History 248 Reading Guide

“How the Other Half Lives”

  • Jacob A. Riis, How the Other Half Lives (1890).


Note:  keep in mind that while Riis wrote this as an observer--and therefore as a secondary source--we read it as a primary source.  He described his experience, and what he saw, as a reporter on a police beat.

  • Who was Jacob Riis?  How did he envision his role as a reporter on the lower east side of New York?
  • How do the photographs contribute to his report?  To what extent do they distract your reading of his narrative?
  • What did he intend to convey with ethnic and cultural stereotypes that he articulated?  What did he mean by “American” and “Americans”?  What measures and standards did he apply to both native-born and immigrant residents of New York?
  • Why did he write this report?  What concerned him?  What was the most indicting evaluation of his report?  What solutions could he envision?  (What limited his vision, and his solutions?)
  • What can we learn about late nineteenth-century urban conditions, and the process of immigration, acculturation, assimilation from his account?