How the Other Half Lives by Jacob A. Riis

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History textbooks seem to always focus on the advancements of civilization, often ignoring the humble beginnings in which these achievements derive. How the Other Half Lives by journalist-photographer Jacob A. Riis explores the streets of New York, using “muck-racking” to expose just how “the other half lives,” aside from the upbeat, rich, and flapper-girl filled nights so stereotypical to New York City in the 1800s. During this time, immigrants from all over the world flooded to the new-born city, bright-eyed and expecting new opportunities; little did they know, almost all of them will spend their lives in financial struggle, poverty, and crowded, disease-ridden tenements. Jacob A. Riis will photograph this poverty in How the Other Half Lives, hoping to bring awareness to the other half of New York.
On the very first page, Riis states, “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 (5).” In first-person, Riis discusses his observations through somewhat unbiased analysis, delivering cold, hard, and straightforward facts. Following the War of 1812, New York City had a population of roughly half a million, desperately in need of homes. The solutions were mediocre tenements: large spaces divided into cheaper, smaller rooms, regardless of whether or not there were windows. Some families were lucky, being able to afford the rooms with windows, while others had to live in pitch-black, damp, and tiny rooms literally in the center of the building. These tenements contained inadequate living conditions; disease murdered many citizens, causing a shortage of industrial workers. The Board of Health passed the “Tenement-House Act” in 1867,...

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...ew York City in the 19th century. The reader will realize not every immigrant coming to America for a better life will live out their dream. However, I would not recommend How the Other Half Lives to those uninterested in the origins of New York City, the 19th century, and optimists wanting to avoid negative ideas. The entire novel revolves around the crowded tenements and unfavorable conditions of the New York City slums in the mid to late 19th century, where the crowded populations caused mass sanitation problems and disease. Although charities and the hard-working aura of the citizens were mentioned, Riis focused mostly on the struggles of the time period. Despite this, I would highly recommend How the Other Half Lives to anyone looking for a fantastic read; Riis’ use of “muckraking” will show you an entirely different viewpoint from traditional nonfiction novels.

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