The impact of the mushroom growth of tenements and overcrowding in them in New York on the mind of the author Jacob Riis can well be gauged in the arrangement of the chapters of the book. The traits of an investigative journalist are seen in the writings, but it is reasonable to classify this book as a novel. The population explosion and the housing shortage, is the phenomenon in any metropolitan city. But the boom and rush of the immigrants in the New York City was unprecedented.
For some years nobody knew what was happening, and what the solution was. Before long, the streets, lanes and by lanes of the city were taken over by unauthorized individuals and families. The size of the bed rooms and drawing rooms of the tenement was pruned smaller and smaller. Lawns and open areas were scarce. Greenery was the thing of the past. The unscrupulous building activity, with one’s own designs, planning and construction boomed. The inner convictions of the men stood destroyed and they suffered from the sense of uselessness.
The issues raised in Riis’ book were timely and the tool of photojournalism stirred the conscience of the authorities and the well-meaning social activists to initiate steps to improve the grim living conditions of the NYC immigrants. Riis has put a human face on realistic situations that would otherwise have remained abstract. Greed and more greed of those in the building construction line, initiated the process of destruction of the New York city. They were constructing to destroy!
Several dumping grounds of filth added to the problems of the booming population of the city. The photographer-journalist Jacob had to don the mantle of social reformer, perhaps on account of his bitter experience while capturing 100 grim scenes. The supreme effort of the New York populace in the battle of survival was captured in his photographs. Even the cursory glance of these pictures will turn anyone sick and cynical. It brought to the notice the silent destruction and devastation to life that has been going on in the New York City unchecked and unattended.
The situation was summed up by the Society for the Improvement of the condition of the poor in these words: “Crazy old buildings, crowded rear tenements in filthy yards, dark, damp basements, leaking garrets, shops, outhouses and sables converted into dwellings, though scarcely fit to shelter brutes, are habitations of thousands of our fellow-beings in this wealthy, Christian city. ”(Riis, 1971, p. 9) The immigrants to the New York City were the cosmopolitan lot. Jewish, Chinese, Polish, Russian, Irish, Italian—the one common factor among them was that they were all utterly poor and helpless.
Riis investigative journalism lifted the veil of silence and inaction of all concerned. The people were made aware of their rights, how to fight or with whom to fight, because the problems relating to food, clothing and shelter had assumed the alarming proportions. The uncertainties related to the future ebbs out the fighting spirit within an individual. The demand for the accommodation was too much and the rents were high. The conditions were comparable to the war-time situation, even worst.
It is reported that a cradle was put outside a Catholic Church to receive a baby each night, but instead racks of babies appeared. The Church found it difficult to cope up with the issues related to unwed or impoverished mothers. For the people who read the book, an alert was sounded to the happenings in the society and it set many thinking about the urgent remedial measures needed. The importance of images was felt by all sections of the society, the sufferers as well as those who were responsible to inflict the suffering.
Important questions of photojournalists hold in society and their obligations had been raised. It is hailed that Jacob Riis’- How the Other Half Lives -initiated the process of action-oriented photojournalism. This genre, created the stir in the minds of the readers and the decision-making authorities. The text as well as the photographs made deep impact on the psyche of the people. It exposed the role of the middle class as slumlords and sweatshop owners, who made the best use of a worst situation of the people.
The book brought to the fore for the first time the appalling post-migration conditions of the people at the end of the 19th Century. His exposure hastened a number of reformations. The rich also felt that they must do something. Raiis’ observations were all the more important because he was a rich American. It pricked his conscience as to how on the one side, a section of the society reveled in splendor, and at the same time, vast majorities of the people were not sure about the possibility of their next meal.
Riis concern was how human beings could be that cruel to fellow human beings. The unending streams of immigrants belonging to many ethnic groups, created such scenes, and they read like events of fiction. Riis writes, “The men sit or stand in the streets, on trucks, or in the open doors of the saloons smoking black clay pipes, talking and gesticulating as if forever on the point of coming to blows. ” (Riis, 1971, p. 49) Ultimately, he wanted his pictures to become a part of the collective memory of people.
Riis describes how the well-meaning authorities found it difficult to initiate the process of reformation and rehabilitation in those times. The vested interests offered resistance. “Not without opposition; obstacles were thrown in the way of the officials on the one side by the owners of the tenement, who saw in every order to repair or clean up only an item of added expense to diminish their income from the rent; on the other side by the tenants themselves, who had sunk, after a generation of unavailability protest, to the level of their surroundings, and were a last content to remain there.
”(Riis, 1971, p. 10) But the changes were inevitable, and slowly the shape and contours of the city began n to change, when the people saw the benefits of change. The issues raised by him were simple. Clean sanitary conditions, parks, proper housing and schools. In effect, they were the revolutionary steps, considering the mind-set of the people in the 19th century. The pictures are part of the collective memory of the people who have read the book. The photographs were tools of social awareness.
They established a direct relationship between the people and images in the picture and the viewer and helped in shaping the public opinion. For Riis, it was the duty performed as a photojournalist to document the contemporary history. He showed how photojournalism as experiencing is more important than journalism as reading.
References: Riis, Jacob: Book: How the Other Half Lives. Paperback: 233 pages Publisher: Dover Publications; New edition (June 1, 1971) Language: English ISBN-10: 0486220125 ISBN-13: 978-0486220123