Sunday, January 15, 2006

How Did the "Other Half" Live?

In 1880, about half the residents of New York City lived in tenements; by 1890, with further immigration occurring, that percentage rose to about three-quarters. Tenement dwellers were dirt-poor, and, for the most part, illiterate. They lived in dark, crowded, poorly-ventilated buildings along both rivers, from the Battery to the Bronx. This photo, taken by New York Tribune reporter Jacob Riis, himself an immigrant, depicts a family of trouser-makers in their cramped living quarters on Ludlow Street, which is in the lower East Side below Delancey St. Up to 10 people, consisting of a family plus several boarders, lived in only 2 or 3 small rooms, with daylight, for the most part, evading at least half the windows. Everyone worked, even children below the age of 15. Their workdays were 17 hours long, from 6 am until bedtime at 11 pm, 7 days a week. Wages, only a little over one dollar per hour in today's dollars, barely covered the price of rent and food.

Few were shrewd and lucky enough to buy their way out of the tenements. Some of the rest despaired. One woman, the mother of 6 children, threw herself out a window to her death, because "she was discouraged," according to a neighbor. Upon hearing of her death, her husband and children stoically continued working, not having the luxury to mourn. The only way to survive under these conditions was to adopt such an outlook of philosophical optimism.

(Information from Riis, Jacob A., "How the Other Half Lives," 1900.)

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