How the Other Half Used to Live

Jacob Riis (1849-1914), a muck-raking journalist who documented conditions in the slums of late-19th-century New York in his book How the Other Half Lives, is also a connoisseur of garbage and other forms of filth. Here he is on the city’s scavenger culture:

Riis, In the home of an Italian rag-picker

The discovery was made by earlier explorers that there is money in New York’s ash-barrel, but it was left to the genius of the padrone to develop the full resources of the mine that has become the exclusive preserve of the Italian immigrant. Only a few years ago, when rag-picking was carried on in a desultory and irresponsible sort of way, the city hired gangs of men to trim the ash-scows before they were sent out to sea. The trimming consisted in levelling out the dirt as it was dumped from the carts, so that the scow might be evenly loaded. The men were paid a dollar and a half a day, kept what they found that was worth having, and allowed the swarms of Italians who hung about the dumps to do the heavy work for them, letting them have their pick of the loads for their trouble. To-day Italians contract for the work, paying large sums to be permitted to do it. The city received not less than $80,000 last year for the sale of this privilege to the contractors, who in addition have to pay gangs of their countrymen for sorting out the bones, rags tin cans and other waste that are found in the ashes and form the staples of their trade and their sources of revenue. The effect has been vastly to increase the power of the padrone, or his ally, the contractor, by giving him exclusive control of the one industry in which the Italian was formerly independent “dealer,” and reducing him literally to the plane of the dump. Whenever the back of the sanitary police is turned, he will make his home in the filthy burrows where he works by day, sleeping and eating his meals under the dump, on the edge of slimy depths and amid surroundings full of unutterable horror. The city did not bargain to house, though it is content to board, him so long as he can make the ash-barrels yield the food to keep him alive, and a vigorous campaign is carried on at intervals against these unlicensed dump settlements; but the temptation of having to pay no rent is too strong, and they are driven from one dump only to find lodgement under another a few blocks farther up or down the river. The fiercest warfare is waged over the patronage of the dumps by rival factions represented by opposing contractors, and it has happened that the defeated party has endeavored to capture by strategy what he failed to carry by assault. It augurs unsuspected adaptability in the Italian to our system of self-government that these rivalries have more than once been suspected of being behind the sharpening of city ordinances, that were apparently made in good faith to prevent meddling with the refuse in the ash-barrels or in transit.

Jacob Riis, Bandit\'s RoostDespite the power of a passage such as this, How the Other Half Lives may be famous more for its photographs than for its fulminations against tenement conditions. Indeed, the pictures are amazing. Their documentary value is extremely high–the layers of filth over everything, streets and walls and skin and clothing , speak in a way no words can rival–but at least some of them do much more than document. They evoke the experience of the moment, not only through the eyes of the photographer, but through the eyes of their subjects. Some are just caught on camera–“shot,” as photographers are wont to say–but others are there with an idea of themselves, part of a world in which they exercise a degree of control.

And so they escape the limits of Riis’s own ways of making sense of the story. For all his empathy, Riis’s account is rife with the subtle superiority of one who’s never found himself among the teeming hordes on the wrong side of the documentary lens. Even more obvious than his class prejudice is a kind of universal ethnic disdain, which changes pitch but never disappears.

What saves Riis, in my eyes, what makes him still worth reading, is his mesmerized fascination with the splendid diversity of cultures, shifting like a checkerboard from block to block, that shines through his judgments. He is really a passionate ethnographer, animated not just by outrage over the exploitation of New York’s poor but by sheer joy in deepening his understanding how things work in the intricate cultural and operational machinery of a burgeoning metropolis. The poor, the slums, the garbage–all the less naturally attractive components–made a crucial part of that machinery, much as our own garbage is today.


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