How the Other Half Lives

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In Jacob Riis’ essay, “How the Other Half Lives,” Riis argues to change the harsh living conditions of the tenements in New York in the 1860’s by illustrating and describing his experiences while photographing the city’s tenements for the middle class.

As business in New York increased within a couple of years, so did the number of tenants living in the city. In the following quote, Riis illustrates to the audience how small the rooms were relative to the mass amount of numbers of families that were living inside: “[The rooms] without regard to light or ventilation, soon became filled from cellar to garret with a class of tenantry living from hand to mouth, loose in morals, improvident in habits, degraded, and squalid as beggary itself” (11). The space described above does not only reflect the insufficient amount of living space, but also describes the stereotypical characteristics of “the poor” in the eyes of the middle class. Riis is unusually biased when calling the tenantry “squalid,” something he is not throughout the chapter, reflecting his intention of relating to the outsiders view.

It is evident that the living conditions were poor and should be addressed to the landlords; however, whenever addressed, the landlords would turn their backs on the complaints. Riis states, “The complaint was universal among the tenants that they were completely uncared for, and that the only answer to their requests to have the place put in order by repairs… was that they must pay their rent or leave” (7). It is shown here that the owners did not care about the living conditions at all, just about making profit. Riis even later states, “It was the rent the owner was after; nothing was said in the contract about either the safety or the comfort of the tenants” (10). It was difficult for the tenants to express their concerns to the government, let alone the landlords. The government at the time had no idea what was going on.

With increased numbers of tenants and...
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