How the Other Half Lives, by Jacob A. Riis is an incredible look into the lives of others, lives of poverty that was overlooked by those of higher financial standards. The enormity of information which Riis compiled through documents, his own documentation (both written and photographically), interviews and questionnaires, is astonishing. The magnitude of his project is all-encompassing, and that he was able to accomplish what he did, in the late 1800s, is masterful in every aspect.
How the Other Half Lives in an astounding testament to New York City and its history, and to all of the immigrants and individuals whose hopes were enveloped, and often dashed, within the suffocating environment of the confining tenements and slums.
From Europe to Asia and the Middle East, immigrants from all countries were shepherded into unbearable survival conditions. They came to America hoping to have a better life, and the life they led was often worse than the one they left behind. The slum environment encompassed the worst possible lifestyle one can imagine, and Riis leaves nothing to the imagination in that respect.
The living conditions described within the pages are appalling, and even more so when it is noted that landlords often forced labor upon their tenants. In other words, I will only rent to you if you will work for me, behind closed doors. This was an accepted form of behavior, and left the tenants with less than dignified circumstances. The environment was difficult and demeaning enough, never mind the added indignity of having to work almost twelve hours a day for your landlord.
Not only were the rooms that they lived in infested with vermin of all shapes and sizes, but families, individuals and strangers were more or less forced together in extremely close quarters. Some of the families of certain ethnic backgrounds surprised Riis, with his misconception of their cleanliness. Those he thought would not be, were the best in keeping a clean home, as good as one can be under the circumstances. Those he surmised would keep a clean house, he found the opposite to be true in many cases. Money was a factor in the cultural divide.
The magnitude of the deplorable housing and working conditions is mind-boggling to this reader. I knew that life was harsh and difficult, but Riis brings the reader an in depth look into the horrific conditions forced upon the immigrants. His studies and photojournalism speak volumes to the squalor thrust upon the lower economic echelon of people. There weren’t too many choices for those seeking employment and housing. He crossed borders in his studies, and covered ethnic backgrounds others would have turned their heads away from.
Yes, there were choices, but not many, and finding the decent surroundings was extremely difficult for most, if not impossible. How the Other Half Lives opened my eyes to the worst of humanity, humanity and humiliation right under our noses, in the heart of New York City during the late 1800s.
The book was intellectual, intense and compelling. It is written with honest assessments, forthrightness and shocking depictions. Jacob A. Riss’ documentations were his effort to bring forth the deplorable conditions of the slums and tenements. He tried to open the eyes of others through his arduous labors, but most people looked the other way.
It is not a read for those with sensitive stomachs. Yet, read it through, I did. I found it to be historically important regarding the immigrant experience and the living environments that followed their disembarking into what they believed would prove to be a better life for them.
As an aside: Some readers might find this book boring, and find the grammar, in some cases, to be difficult to digest. When reading it, one must try to remember the time frame that the book was written in, and the varied dialects of the immigrants. Not everyone spoke English, and those who did, were often speaking with accents, and not necessarily schooled in the language.