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Other Half Is Living Better

FERNANDO FERRER wants to help "the other New York," he said in announcing his candidacy for mayor on Wednesday. That phrase has a noble ring to it, an echo of the classic advocacy for the poor in "How the Other Half Lives" and "The Other America." But who exactly are the "other" people? And why is it charitable to give them that label?

Jacob Riis, a newspaperman who could recognize a good phrase, copyrighted the title "How the Other Half Lives" even before he wrote the book. Traditionally, he explained, "the half that was on top cared little for the struggles, and less for the fate of those who were underneath." But now, Riis wrote in his 1890 book, there were missionaries (like himself) devoting lives of "unselfish thought and effort" to rescuing the lower half.

Riis obviously cared for the poor, but he never understood them and didn't seem to like them. He had no patience for the poor when their desires conflicted with his. He insisted on banishing them from tenements that offended his sensibilities -- never mind that they wanted to stay in their homes and couldn't pay for his middle- class tastes. How could the other half be expected to know what was good for them?

The poor became objects of his pity and his insulting generalizations. Italians were "content to live in a pig-sty," he wrote, while the Chinese were "in no sense a desirable element of the population." As for Eastern European Jews: "Money is their God. Life itself is of little value compared with even the leanest bank account."

Czechs were spendthrifts and drinkers, he wrote; Irish were peculiarly susceptible to becoming lazy beggars; blacks were carefree. "Poverty, abuse and injustice alike the Negro accepts with imperturbable cheerfulness," Riis wrote. "He loves fine clothes and good living a good deal more than he does a bank account."

As appalling as Riis could be in his condescension, he did at least see hope for the other half. With better homes, proper education, and hard work (he denounced able- bodied men who subsisted on charity), the poor could acquire the moral character and bourgeois habits of the top half. The other half could eventually join Riis's half.

By 1962, though, the other half had become "The Other America," the title of Michael Harrington's book. The poor were now a still more exotic entity, trapped in their own "fatal, futile universe" in which they "cannot help themselves." Only missionaries like Mr. Harrington could save them, and the key did not lie in Riis's old- fashioned ideas about work. Mr. Harrington called it "degrading" for young men in the ghetto to take minimum-wage jobs.

THAT philosophy became the norm in New York during the 1960's, as Vincent J. Cannato details in his new book, "The Ungovernable City: John Lindsay and His Struggle to Save New York." The welfare rolls soared during an economic boom, and Lindsay became the photogenic symbol of the white liberal reaching out to those beyond his social circle.

"He was the symbol of noblesse oblige," Mr. Cannato said. "He meant well and felt compassion, but it was compassion without any real knowledge of what was going on in poor neighborhoods."

FOR intellectuals, the other America became an exotic refuge from bourgeois values. Norman Mailer celebrated graffiti in poor neighborhoods, and James Baldwin said that Harlemites who threw garbage out their windows were engaging in social protest. Before long the poor had become the "underclass," which seemed even more alien and hopeless.

One in six New Yorkers remained on welfare when Rudolph W. Giuliani took office in 1993. He set about cutting the welfare rolls, preaching bourgeois values and promoting a radical new description of the social classes: "one city, one standard."

That philosophy hasn't personally endeared Mr. Giuliani to the city's poorer residents, but they've become more content with their neighborhoods. A survey by the Columbia University School of Social Work, released in March, showed that people's satisfaction with their neighborhoods had improved more dramatically in poor areas than in affluent areas.

Maybe, as Mr. Ferrer hopes, there are still enough unhappy poor people, and enough nonpoor people with guilty social consciences, to elect a candidate promising expensive new programs for the poor. Maybe Mr. Ferrer, a resident of Riverdale -- not exactly the wrong half of the Bronx -- will succeed by tapping into the alienation he sees in his other New York.

Or maybe there are a lot of voters starting to wonder whether the people in the other New York are really so different after all.

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