March 7, 2011
RE-READING A 'STILL-RELEVANT' CLASSIC
Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890), with Introduction and Notes by Luc Sante (New York: Penguin, 1997) ("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. The half that was on top cared little for the struggles, and less for the fate of those who were underneath, so long as it was able to hold them there and keep its own seat. There came a time when the discomfort and crowding below were so great, and the consequent upheavals so violent, that it was no longer an easy thing to do and then the upper half fell into inquiring what was the matter. Information on the subject has been accumulating rapidly since, and the whole world has had its hand full answering for its old ignorance." Id. at 5. "One gets a glimpse of the frightful depths to which human nature, perverted by avarice bred of ignorance and rasping poverty, can descend, in the mere suggestion of systematic insurance for profit of children's lives. A woman was put on trial in this city last year for incredible cruelty in her treatment of a step-child. The evidence aroused a strong suspicion that a pitifully small amount of insurance on the child's life was one of the motives for the woman's savagery. A little investigation brought out the fact that three companies that were in the business of insuring children's lives, for the sum varying from $17 up, had insured not less than a million such policies! The premiums ranged from five to twenty-five cents a week. What untold horrors this business may conceal was suggested by a formal agreement entered into by some of the companies, 'for the purpose of preventing speculation in the insurance of children's lives.' By the terms of this compact, 'no higher premium than ten cents could be accepted on children under six years old.' Barbarism forsooth! Did ever heathen cruelty invent a more fiendish plot than the one written down between the lines of this legal paper? Id. at 144. From Sante's Introduction: "There is another reason why How the Other Half Lives remains compelling so long after its first publication, one that is rather more ironic and bitter. The book haunts us because so much of it remains true. While its lasting social effects were many--there are no more windowless rooms, double-decker tenement, cellar apartments, dwellings accessible via alleys, doughnut bakeries in basements, sweatshop franchises in slum flats--the living conditions of the poor remain abominable. New York City's homeless population, virtually nonexistent a few decades ago, is again what it was at the time Riis wrote, and now in addition there are people living on the streets of cities and towns where such a thing would have been unthinkable in the [nineteenth century]. The sweatshop is as much a feature of the recent immigrant's daily hell as it was in 1890. The face of misery has been altered to some degree, but not its substance. The housing project, a concept that would have sounded nearly utopian a century ago, in its allowance for light and air, has proven to contain as much potential for harm as the tenements of Riis's day. . . . Id. at xiii.).