Shutting Out the Sky: Life in the Tenements of New York, 1880-1924

Hopkinson, Deborah. Shutting Out the Sky: Life in the Tenements of New York, 1880-1924. Orchard, 2003. 144pp. Lexile 990.

When 16-year-old Marcus Ravage left Romania in 1900 to move alone to the U.S., he couldn’t understand his mother’s despair at his departure.  Later he did understand, as he never saw her again.  Ravage is one of five young people who add a personal voice to this excellent, very readable account of life in Manhattan’s tenements in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  Instead of a chronological structure, the chapters look at different aspects of immigrant life, with an emphasis on young people.  It starts with their journeys here and what the newcomers, mostly Jews and Italians, thought of their new homes and overcrowded living quarters.  It goes on to look at work, life in the busy streets, learning English, and education, with effective quotes from the five teenagers, all of whom wrote about their experiences.  Short sections near the end tell about their later lives.  Sepia-tinted period photographs, many by Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis, enrich the text.  Back matter includes a time line, bibliography, notes, and index. 

Reading Std #4: Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including technical, connotative, and figurative meanings; analyze role of specific word choices.  In chapters on work, housing, and education, Hopkinson discusses efforts to improve tenements, reform child labor, and require education.  In doing so she uses terms important to government and trying to change government.  Have students find and analyze terms such as “regulations,” “codes,” “implementation,” and “enforcement.” Have them also consider language about trying to change conditions such as “boycott,” “strike,” “rent strike,” and “work stoppage.”