Book Review: How the Other Half Lives by Jacob A. Riis

Jacob A. Riis documented the squalor and misery of those who lived in lower Manhattan during the end of the 19th Century through to the early 20th Century. At one point the tenement population swelled to over a million. The tenements were dark, airless, and riddled with crime, disease, and despair. Irish, Jewish, German, Russian, Italian, Chinese, Bohemian, Mr. Riis often reveals his deep seated prejudice against the many ethnic groups who came to America. His commentary about the Chinese and Jews is not worthy of repeating here. Interestingly, his narrative about the black population is surprising. He marveled at their cleanliness and the stability of their service jobs before issuing the ultimate racial slur that none of their fine attributes mattered because they could never rise above the lowly station in life of being black. Mr. Riis’ ethnic and racial slurs were entirely normal during his lifetime. However, it is a sad reminder that humanity will never be without prejudice—human beings maligning people different from themselves, thereby elevating themselves at someone else’s expense. And yet, it is essential to understand what life was like for so many during a time in history when misery was shared by so many. One in ten was buried in Potter’s Field, where bodies were packed three stories deep, shoulder to shoulder, as crowded in death as they were in life. The scarcity of living space, water, food, resources and job opportunities is a wake-up call for Americans to see just how far we have come as a culture. Photography was in its infancy when Jacob A. Riis produced his astonishing photojournalism that is the foundation for How the Other Half Lives, a work that was published in this edition in 1970. It is an excellent read for anyone who desires to learn more about the history of the tenement culture of New York City. Many of Mr. Riis’ astonishing and graphic photos that are in this book are also part of a collection that can be viewed at the Museum of the City of New York. 






Patricia Vaccarino

Patricia Vaccarino is an accomplished writer who has written award-winning film scripts, press materials, articles, essays, speeches, web content, marketing collateral, and ten books.

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