Jacob A. Riis, How The Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (New York: Scribner, 1901)
Dover Edition published 1971 in paperback by Dover Publications, Inc.
In 1890, New York Tribune reporter Jacob A. Riis set fire to the city's social reform movement with the publication of How the Other Half Lives. Riis' book used graphic descriptions, sketches, photographs, and cold statistics to chronicle the squalor of New York's East Side slum district. The result, as the preface to the Dover edition states, "quickly became a landmark in the annals of social reform." With remorseless candor, he documents the filth, disease, exploitation, and overcrowding that characterized the experience of more than one million immigrants. Riis helped push tenement reform to the front of New York's political agenda, and prompted Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt to call him "the most useful citizen of New York."
Riis writes to exhort, and his book is thick with indignation at the callousness of the middle and upper classes. Much of his sympathy for the poor likely came from his own experience as an immigrant. Riis came to New York in 1870, just as the economy was beginning to slow. He spent years precariously teetering between joblessness, hunger, homelessness, and thoughts of suicide. Finally, in 1877, he took a job as a police reporter for the Tribune and set out on a career of chronicling crime and poverty.
Riis greatly admired the reporting of Charles Dickens, who wrote about London's poor, and much of Riis' writing style reflects Dickens' first-person encounters with the "other half." Riis, however, frequently wrote with a sense of righteousness that is lacking in his British counterpart. To the modern reader, Riis' diatribes sometimes come across as pedantic. His writing also reflects many of the prejudices of the time; he spends entire chapters characterizing (caricaturizing) the Jews, Italians, and Irish that made up the tenement district. It is worth bearing in mind here that Riis was writing for a specific audience, and was therefore playing upon the biases of that audience. Even in his most racially insensitive passages, he still writes with a genuine sympathy for his subjects. Thus, as a work of journalism and of social criticism, Riis' book still stands as a truly seminal text.
Hypertext Edition of How the Other Half Lives, with original sketches
Hypertext Edition of How the Other Half Lives, with Riisí photographs
A discussion of Riisí photography and its impact
Short Biograpy of Riis