Jacob Riis’s book, How the Other Half Lives, paints a bleak picture of a New York City that is riddled with poverty and corruption, which contributed to a negligent tenement housing system in the 1880s. It is obvious that this book was written in the nineteenth century, as much of the language used to describe Italians and Chinatown in New York City is influenced by stereotypes and generalizations. For example, when describing people who live in Chinatown, Riis says, “It is doubtful if there is anything he does not turn to a paying account, from his religion down, or up, as one prefers” (Riis 17). Despite the cultural and racial stereotypes of the book, Riis’s critiques of the broken housing system in New York City were justified. More importantly, Riis discussed a problem that affected a large portion of the city, but was ignored by many New Yorkers. Before the great riot of 1863, “it was said that ‘one half of the world does not know how the other half lives’… The half that was on top cared little for the struggles, and less for the fate of those who were underneath” (11). This ignorance began to change in the advent of muckraking, when journalists began reporting on uncovered stories of corruption and negligence of the lower classes.
Unfortunately, the problems that Riis discussed have not gone away, even though people began to talk about them. Riis argued that “the remedy that shall be an effective answer to the coming appeal for justice must proceed from the public conscience. Neither legislation nor charity can cover the ground. The greed of capital that wrought the evil must undo itself, as far as it can now be undone” (12). Riis identified capitalism as the problem that was central to New York’s housing crisis; he believed that anything short of changing this system was insufficient. One hundred years later, cities across the country continue to face housing crises such as eviction and poor public housing quality. Whether Riis’ proposed solution was correct is unknown, but his identification of the problem was certainly correct, and it still persists today.