Knowing How the Other Half Lives: An Essential First Step

DSC_0765Some say New York City is the most influential city in history. Urban scholar, Edward Soja, says New York (along with L.A.) is the more cultural diverse than any other city in history. It went from a sleepy farming community to a bustling city drawing hundreds of thousands of immigrants from every corner of the world within two centuries. One of those immigrants arrived from Denmark in 1870. Jacob Riis, like many immigrants, worked long hours at a variety of jobs. He caught a break and became a police reporter for the New York Tribune. Riis knew well what it meant to be destitute, homeless, and to work long hours and still be hungry. This experience and his journalistic skills combined to produce a book that would be a force for good in Gotham.


Riis spent his nights exploring the teeming tenement housing in the Lower Eastside and a neighborhood so embroiled in violence the police called it Hell’s Kitchen. He compiled research, firsthand accounts, and photographic evidence and wrote How the Other Half Lives. Published 1890, Riis captured the difficult lives of three-quarters of New York’s population jammed into human density without any parallel in our times. Riis asked the poignant question: “How shall the love of God be understood by those who have been nurtured in sight only of the greed of man?” (5)


While countless children died due to the insufferable living conditions of the urban poor, the middle and upper classes had no idea. And government policies reflected this ignorance. The publication of How the Other Half Lives put Riis’ research in the laps of New York City’s decision makers and in the minds of the public. The book sold well, public outcry precipitated, and it gained the attention of the police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, who was changed by "the great gift of making others see what he saw and feel what he felt” (see article by Jimmy Stamp). Roosevelt took action by closing the worst of the tenement houses. Furthermore new housing policies were developed that were more just and huStreet Children 19th c NYCmane.

Some have been skeptical about the need for quality research in the city. Sometimes those skeptics are the same ones who have no idea of the enormous populations suffering under difficult circumstances. One of our primary purposes at RADIUS is to follow in the footsteps of Jacob Riis in doing solid research and making it accessible to churches in order to love our neighbors to the best of our abilities.


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