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Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Other Half

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The time period during which The Other Half came out was an important and exciting time in our history. There were many changes in our country. We were becoming an urban nation. Instead of people staying in rural towns and making a living off the land, they were coming to big cities to make it. This brought a lot of good changes. As cities grew up, technology grew up with it. We became an industrial society that began to depend on machinery more and more. The cities brought a culture to America that we had lacked before. As with everything in life, there were some bad points that came along with the good. One of those problems was with the other half of society. Many people in this time period were growing richer by the minute. These are the people that owned property or ran companies. The people that rented from them or worked for them werent so lucky. Most of these people were immigrants that had come over to seek new opportunities and instead they found now work, and cramped living conditions that bred disease. Unfortunately, that is all they could afford. Jacob Riis was among the more unfortunate people for years after he had come over to America. Eventually, he was lucky enough to find work outside of a factory, so he could make a decent living. He was determined however to make the rest of society see the living conditions of these people that were for the most part ignored.


Riis was the first progressive reformer of our time. Nobody had every thought about shedding light on the social problems of America. Riis tied urban decay and poverty to the tenement housing. He thought that a lot of their problems came from their environment. This was not a popular belief. Most people considered the people living in the slums as inherently inferior. They thought that genetics alone made up somebodys character and there was nothing that could be done to change them. But Jacob Riis thought that the slubs-being dark and overcrowded, and filled with hopelessness, hindered the process of social evolution. Riis drew a picture of the people living in the slums that was not pretty. Their environment he said was bad because it was filthy and dark and disorderly. He thought of it as unwholesome. He told stories of whole families made up of nine people living in two 10x10 rooms, or in Blind Mans Alley, where the walls were so covered in dirty, the couldnt even burn. The barracks he described were full of people living on top of each other in filth and there wasnt even any sunlight to encourage them. It was this kind of darkness and hopelessness that he said created most of the problems. It was this kind of darkness and hopelessness that he said created most of the problems. The Bend, a block that was notorious reported 146 cases of sickness only 10 years after it was built. 61 children under 1 year old had died in a three year span. There was also a lot of crime and a lot of drinking going on. Riis talked about beer dives where it was possible to obtain alcohol illegally at all times of the day or night. He talked particularly of the Irish, who spent all of his time drinking. According to one police chief, the Fourth Ward, had turned out more criminals in the past 0 years, than the whole city. Riis is quick to point out however, that while as a whole this group of people were immoral and full of faults, it was not all their fault that they led criminal lives. In some cases, they had no choice. He gave an example of a man who, ...stood at the corner of 5th Avenue and 14th Streetthe other day, looking gloomily at the carriages that rolled by, carrying the wealth and fashion of the avenues to and from the big stores downtown. He was poor, and hungry and ragged. This thought was in his mind They behind their well-fed teams have no thought for the morrow; they know hunger only by name, and ride down to spend in an hours shopping what would keep me and my little ones from want a whole year. There rose up before him the picture of those little ones crying for bread around the cold and cheerless hearth--then he sprang into the throng and slashed about him with a knife, blindly seeking to kill, to revenge. Thats an example of a man who was simply run down by his environment.


During this time period when the poorest class was being greated, the middle class also was created. He said the wealthy lived uptown in luxury, the poor lived in tenement housing, and the middle class lived outside the city in the growing suburbs. He wrote that it was the upper class that had caused conditions to get so bad. Even when they knew about all the problems, and the horrible living conditions, they did not care. But it was the growing middle class that could bridge the gap between these two extremes. And if they ignored the other half, it would be a growing problem till it overtook all of American society. So it would be up to the middle class to fix this problem through porgrams of social reform, and he warned them that Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. He went so far as to say it could lead to the nations collapse. Riis was sure to draw the many distinctions between the middle and lower class, and played on the middle classs fear that the poor would spill over into their lives, to make them pay attention. The problem, Riis says was caused by public neglect and private greed.


Riis was wise enough to know that this was a problem that was not going to go away, but the could at least make it a little better. As a result of his book, people began to realize that something had to be done. The problem was not going to go away, it was just going to get worse. It was the first step in improving society for the poor.


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