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Written by TimothySexton

The first tenement New York knew bore the mark of Cain from its birth, though a generation passed before the writing was deciphered.


Well, if you are up on your Bible history, then you should realize right from the book’s opening line that the author is writing a pro-tenement history of New York City. The mark of Cain refers, of course, to what creationists insist is humankind’s first murder, that of Abel by his brother. Disregarding the inherent misunderstanding of the meaning of the mark of Cain, it is here referenced its standard symbolism of being cursed. Tenement housing was cursed from the start, the author is suggesting. The rest of the book will go on to explain why.

The Italian comes in at the bottom, and in the generation that came over the sea he stays there. In the slums he is welcomed as a tenant who “makes less trouble” than the contentious Irishman or the order-loving German, that is to say: is content to live in a pig-sty and submits to robbery at the hands of the rent-collector without murmur.


The story of tenement life, poverty and crime in New York City at the end of the 19th century is also the story of immigrant life when Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty actually meant something to people. The author here reveals the hierarchy that existed: last one in becomes the first one to be ostracized, blamed, repudiated and treated like trash. Except, of course, that the African immigrant came before any of the rest—not even by choice—and, well, guess who ranked even below the Italians? The modern reader needs to keep in mind that references to ethnic groups can border on—and cross right over—the line of today’s decency. It is likely not actually a demonstration of genuine racism, but rather generation prejudice and a bias in the vernacular.

The causes that operate to obstruct efforts to better the lot of the tenement population are, in our day, largely found among the tenants themselves. This is true particularly of the poorest. They are shiftless, destructive, and stupid; in a word, they are what the tenements have made them. It is a dreary old truth that those who would fight for the poor must fight the poor to do it.


Riis is a committed social activist who deeply cared about the issue of improving the lives of those living in squalor and poverty in the tenements of New York. That being said, it is also true that he has some perspectives, opinions and ways of stating things that are not exactly in alignment with 21st century notions of social work. This particular passage is a prime example and one that is repeated in various ways relative to a variety of subjects throughout. Certainly, it is not exactly what one would call enlightened thinking nowadays to blame the poor in any way for their conditions of living which are obviously beyond their control, but—like the racist commentary—this is again an example more of societal conformity than any particular gloomy insight into Riis personally. It is also not exactly a way of thinking that that has gone completely out of fashion; many of those purporting to help the underprivileged today also do so out of the conceptualization that simply by virtue of being economically superior they must by definition bet intellectually superior and harder workers.

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