Once upon a time in America, a large number of people lived in abject poverty, out of sight and out of mind.
Photojournalist Jacob Riis’s 1890 book How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York revealed this hidden community to the affluent and middle class.
His book was an expose on tenement living, child labor and sweatshops. Just like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle nearly two decades later, the book opened Americans’ eyes to corrupt practices and sparked change.
Inspiration for Good
Riis was a Dutch immigrant who began his career as a police reporter. He became convinced that the only way to help people out of their squalid conditions was to educate the richer classes.
Armed with a camera with a powder flash, Riis documented life in tenements. He also made sketches. His work was published in an 1889 Scribner’s Magazine article. The article was a success, and his work was turned into a book.
The Other Half
In the late 19th century, New York City was the most densely populated place on the globe. Two-thirds of New York’s 3 million people lived in 80,000 lower Manhattan tenements.
Tenement buildings were 25 feet wide by 100 feet deep, and five to seven stories tall. Often other tenements or rear houses were built behind existing buildings.
Rooms in tenements were 10 square feet, usually without windows, and entire families lived in one room. There were no indoor toilets or bathing facilities. The law required only one outhouse per 20 people.
Disease was rampant, and infant mortality was higher than in the rest of the population.
“Listen! That short hacking cough, that tiny, helpless wail — what do they mean?” Riis said in How the Other Half Lives. “They mean that the soiled bow of white you saw on the door downstairs will have another story to tell — Oh! a sadly familiar story — before the day is at an end. The child is dying with measles. With half a chance it might have lived; but it had none. The dark bedroom killed it….”
Greed Equals Apathy
The deplorable conditions were the result of greedy landlords who did no maintenance on their buildings and were only interested in collecting rent. Rent, for many families, was half of their salaries.
“Riis organized his most famous book, which was a best-seller and launched his career as a reformer — How the Other Half Lives — as a kind of a slum tour, going neighborhood by neighborhood, describing ethnic group by ethnic group,” Bonnie Yochelson, a curator at the Museum of the City of New York, told NPR. “That was a pre-established literary genre, which he was borrowing. It had a lot of entertainment value. ‘Come see the colorful Italians and the mystifying Chinese.’”
Entertainment value or not, How the Other Half Lives opened people’s eyes, though slowly.
Very few housing laws were in effect in 1890. One, established in 1867, did lay out construction regulations, but was rarely enforced.
Riis proposed the tenements could be fixed. He asserted that humans have the right to running water, to windows in their bedrooms, to heat, to ventilation and to safe buildings.
The city finally took action in 1901 and passed a law that it enforced. The new regulation outlawed the building of new tenements and stipulated that existing tenements must be improved to allow access to light and sanitation and to add fire escapes. Many tenements were torn down and replaced with apartment buildings.
Additional images of tenements can be found on my Pinterest board Life: 1890-1920 in the Poverty section.
If you’re visiting New York City, tour the Tenement Museum. Tours allow visitors to experience how the other half lived.
Updated: 16 October 2020