. 64)

This is one of many statements that make the argument that it is the poor people themselves that make such harsh living conditions. This man knew his rights, and the value of "work"; however, could this man not have an honest job instead of being "the tramp" that sits in front of a saloon. Nevertheless, I still believe that most of the blame was set on the government and communities that let the situation of poverty get out of hand that created "the tramp" breed.

Not only was tenement housing a problem for parts of the city, cheap lodging-houses were also a contribution to the harsh living conditions for immigrants. The Secret Police had stamped the lodging-houses as nurseries of crime, the sort of crime that feeds especially on idleness and lies ready to the hand of fatal opportunity (p. 66). Many people new to the city in hope of making a way for themselves find their way to the Bowery, the great democratic highway of the



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