Monday, June 17, 2013

"How the Other Half Lives" by Jacob A. Riis (1901)

Through his remarkable series of photographs, documenting life in the tenements of old New York at the turn of the 19th Century, Jacob A. Riis has become an icon of compassionate liberalism to many folks. That’s because they haven’t read his book. This landmark classic of sociology is often spoken of as if it were a plea for compassion and sympathy for the poor. If that is your opinion of this highly vaunted work, then you have probably not read it either.

The book is somewhat akin to D.W. Griffith’s epic motion picture “Birth of a Nation” in that it stereotypes every minority then in existence in New York City. Jews are clever and suspicious; Chinese are opium pushers and white slave traders; the Italians are happy people except when pushed too far and their passionate nature gets the better of them; while the Irish are just plain filthy and would rather drink than work. And all are criminals of one sort or another.

While quoting from the crime statistics available at the time he notes that the majority of the criminals come from the slums. Crime itself is the result of unclean living and poor habits, as well as the choice of lifestyles made by the individual. When the well to do come down to the slums for entertainment, they are sometimes unwittingly dragged into these lifestyles themselves; making them victims of the poor.

As a kid I used to go to Riis Park in the borough of Queens. Riis Park is the beach which sits next door to the Breezy Point Section, which gained widespread fame this past year in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Riis Park was the brainchild of Robert Moses, who oversaw the building of most of the bridges and tunnels, as well as countless parks throughout the 5 boroughs. He named Riis Park for the author of this book, who is often considered to be a champion of the poor, and presumably would have wanted poor people to have a sunny, open place to go for fresh air. But, I wonder if Mr. Moses ever read this book.

Perhaps I am being too harsh upon the author; after all, those were different times. And he did expose the horrid conditions of the city’s slum dwellings through his photographs. It was just somewhat of a shock to read the author’s views on the predicament of the people he was trying to help.

For better, or worse, we are all products of the environment in which we live. For all the flaws in the way he has expressed himself in this book, he did lead a crusade that helped, in some way, to draw attention to the plight of the poor. Though most of the social ills which he decries in this narrative still exist today, he does deserve credit for being among the first of the moral crusaders who attempted to do something about the conditions he saw to be unfit.

And, then there are also those remarkable photographs he took, leaving us a window into our past, which might not always be so pretty, but represent who we once were. May it be that we never go that far backwards again.

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