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America's History in the Making

Resource Archive: Search Results

Working and Living Conditions in New York

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… 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. 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. There came a time when the discomfort and crowding below were so great, and the consequent upheavals so violent, that it was no longer an easy thing to do, and then the upper half fell to inquiring what was the matter. Information on the subject has been accumulating rapidly since, and the whole world has had its hands full answering for its old ignorance.

… In New York, the youngest of the world's great cities, that time came later than elsewhere, because the crowding had not been so great …

… To-day three-fourths of its people live in the tenements, and the nineteenth century drift of the population to the cities is sending ever-increasing multitudes to crowd them. The fifteen thousand tenant houses that were the despair of the sanitarian in the past generation have swelled into thirty-seven thousand, and more than twelve hundred thousand persons call them home . . . We know now that there is no way out; that the "system" that was the evil offspring of public neglect and private greed has come to stay, a storm-centre forever of our civilization. Nothing is left but to make the best of a bad bargain …

… What are you going to do about it? is the question of to-day. It was asked once of our city in taunting defiance by a band of political cutthroats, the legitimate outgrowth of life on the tenement-house level … Forty per cent. of the distress among the poor, said a recent official report, is due to drunkenness. But the first legislative committee ever appointed to probe this sore went deeper down and uncovered its roots. The "conclusion forced itself upon it that certain conditions and associations of human life and habitation are the prolific parents of corresponding habits and morals," and it recommended "the prevention of drunkenness by providing for every man a clean and comfortable home … The remedy that shall be an effective answer to the coming appeal for justice must proceed from the public conscience. Neither legislation nor charity can cover the ground. The greed of capital that wrought the evil must itself undo it, as far as it can now be undone. Homes must be built for the working masses by those who employ their labor; but tenements must cease to be "good property" in the old, heartless sense …

Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1890); also available at http://www.yale.edu/amstud/inforev/riis/title.html (accessed March 1, 2007).

Jacob Riis, WORKING AND LIVING CONDITIONS IN NEW YORK (1890). Courtesy of Snark/Art Resource NY.

Creator Jacob Riis
Context Rapid population growth in cities resulted in problems relating to overcrowding, sanitation, and adequate housing.
Audience Middle-class and upper-class residents of New York City, particularly urban reformers, city officials, and the private sector
Purpose To document the appalling living conditions in New York City's tenements, and appeal to the conscience and fears of middle-class and upper-class residents in order to bring about reform

Historical Significance

His own struggle finding employment and the influence of Progressive reformers prompted Jacob Riis to document the terrible living and working conditions of New York City's immigrants for his book How the Other Half Lives (1890). Riis described and photographed images of crime-ridden neighborhoods, overcrowded apartments, and men living in cellars to shock Victorian middle-class and upper-class residents into initiating reform. Riis's book was a publishing phenomenon that went through eleven editions in five years because he incorporated evidence to bolster his argument and he proposed reforms. The book prodded city officials to tear down many tenements, close cigar-making workshops, and require landlords to install adequate lighting.

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