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Jacob Riis

Jacob Riis

Jacob Riis, the third of fifteen children, was born in Ribe, Denmark, on 3rd May, 1849. He worked as a carpenter in Copenhagen before emigrating to the United States in 1870. Unable to find work, he was often forced to spend the night in police station lodging houses.

Riis did a variety of menial jobs before finding work with a news bureau in New York City in 1873. The following year he was recruited by the South Brooklyn News. In 1877 Riis became a police reporter for the New York Tribune. Aware of what it was like to live in poverty, Riis was determined to use this opportunity to employ his journalistic skills to communicate this to the public. He constantly argued that the "poor were the victims rather than the makers of their fate".

In 1888 Riis was employed as a photo-journalist by the New York Evening Sun. Riis was among the first photographers to use flash powder, which enabled him to photograph interiors and exteriors of the slums at night. He also became associated with what later became known as muckraking journalism.

In December, 1889, an account of city life, illustrated by photographs, appeared in Scribner's Magazine. This created a great deal of interest and the following year, a full-length version, How the Other Half Lives, was published. The book was seen by Theodore Roosevelt, the New York Police Commissioner, and he had the city police lodging houses that were featured in the book closed down.

Harold Evans, the author of The American Century: People, Power and Politics (1998) has pointed out: "Jacob Riis estimated that Dickensian London had 175,816 people living on every square mile of its worst slums but New York's Lower East Side by the nineties in contrast, had about 290,000 per square mile, making it perhaps the worst slum in the history of the Western world.... He records a tenement block with 1,324 Italian immigrants living in a total of 132 rooms. In one 12-by-12-foot room he found five families, 20 people, with two beds between them. One third of the entire city population - about 1.2 million - lived in 43,000 tenement houses like these, without running water or indoor flush toilets... Some 40 percent of them had tuberculosis. One third of all their babies died before their first birthday."

Over the next twenty-five years Jacob Riis wrote and lectured on the problems of the poor. This included magic lantern shows and one observer noted that "his viewers moaned, shuddered, fainted and even talked to the photographs he projected, reacting to the slides not as images but as a virtual reality that transported the New York slum world directly into the lecture hall."

The work of Riis inspired Lincoln Steffens, the man considered to be the "godfather" of investigative journalism argued in Autobiography (1931): "He (Riis) not only got the news; he cared about the news. He hated passionately all tyrannies, abuses, miseries, and he fought them. He was a terror to the officials and landlords responsible, as he saw it, for the desperate condition of the tenements where the poor lived. He had exposed them in articles, books, and public speeches, and with results. All the philanthropists in town knew and backed Riis, who was able then, as a reformer and a reporter, too, to force the appointment of a Tenement House Commission that he gently led and fiercely drove to an investigation and a report which - followed up by this terrible reporter-resulted in the wiping out of whole blocks of rookeries, the making of small parks, and the regulation of the tenements."

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Riis also wrote over a dozen books including Children of the Poor (1892), Out of Mulberry Street (1898), an autobiography, The Making of An American (1901), The Battle With the Slum (1902), and Children of the Tenement (1903).

Jacob Riis died in Barrie, Massachusetts, on 26th May, 1914.

What is a tenement? The law defines it as a house "occupied by three or four more families, living independently and doing their cooking on the premises; or by more than two families on a floor, so living and cooking and having a common right in the halls, stairways, yards, etc."

The tenement is generally a brick building from four to six stories high on the street, frequently with a store on the first floor which, used for the sale of liquor, has a side opening for the benefit of the inmates and to evade the Sunday law; four families occupy each floor, and a set of rooms consists of one or two dark closets, used as bedrooms, with a living room twelve feet by ten. The staircase is too often a dark well in the centre of the house, and no direct through ventilation is possible, each family being separated from the other by partition.

On either side of the narrow entrance to Bandits' Roost is "the Bend". Abuse is the normal condition of "the Bend," murder is everyday crop, with the tenants not always the criminals. In this block between Bayard, Park, Mulberry, and Baxter Streets, "the Bend" proper, the late Tenement House Commission counted 155 deaths of children in a specimen year (1882). Their percentage of the total mortality in the block was 68.28, while for the whole city the proportion was only 46.20. In No. 59 next to Bandits' Roost, fourteen persons died that year, and eleven of them were children; in No. 61 eleven, and eight of them not yet five years old.

Ever since the civil war New York has been receiving the overflow of coloured population from the Southern cities. In the last decade this migration has grown to such proportions that it is estimated that our Blacks have quite doubled in number since the Tenth Census. Whether the exchange has been of advantage to the Negro may well be questioned. Trades of which he had practical control in his Southern home are not open to him here. I know that it may be answered that there is no industrial proscription of colour; that it is a matter of choice. Perhaps so. At all events he does not choose them. How many coloured carpenters or masons has anyone seen at work in New York?

Cleanliness is the characteristic of the Negro in his new surroundings, as it was his virtue in the old. In this respect he is immensely the superior of the lowest of the whites, the Italians and the Polish Jews, below whom he has been classed in the past in the tenant scale. This was shown by an inquiry made last year by the Real Estate Record. It proved agents to be practically unanimous in the endorsement of the Negro as a clean, orderly, and profitable tenant.

Poverty, abuse, and injustice alike the Negro accepts with imperturbable cheerfulness. His philosophy is of the kind that has no room for repining. Whether he lives in an Eighth Ward barrack or in a tenement with a brown-stone front and pretensions to the tile of "flat," he looks at the sunny side of life and enjoys it. He loves fine clothes and good living a good deal more than he does a bank account.

The homes of the Hebrew quarter are its workshops also. You are made fully aware of it before you have travelled the length of a single block in any of these East End streets, by the whirr of a thousand sewing-machines, worked at high pressure from earliest dawn until mind and muscle give out together. Every member of the family, from the youngest to to the oldest, bears a hand, shut in the qualmy rooms, where meals are cooked and clothing washed and dried besides, the live-long day. It is not unusual to find a dozen persons - men, women and children - at work in a single room.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children maintains five of these boys' lodging-houses, and one for girls, in the city. The Duane Street Lodging House alone has sheltered since its foundation in 1855 nearly a quarter of a million different boys. In all of the lodging-houses together, 12,153 boys and girls were sheltered and taught last year. Besides these, the Society has established and operates in the tenement districts twenty-one industrial schools, co-ordinate with the public schools in authority, for the children of the poor who cannot find room in the city's school-houses, or are too ragged to go there; two free reading-rooms, a dress-making and typewriting school and a laundry for the instruction of girls; a sick-children's mission in the city and two on the sea-shore, where poor mothers may take their babies; a cottage by the sea for crippled girls, and a brush factory for crippled boys in Forty-fourth Street.

The Italian school in Leonard Street, alone, had an average attendance of over six hundred pupils last year. The daily average attendance at all of them was 4,105, while 11,331 children were registered and taught. When the fact that there were among these 1,132 children of drunken parents, and 416 that had been found begging in the street, is contrasted with the showing of $1,337.21 deposited in the school savings banks by 1,745 pupils, something like an adequate idea is gained by the scope of the Society's work in the city.

Jake Riis was a Danish American who "covered" police headquarters, the Health Department, which was then in the same building, and "the East Side," which was a short name for the poor and the foreign quarters of the city. And he not only got the news; he cared about the news. He was a "terror" to the officials and landlords responsible, as he saw it, for the desperate condition of the tenements where the poor lived. He had "exposed" them in articles, books, and public speeches, and with results. All the philanthropists in town knew and backed Riis, who was able then, as a reformer and a reporter, too, to force the appointment of a Tenement House Commission that he gently led and fiercely drove to an investigation and a report which-followed up by this terrible reporter-resulted in the wiping out of whole blocks of rookeries, the making of small parks, and the regulation of the tenements. He had discovered these evils as a reporter, reporting, say, a suicide, a fire, or a murder. These were the news, which all the reporters got; only Riis wrote them as stories, with heart, humor, and understanding. And having "seen" the human side of the crime or the disaster, he had taken note also of the house or the block or the street where it happened. He went back and he described that, too; he called on the officers and landlords who permitted the conditions, and "blackmailed" them into reforms.


Exploring the history of Jacob Riis Park, the “people’s beach”

The most recent bout of oppressive summer heat is enough to make New Yorkers want to vacate the city in search of a relaxing seaside destination—and fortunately, such an idyllic escape exists right in Queens. For a century, Jacob Riis Park has served as a welcome escape for many city denizens, and it’s currently experiencing a resurgence that has led to record crowds. But it’s more than just a beach it’s also an artifact from the oft-controversial Robert Moses era of NYC development that still resonates today.

The land that Riis Park now occupies was once home to Naval Air Station Rockaway, one of the U.S. Navy’s original stations. The first transatlantic flight ended here in 1919, operated by the US Navy using the Curtiss NC flying boat (NC-4). The NAS Rockaway remained in operation until 1930, when it was demolished to allow for the park’s construction. However, the NAS wasn’t eradicated it was instead relocated across the Jamaica Bay inlet to Floyd Bennett Field.

The park is named for Danish-born photojournalist and social reformer Jacob Riis, who documented the squalid living conditions of the city’s poorest populations. His most famous works—the publications How the Other Half Lives (1890) and Children of the Poor (1892)—inspired then-police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt to "close the worst of the lodging houses and spurred city officials to reform and enforce the city’s housing policies." Riis was also an advocate for playgrounds and open space, as well as a nearby resident of Jamaica, Queens. He played a prominent role in the acquisition what was once known as Telawana Park, and the space was renamed for him after his death in 1914.

The park is perhaps best known for its Art Deco bathhouse, which opened in 1932. Designed by John L. Plock for the architectural firm of Stoughton & Stoughton, the building was constructed of limestone, brick and cast-stone, and completed for $530,000. The pavilion accommodated 8,000 beachgoers and contained a cafeteria on the ground floor and on the second floor, a restaurant opening out to a terrace (Ballon and Jackson, 2007).

Moses’s involvement began in 1934 when he enacted a series of renovations and additions to the park to the tune of $1.7 million. In examining the handsome bathing pavilion, he concluded that it extended too far onto the beach, noting that during high tide the water lapped the front of the building. His solution: to remove one hundred feet from the front of the structure as well as some of the building’s architectural detail. In Hillary Ballon and Kenneth Jackson’s book, Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York, they describe Moses’s subtractions and additions as follows:

"He eliminated the part of the building that projected onto the beach and replaced it with a conspicuously incongruous concrete facade with squat columns supporting a convex upper floor punctuated by a ribbon window. He added two wings for dressing rooms at either side of the pavilion and spoiled the delicacy of the original towers by topping them with 15 feet of bleak unadorned brick. The heavy brick additions appear to squash the light, intricate stonework of the originals."

Moses commissioned a new bathhouse to be built to the west of the existing, renovated structure. It was designed by Aymar Embury II, who frequently collaborated with Moses on public projects. Completed in 1937, this one-story brick and concrete structure featured "simplified and flattened classical forms," in which Embury was "playfully imitating the classical tradition of stone columns without trying to mask the nature of his economical material," per Ballon and Jackson. A clock tower on the building’s west side was also added.

Moses’s plan also included a 40-foot wide boardwalk and expansive parking lot for 14,000 vehicles. In addition, a variety of amenities and recreational activities were added for beach goers, including playgrounds courts for table tennis, handball and shuffleboard and a pitch-and-putt golf course. Landscape architect Gilmore Clarke, who frequently collaborated with Moses, planted grasses and shrubs alongside the recreational facilities to create a distinct barrier from the boardwalk. The Parks Department would be solely in charge of all concessions and services, much to the chagrin of local businesses who were previously allowed to sell their provisions and wares without restriction.

Riis was designed to be reminiscent of Moses’s personal favorite project—Jones Beach, on Long Island—but with the benefit of being more accessible for New York City denizens. With the opening of the Marine Parkway Bridge in 1937, a visit to the beach was just a car ride or a bus fare away. Moses also wanted Riis Beach to be the antithesis of the crowded and amusement-driven Coney Island. As stated in Ballon and Jackson’s book, the New York Times described it as the following:

"Although Riis Park lies only six miles east of Coney Island it is a million miles away from the so-called Coney Island tradition. Thundering spray, instead of rattling roller coasters, makes the chief music of the beach."

New York City would retain ownership of the park until 1974, when the city’s dire financial crisis led it to be transferred to the National Park Service. Riis was absorbed into Gateway National Recreation Area, which includes 27,000 acres of coastal properties including the neighboring Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Fort Tilden, and Floyd Bennett Field. The 21st century has seen a resurgence in Riis Park’s popularity, thanks in part to the Riis Park Beach Bazaar, which has taken up residence in portions of the existing historic buildings. The venture has solidified Riis as an enviable, yet attainable, summertime destination.

Growing up in Brooklyn just across the Marine Parkway Bridge, Riis was a frequent summertime excursion. Years later, I am delighted to say that it still is. With each passing year, the increasing popularity of my hometown beach becomes more and more evident. Its picturesque natural landscape and restorative qualities that I have always known to be true have now become truth for others.


The area to become the Riis houses was destroyed through urban renewal beginning in August 1943 but construction was delayed because of World War II. [4] [5] The Riis Houses were completed on January 17, 1949 and named for photographer Jacob Riis, who exposed the living conditions of tenement dwellers on the Lower East Side. [3]

The playground was designed to have four "outdoor rooms" for a variety of activities and was designed by Pomerance & Breines with M. Paul Freidberg & Associates as landscape architects. [6] It was financed through a grant from the Victor Astor Foundation and opened in 1966 with Ladybird Johnson attending its opening. [7] Later that year, it received a First Honor Award for design excellence by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. [6] Four new playgrounds throughout the city were modeled from it in 1967. [8] In 2018, its playground was inspected by NYCHA and found to be hazardous. [9]

During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the development was hit by a storm surge that left it without electricity and other services. [10] [11] In 2018, NYCHA received a grant for $7.1 million to fund necessary infrastructure repairs from Sandy anticipated to begin in 2022. Upgrades include: emergency generators, electrical distribution equipment, waterproofing of structures and finishes, upgrades to sewer/storm management systems, new roadways, pedestrian lighting, rehabilitation of building entrances and lobbies. [12]

  1. ^"Jacob Riis Houses Population".
  2. ^
  3. "Jacon Riis Houses Area" . Retrieved November 7, 2019 .
  4. ^ ab
  5. "MyNYCHA Developments Portal". my.nycha.info . Retrieved July 23, 2019 .
  6. ^
  7. "THE LOWER EAST SIDE CHANGES". New York Times . Retrieved July 23, 2019 .
  8. ^
  9. "CORNERSTONE LAID AT THE RIIS HOUSES Renewal of Federal Aid Urged at Last Project Under Way Here With Help of FPHA". New York Times . Retrieved July 23, 2019 .
  10. ^ ab
  11. "Designers of 7 Developments Honored by U.S. Agency JACOB RIIS HOUSES GAIN AWARD HERE". New York Times . Retrieved July 23, 2019 .
  12. ^
  13. "Mrs. Johnson Opens Riis Playground Mrs. Johnson Comes Here to Help Open the Experimental Riis Playground". New York Times . Retrieved July 23, 2019 .
  14. ^
  15. "City Is Building 12 Movable Playgrounds Designs Allow for Freedom in Shaping". NY Times. January 28, 1967 . Retrieved July 23, 2019 .
  16. ^
  17. Otterman, Sharon (April 4, 2018). "Audit Finds Playground Perils in Housing Authority Developments". The New York Times. ISSN0362-4331 . Retrieved July 23, 2019 .
  18. ^
  19. Buckley, Cara Wilson, Michael (November 2, 2012). "In Public Housing After Hurricane Sandy, Fear, Misery and Heroism". The New York Times. ISSN0362-4331 . Retrieved July 23, 2019 .
  20. ^
  21. "Life after Sandy remains hard for New York's poor". The Independent. November 2, 2012.
  22. ^
  23. "WDF Announces $71 Million Jacob Riis Houses Restoration Project". www.businesswire.com. December 5, 2018 . Retrieved July 23, 2019 .
  24. ^
  25. Kleinfield, N. R. Sengupta, Somini (March 8, 2012). "Hacker, Informant and Party Boy of the Projects". The New York Times. "Hector Xavier Monsegur, or Sabu, lived in Apartment 6F at 90 Avenue D in the Jacob Riis complex in Manhattan."

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Jacob Riis - History

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Of the many photos said to have "changed the world," there are those that simply haven't (stunning though they may be), those that sort of have, and then those that truly have.

The photos that sort of changed the world likely did so in as much as they made us all feel something. The photos that truly changed the world in a practical, measurable way did so because they made enough of us do something.

And few photos truly changed the world like those of Jacob Riis.

The New York City to which the poor young Jacob Riis immigrated from Denmark in 1870 was a city booming beyond belief. In the three decades leading up to his arrival, the city's population, driven relentlessly upward by intense immigration, had more than tripled. Over the next three decades, it would nearly quadruple.

Unsurprisingly, the city couldn't seamlessly take in so many new residents all at once. Equally unsurprisingly, those that were left on the fringes to fight for whatever scraps of a living they could were the city's poor immigrants.

Confined to crowded, disease-ridden neighborhoods filled with ramshackle tenements that might house 12 adults in a room that was 13 feet across, New York's immigrant poor lived a life of struggle — but a struggle confined to the slums and thus hidden from the wider public eye.

Jacob Riis changed all that. Working as a police reporter for the New-York Tribune and unsatisfied with the extent to which he could capture the city's slums with words, Riis eventually found that photography was the tool he needed.

Starting in the 1880s, Riis ventured into the New York that few were paying attention to and documented its harsh realities for all to see. By 1890, he was able to publish his historic photo collection whose title perfectly captured just how revelatory his work would prove to be: How the Other Half Lives.

A startling look at a world hard to fathom for those not doomed to it, How the Other Half Lives featured photos of New York's immigrant poor and the tenements, sweatshops, streets, docks, dumps, and factories that they called home in stark detail.

And as arresting as these images were, their true legacy doesn't lie in their aesthetic power or their documentary value, but instead in their ability to actually effect change.

"I have read your book, and I have come to help," then-New York Police Commissioners board member Theodore Roosevelt famously told Riis in 1894. And Roosevelt was true to his word.

Though not the only official to take up the cause that Jacob Riis had brought to light, Roosevelt was especially active in addressing the treatment of the poor. As a city official and later as state governor and vice president of the nation, Roosevelt had some of New York's worst tenements torn down and created a commission to ensure that ones that unlivable would not be built again.

With this new government department in place as well as Jacob Riis and his band of citizen reformers pitching in, new construction went up, streets were cleaned, windows were carved into existing buildings, parks and playgrounds were created, substandard homeless shelters were shuttered, and on and on and on.

While New York's tenement problem certainly didn't end there and while we can't attribute all of the reforms above to Jacob Riis and How the Other Half Lives, few works of photography have had such a clear-cut impact on the world. It's little surprise that Roosevelt once said that he was tempted to call Riis "the best American I ever knew."

For more Jacob Riis photographs from the era of How the Other Half Lives, see this visual survey of the Five Points gangs. Then, see what life was like inside the slums inhabited by New York's immigrants around the turn of the 20th century.


The harsh lives of New York City street kids, captured — in a flash — by Jacob Riis (The Alienist)

HISTORY BEHIND THE SCENE What’s the real story behind that historical scene from your favorite TV show or feature film? A semi-regular feature on the Bowery Boys blog, we will be reviving this series as we follow along with TNT’s limited series The Alienist. Look for other articles here about other historically themed television shows (Mad Men, The Knick, The Deuce, Boardwalk Empire and Copper). And follow along with the Bowery Boys on Twitter at @boweryboys for more historical context of your favorite shows.

Look near the very end of the fourth episode of The Alienist, and you’ll see a surprising homage to an iconic, heartbreaking photograph.

Called ‘Street Arabs in the Area of Mulberry Street‘, the image, taken in 1889, depicts three homeless boys sleeping over a heated vent on the bottom floor of a tenement (in the area of today’s Little Italy).

Their names are unknown. In the late 19th century, hundreds of children lived on the streets of New York, turned out of their homes or separated from their loved ones. Many actually did have loving families but living conditions in the tenements were so squalid that some chose to sleep on the street.

We have this image — and many, many similar ones — thanks to journalist and social reformer Jacob Riis.

On February 12, 1888, Jacob Riis published his first investigation for the New York Sun, revealing the wretched conditions of New York’s worst slum neighborhoods by employing an experimental technology — flash photography. The startling pictures, by Riis and a team of other photographers, were at first rendered in line drawings, but the effect was nevertheless profound.

The entire article is available online but here’s the passage pertinent to the photograph above:

Another outcropping of the benevolent purpose of Mr. Riis … is his showing of a touching picture of street Arabs in sleeping quarters which it must have taken a hunt to discover. These youngers have evidently spent their lodging money for gallery seats at the show and have found shelter on the back stoop of an old tenement house.”

Below: An illustration from the Feb. 12, 1888, newspaper, and the Riis photograph (of Bandit’s Roost) that it represents.

The pictures are more than social activism they’re history themselves, the first flash photography ever to be used in this fashion. Riis was showing New Yorkers a vivid glimpse of poverty — orphans in the gutter, street gangs in the alleyway — using a technique that few were regularly exposed to apart from portraiture.

Riis never considered himself a professional photographer. Later in his career, he even farmed out the photographic work to others as he focused on writing and social activism. And yet modern photojournalism wouldn’t really be what it was today without his first forays into slums, opium dens and beer halls with his bulky and costly equipment. His early work influenced an entire field of social photographers seeking to prove the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” (a phrase which debuted near the end of Riis’ lifetime).

MCNY

His work would eventually be published as a book in 1890 — How The Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York — and Riis would spend the decade virtually proselytizing on behalf of the city’s needy.

In that book, he expounds upon the plight of the ‘street Arab’, aka street urchin.

“They are to be found all over the city, these Street Arabs, where the neighborhood offers a chance of picking up a living in the daytime and of “turning in” at night with a promise of security from surprise. In warm weather a truck in the street, a convenient out-house, or a dug-out in a hay-barge at the wharf make good bunks. Two were found making their nest once in the end of a big iron pipe up by the Harlem Bridge, and an old boiler at the East River served as an elegant flat for another couple.”

Below: Two boys asleep at 2 a.m. in the press room of the New York Sun newspaper.

Most street kids are newspaper boys or bootblacks, fighting for scraps and a few pennies. In another section, Riis writes:

“We wuz six,” said an urchin of twelve or thirteen I came across in the Newsboys’ Lodging House, “and we ain’t got no father. Some on us had to go.” And so he went, to make a living by blacking boots. The going is easy enough. There is very little to hold the boy who has never known anything but a home in a tenement. Very soon the wild life in the streets holds him fast, and thenceforward by his own effort there is no escape. Left alone to himself, he soon enough finds a place in the police books, and there would be no other answer to the second question: “what becomes of the boy?” than that given by the criminal courts every day in the week.”

“Didn’t live nowhere.” MCNY

Below are more pictures of children on the streets of New York City in the late 1880s and early 1890s, taken by Riis and his associates, courtesy the Museum of the City of New York.

MCNY
“Shooting Craps: The Game of the Street,” Bootblacks and Newsboys, 1894″ MCNY A line-up of boys in a Mulberry Street alley. 1890, MCNY A young boy holding a baby, a woman reaches for them. 1890, MCNY 1890, MCNY The Mott Street Boys, “Keep off the Grass”. 1890. MCNY

This article excerpts a portion of our review of the Museum of the City of New York’s 2015 exhibition on Riis.


Pioneering Social Reformer Jacob Riis Revealed “How The Other Half Lives” in America

In 1870, when Jacob August Riis immigrated to America from Denmark on the steamship Iowa, he rode in steerage with nothing but the clothes on his back, 40 borrowed dollars in his pocket, and a locket containing a single hair from the girl he loved. It must have been hard for the 21-year-old Riis to imagine that in just a few short years, he would be pallin’ around with a future president, become a pioneer in photojournalism, and help reform housing policy in New York City.

Jacob Riis, who died 100 years ago this month, struggled through his first few years in the United States. Unable to find a steady job, he worked as a farmhand, ironworker, brick-layer, carpenter, and salesman, and experienced the worst aspects of American urbanism--crime, sickness, squalor--in the low-rent tenements and lodging houses that would eventually inspire the young Danish immigrant to dedicate himself to improving living conditions for the city’s lower-class.

Through a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work, he got a job as a journalist and a platform for exposing the plight of the lower class community. Eventually, Riis became a police reporter for The New York Tribune, covering some of the city's most crime-ridden districts, a job that would would lead to fame and a friendship with police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, who called Riis "the best American I ever knew." Riis knew what it was to suffer, to starve, and to be homeless, and, though his prose was sometimes sensationalist and even occasionally prejudiced, he had what Roosevelt called "the great gift of making others see what he saw and feel what he felt."

But Riis wanted to literally show the the world what he saw. So, to help his readers truly understand the dehumanizing dangers of the immigrant neighborhoods he knew all too well, Riis taught himself photography and began taking a camera with him on his nightly rounds. The recent invention of flash photography made it possible to document the dark, over-crowded tenements, grim saloons and dangerous slums. Riis’s pioneering use of flash photography brought to light even the darkest parts of the city. Used in articles, books, and lectures, his striking compositions became powerful tools for social reform.

Riis’s 1890 treatise of social criticism How the Other Half Lives was written in the belief “that every man’s experience ought to be worth something to the community from which he drew it, no matter what that experience may be, so long as it was gleaned along the line of some decent, honest work.” Full of unapologetically harsh accounts of life in the worst slums of New York, fascinating and terrible statistics on tenement living, and reproductions of his revelatory photographs, How the Other Half Lives
was a shock to many New Yorkers - and an immediate success. Not only did it sell well, but it inspired Roosevelt to close the worst of the lodging houses and spurred city officials to reform and enforce the city’s housing policies. To once again quote the future President of the United States: “The countless evils which lurk in the dark corners of our civic institutions, which stalk abroad in the slums, and have their permanent abode in the crowded tenement houses, have met in Mr. Riis the most formidable opponent every encountered by them in New York City.”


How the Other Half Lives

Jacob August Riis, “Knee-pants” at forty five cents a dozen—A Ludlow Street Sweater’s Shop, c. 1890, 7 x 6″, from How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1890 (The Museum of the City of New York)

The slums of New York

Jacob Riis documented the slums of New York, what he deemed the world of the “other half,” teeming with immigrants, disease, and abuse. A police reporter and social reformer, Riis became intimately familiar with the perils of tenement living and sought to draw attention to the horrendous conditions. Between 1888 and 1892, he photographed the streets, people, and tenement apartments he encountered, using the vivid black and white slides to accompany his lectures and influential text, How the Other Half Lives, published in 1890 by Scribner’s. His powerful images brought public attention to urban conditions, helping to propel a national debate over what American working and living conditions should be.

Jacob August Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1890

A Danish immigrant, Riis arrived in America in 1870 at the age of 21, heartbroken from the rejection of his marriage proposal to Elisabeth Gjørtz. Riis initially struggled to get by, working as a carpenter and at various odd jobs before gaining a footing in journalism. In 1877 he became a police reporter for The New York Tribune, assigned to the beat of New York City’s Lower East Side. Riis believed his personal struggle as an immigrant who “reached New York with just one cent in my pocket”¹ shaped his involvement in reform efforts to alleviate the suffering he witnessed.

As a police reporter, Riis had unique access to the city’s slums. In the evenings, he would accompany law enforcement and members of the health department on raids of the tenements, witnessing the atrocities people suffered firsthand. Riis tried to convey the horrors to readers, but struggled to articulate the enormity of the problems through his writings. Impressed by the newly invented flash photography technique he read about, Riis began to experiment with the medium in 1888, believing that pictures would have the power to expose the tenement-house problem in a way that his textual reporting could not do alone. Indeed, the images he captured would shock the conscience of Americans.

Jacob August Riis, The Mulberry Bend, c. 1890, 7 x 6″, from How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1890 (The Museum of the City of New York)

Midnight rounds

At first Riis engaged the services of a photographer who would accompany him as he made his midnight rounds with the police, but ultimately dissatisfied with this arrangement, Riis purchased a box camera and learned to use it. The flash technique used a combination of explosives to achieve the light necessary to take pictures in the dark. The process was new and messy and Riis made adjustments as he went. First, he or his assistants would position the camera on a tripod and then they would ignite the mixture of magnesium flash-powder above the camera lens, causing an explosive noise, great smoke, and a blinding flash of light. Initially, Riis used a revolver to shoot cartridges containing the explosive magnesium flash-powder, but he soon discovered that showing up waving pistols set the wrong tone and substituted a frying pan for the gun, flashing the light on that instead. The process certainly terrified those in the vicinity and also proved dangerous. Riis reported setting two fires in places he visited and nearly blinding himself on one occasion.

Jacob August Riis, “A man atop a make-shift bed that consists of a plank across two barrels,” c. 1890, 7 x 6″, from How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1890 (The Museum of the City of New York)

Home and work

While it is unclear if Riis’ pictures were totally candid or posed, his agenda of using the stark images to persuade the middle and upper classes that reform was needed is well documented. A major theme of Riis’ images was the terrible conditions immigrants lived in. In the 1890s, tenement apartments served as both homes and as garment factories. “Knee-Pants at Forty-Five Cents a Dozen—A Ludlow Street Sweater’s Shop” depicts the intersection of home and work life that was typical. Note the number of people crowded together making knickers and consider their ages, gender, and role. Each worker would be paid by the piece produced and each had his/her own particular role to fill in the shop which was also a family’s home.

Detail, Jacob August Riis, “Knee-pants” at forty five cents a dozen—A Ludlow Street Sweater’s Shop, c. 1890, 7 x 6″, from How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1890 (The Museum of the City of New York)

While Riis did not record the names of the people he photographed, he organized his book into ethnic sections, categorizing the images according to the racial and ethnic stereotypes of his age. In this regard, Riis has been criticized for both his bias and reducing those photographed to nameless victims. “Knee-Pants,” appears in the chapter Jewtown and one can assume that the individuals are part of the large wave of Eastern European Jewish migration that flooded New York at the turn of the twentieth century.

Detail of the “Table of Contents,” Jacob August Riis, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1914

They are likely conversing in Yiddish and share some type of familial or neighborly connection. Some of the workers depicted might have lived in a neighboring New York City apartment or next door back in the old country. Home life, family relations and business relations, are intertwined. Just as it is impossible to know the names of the people captured in Riis’ image, and what Riis actually thought of them, one also cannot know their own impressions of the workplace, or their hopes and day-to-day challenges.

Jacob August Riis, 󈫼 year old boy at work pulling threads. Had sworn certificate he was 16—owned under cross-examination to being 12. His teeth corresponded with that age,” c. 1890, 7 x 6″, from How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons: New York, 1890 (The Museum of the City of New York)

The work performed in tenements like these throughout the Lower East Side made New York City the largest producer of clothing in the United States. Under the contracting system, the tenement shop would be responsible for assembling the garments, which made up the bulk of the work. By 1910, New York produced 70% of women’s clothing and 40% of men’s ready-made clothing. That meant that the knee-pants and garments made by the workers captured in this Ludlow Street sweatshop were shipped across the nation. Riis’ photographs helped make the sweatshop a subject of a national debate and the center of a struggle between workers, owners, consumers, politicians, and social reformers.

The Progressive Era

Riis’ photographs are part of a larger reform effort undertaken during the Progressive Era, that sought to address the problems of rapid industrialization and urbanization. Progressives worked under the premise that if one studies and documents a problem and proposes and tests solutions, difficulties can ultimately be solved, improving the welfare of society as a whole. Progressives like Riis, Lewis Hine, and Jessie Tarbox Beals pioneered the tradition of documentary photography, using the tool to record and publicize working and housing conditions and a renewed call for reform. These efforts ultimately led to government regulation and the passage of the 1901 Tenement House Law, which mandated new construction and sanitation regulations that improved the access to air, light, and water in all tenement buildings.

Jessie Tarbox Beals, Child on Fire Escape, c. 1918, for the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor (Columbia University Libraries)

In the introduction to the How the Other Half Lives, Riis challenged his readers to confront societal ills, asking “What are you going to do about it? is the question of to-day.” It was a question of the past, but one that endures.

Go deeper

Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom, Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-Century New York ( Chicago University Press, 2014).


Jacob Riis - History

H e arrived on America's shores in 1870 virtually penniless. Twenty-one-year-old Jacob Riis had traveled from his native Denmark to find a better life. He spent the next few years on the brink of starvation as he went from job to job, never finding anything lasting. His big break came in 1877 when he was hired as a police reporter by the New York Tribune newspaper.

In 1887 Riis learned of a new photographic method that ignited flash powder to provide enough illumination to take photos in darkness. Soon he was incorporating this method in his coverage of the city, first employing other photographers and then taking the photos himself. His objective was to document the conditions he saw in order to change them. In 1891 he published How the Other Half Lives. The force of his words combined with the stark reality of his photos did much to sway public opinion to cleaning up the squalled conditions in the tenements

"I found the patient on the top floor stretched upon two chairs. . ."

"That ignorance plays its part, as well as poverty and bad hygienic surroundings, in the sacrifice of life is of course inevitable. They go usually hand in hand.

A message came one day last spring summoning me to a Mott Street tenement in which lay a child dying from some unknown disease. With the 'charity doctor' I found the patient on the top floor stretched upon two chairs in a dreadfully stifling room. She was gasping in the agony of peritonitis that had already written its death-sentence on her wan and pinched face. The whole family, father, mother, and four ragged children, sat around looking on with the stony resignation of helpless despair that had long since given up the fight against fate as useless.

The father's hands were crippled from lead poisoning. He had not been able to work for a year. A contagious disease of the eyes, too long neglected, had made the mother and one of the boys nearly blind. The children cried with hunger. They had not broken their fast that day and it was then near noon. For months the family had subsisted on two dollars a week from the priest, and a few loaves and a piece of corned beef which the sisters sent them on Saturday.

The doctor gave direction for the treatment of the child, knowing that it was possible only to alleviate its sufferings until death should end them, and left some money for food for the rest.

An hour later, when I returned, I found them feeding the dying child with ginger ale, bought for two cents a bottle at the peddler's cart down the street. A pitying neighbor had proposed it as the one thing she could think of as likely to make the child forget its misery. There was enough in the bottle to go round to the rest of the family. In fact, the wake had already begun before night it was under way in dead earnest."

References:
Riis Jacob, How the Other Half Lives (1891) Lane James B., Jacob A Riis and the American city (1974).


Jacob Riis - History

Have you ever heard the saying that a picture is worth a thousand words? Jacob Riis, an immigrant from Denmark, proved the truth of this saying. His photographs of the terrible living and working conditions of immigrants made Americans realize that the American Dream was not coming true for some people. Something had to be done.

Riis was born in Ribe, Denmark. He sailed for the United States in 1870. He lived in poverty in New York City for several years before he found a job with a newspaper in 1873. His work as a police reporter took him into the slums. There he saw the horrible conditions in which immigrants lived. He taught himself how to use a camera and began to take photographs to accompany his news articles.

People who saw Riis' pictures were horrified at the nasty conditions in the dark tenement housing, the unhealthy factories and overcrowded schools. Riis earned the title "Emancipator of the Slums" because his work on behalf of the city poor led to reforms in education, child labor, and housing.


Jacob Riis: Revealing &ldquoHow the Other Half Lives&rdquo Riis and Reform

As governor of New York, Riis&rsquos friend Theodore Roosevelt appointed a Tenement House Commission, which led in 1901 to the creation of the Tenement House Department, headed by another Riis friend, Robert de Forest of the Charity Organization Society. Riis and this circle of municipal citizen-reformers, which included social welfare activists Josephine Shaw Lowell and Lillian Wald, worked to gather statistical evidence and raise public awareness. They advocated for new housing designs to ease crowding and improve fire safety, sanitation, and access to air and light. Riis described the evolution of tenement house reform as a forty-year effort, which included demolishing the Five Points and Mulberry Bend neighborhoods, initiating new construction, cleaning the streets, creating parks and playgrounds, tearing down rear tenements, and cutting more than 40,000 windows through interior walls to let in light.

Jacob Riis. &ldquoThe Tenement House Exhibition.&rdquo Harper&rsquos Weekly, February 3, 1900, page from Riis&rsquos scrapbook. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (006.00.00)

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Flat in Hell’s Kitchen on the West Side

Riis wrote in his 1889 article for Scribner&rsquos Magazine, &ldquoHow the Other Half Lives:&rdquo &ldquoNot that all the tenements above Fourteenth Street are good, or even better than those we have seen. There is Hell&rsquos Kitchen and Murderers&rsquo Row in the region of West-side slaughter-houses and three-cent whiskey. . . . &rdquo The couple in this photograph taken by Riis lived on New York City&rsquos West 38th Street in a barracks that covered an entire city block and lacked interior windows, ventilation, and indoor plumbing.

Jacob Riis. Flat in Hell&rsquos Kitchen, &ldquoRuin,&rdquo 1887&ndash1889. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis, 199 (90.3.4.155) (003.00.00)

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Fire Insurance Map

During the first half of the nineteenth century, most fire insurance companies were small and based in a single city. The underwriters could personally examine properties they were about to insure. As insurance companies became larger and expanded their coverage to numerous cities, a mapping industry developed to support the greater need. Insurance maps provided block-by-block inventories of existing buildings&ndashsuch as the map of the New York City&rsquos Hell&rsquos Kitchen, home to a large population of Irish immigrants in Riis&rsquos time. The outline or footprint of each building is indicated, and the buildings are color coded to show the construction material: pink for brick, yellow for wood, and green indicated &ldquospecially hazardous risks&rdquo for insurers.

Perris & Browne. West 42nd to West 37th Streets, between 10th Avenue and the Hudson River from Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map], 1889. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (004.00.00)

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Public Health

Disease, sanitation, garbage and hygiene issues were constant concerns in crowded impoverished tenement districts, where vital statistics were alarming. Jacob Riis wrote frequently to urge measures to protect public health and to alert wealthy residents of the city to slum conditions that put everyone at risk. Poor water quality, filth, vermin, and compromised living conditions meant typhus and cholera outbreaks were common, as were high rates of child mortality and tuberculosis. Rag pickers and petty thieves made city dumps their homes, while unemployed &ldquotramps&rdquo lived in shack housing in back alleyways. The Tenement House Committee of 1894 (known as the &ldquoGilder Committee) called rear tenements &ldquoinfant slaughter-houses,&rdquo where as many as one in five babies died. Riis collaborated with health and hygiene department officials to compile and report sources of disease and seek remedies to improve public health.

Jacob Riis. &ldquoExtra: Real Wharf Rats,&rdquo Evening Sun, March 18, 1892, page from Riis&rsquos scrapbook. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (012.00.00)

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Children of the Dump

In the winter of 1892, Riis visited eleven of the city&rsquos sixteen riverside dumps to investigate the enforcement of two public health laws: one required that old rags be washed before resale, and the other forbade rag pickers from living in the dumps. He learned that neither law was enforced. Riis interviewed the rag pickers and took seven photographs, five of which were reproduced as line engravings in the Evening Sun. Riis saw women and children working and living in the dumps. He wrote: &ldquoI found boys who ought to have been at school, picking bones and sorting rags. They said that they slept there, and as the men did, why should they not? It was their home. They were children of the dump, literally.&rdquo

Jacob Riis. A Child of the Dump, 1892. Gelatin printing out paper on board [vintage print]. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (90.13.3.116) (008.00.00)

Jacob Riis. In Sleeping Quarters, Rivington Street Dump, 1892. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (90.13.4.208) (007.00.00)

Perris & Browne. Piers along the East River from Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map], 1889. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (009.00.00)

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Public Space

As older dense buildings gave way to new tenement design, Riis advocated for open-air parks for children, who previously had nowhere but the streets or the dark hallways and cramped back spaces of tenements to play. Riis helped raise support for small public parks and thought that every public school should have a playground. He believed in the right of boys and girls to play as part of healthy early child development, and as an outlet for energies that could instead be turned to lives of vice or crime. One of Jacob Riis&rsquos triumphs as a reformer was the creation of Mulberry Bend Park where crime-ridden housing had once been. Riis believed in the benefits of exposure to nature and also supported the idea of excursions for city kids to farms and meadows in the countryside.

&ldquoPlaygrounds as a Cure for City Crime,&rdquo Brooklyn Times, April 27, 1900, from page in Riis&rsquos scrapbook. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (017.00.00)

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Establishing Parks and Playgrounds

Riis photographed a privately funded, experimental playground at West 28th Street between 11th and 12th Avenues, the block pictured in the map above, where equipment was installed, and a janitor and two teachers were hired to watch the children. Riis described the park: &ldquoIt was not exactly an attractive place. . . . But the children thought it lovely, and lovely it was for Poverty Gap, if not for Fifth Avenue.&rdquo Riis helped establish several small public parks in tenement neighborhoods including a park on Rivington Street. This petition, signed by 300 school girls &ldquoto make the corporation yard at the foot of Rivington St. into a public play-ground,&rdquo succeeded. Hamilton Fish Park opened in 1900.

Jacob Riis. Children&rsquos Playground, Poverty Gap, 1892.Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (90.13.4.121) (013.00.00)

Petition for Rivington Street Park, 1897, page of signatures. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (026.00.00)

Perris & Browne. West 32nd to West 17th Streets, between 10th Avenue and the Hudson River from Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map], 1889. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (015.00.00)

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Crime

As a young new immigrant, alone, homeless, and struggling to find work&mdashwith only a stray dog as a companion on the street&mdashJacob Riis was the victim of crime at a police lodging house. A locket bearing an image of his beloved Elisabeth was stolen from him in his sleep. Reporting the crime, he was thrown from the premises by a disbelieving policeman, who clubbed his dog to death when it snarled in his defense. Riis never forgot either the theft or the brutality, and his crusade against conditions in police lodging houses became his vendetta. Claiming the true crime was the lack of action on the part of municipal authorities to institute reform, Riis campaigned for the establishment of city-run lodging houses as an alternative, both to alleviate public menace and provide decent habitation for men and women in crisis.

Jacob Riis. &ldquoVice Which is Unchecked in Police Lodging Houses,&rdquo New York Tribune, January 31, 1892, page from Riis&rsquos scrapbook. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (025.00.00)

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Bandits’ Roost

Bandits&rsquo Roost was an alley on Mulberry Street on New York&rsquos Lower East Side, where Italian immigrants paid excessive rent to live in &ldquorear tenements,&rdquo ramshackle structures that were added onto old houses. Riis, working with amateur photographers Richard Hoe Lawrence and Henry G. Piffard, took this photograph with a stereoscopic camera, which produced two side-by-side images: on the left is a woman with two small children on the right, young &ldquotoughs&rdquo look warily at the camera. Riis led a ten-year crusade to clean up the area in which this photograph was taken called &ldquoMulberry Bend,&rdquo it was notorious as a haven for gangs and criminal activity.

Jacob Riis, Richard Hoe Lawrence, and Henry G. Piffard, photographers. Bandits&rsquo Roost, 1887&ndash1888. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Roger William Riis (90.13.4.104 & .105) (018.00.00)

Perris & Browne. &ldquoMulberry Street&rdquo from Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map of Lower East Side], 1880. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (021.00.00)

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Labor

Jacob Riis worried about sweatshop labor taking place within tenement apartments and in small factory locations in the Lower East Side. Whole families, including children, as well as hired help, would often be involved in various levels of piecework. Garment making (cutting, sewing, tailoring, pressing), cigar making, millinery, and artificial flower assembly, were among the forms of production at which immigrant laborers worked in crowded hot conditions inside residences and were paid by the &ldquopiece&rdquo or the lot. Sweatshop labor meant health risks, including high rates of consumption and shortened life spans. Riis was dismayed about child labor in particular&mdashin homes and in factories. Adolescent girls tended younger siblings while parents worked, or took on heavy domestic jobs like laundry and scrubbing. Out in the streets, newsboys roamed at night and vice beckoned boys and girls alike. Riis lamented that many of these little children appeared old before their time from taking on adult forms of labor.

Jacob Riis. How the Other Half Lives, Studies Among the Tenements of New York. New York: Charles Scribner&rsquos Sons, 1890. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (030.00.00)

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Piece Work&mdashCigar-Making

Riis devoted a chapter of How the Other Half Lives to &ldquoThe Bohemians&mdashTenement-House Cigar Making.&rdquo Riis described these Eastern European immigrants as working seventeen-hour days, seven days a week, inside their apartments rank with toxic fumes, making pennies an hour by stripping and drying piles of tobacco leaves and rolling finished products. In the Riis photograph, the parents work at the cigar mold and their oldest child, at the center of the frame, prepares the tobacco leaves for rolling.

Jacob Riis. Bohemian Cigar Makers at Work, 1889&ndash1890. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (90.13.4.149) (027.00.00)

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Fire Insurance Map

During the first half of the nineteenth century, most fire insurance companies were small and based in a single city. The underwriters could personally examine properties they were about to insure. As insurance companies became larger and expanded their coverage to numerous cities, a mapping industry developed to support the greater need. Insurance maps provided block-by-block inventories of existing buildings&mdashsuch as the map above of an area east of the Bowery where there was a dense concentration of Jewish tenement sweatshops. The outline or footprint of each building is indicated, and the buildings are color coded to show the construction material: pink for brick, yellow for wood, and green indicated &ldquospecially hazardous risks&rdquo for insurers.

Perris & Browne. Plate 24 ½ Lower East Side from Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map], 1889. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (028.00.00)

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Education

Jacob Riis honored education, especially for children, as a way up and out of slum life. The son of a schoolmaster, Riis had been a rebellious student nevertheless, he loved to read as a child. He believed that education was not just a pathway to better employment and a more fulfilled and informed life, it made good naturalized citizens. Riis was a strong supporter of industrial schools, which imparted practical job-related skills and taught civics lessons to children whose families originated from many nations. Though work was almost always a necessity, some first-generation immigrants recognized the better chances that literacy in English could bring to their children, and supported their sons and daughters in their desire to learn to read and write. Riis also worked with the New York Kindergarten Association and settlement house workers to promote early child education.

&ldquo&lsquoA Message from the Slums,&rsquo Jacob Riis of New York Addresses the Congregational Club,&rdquo Hartford [CT] Courant, May 22, 1895, from Riis&rsquos scrapbook. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (035.00.00)

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Educating the Young

Pietro worked as a bootblack before he was hit by a streetcar and maimed. Riis made two photographs of the boy at his home on Jersey Street, where he was learning to write English, “in the hope of his doing something somewhere at sometime to make up for what he had lost.” In the photograph above, the thirteen-year-old Pietro is shown with his mother and young sibling.

Riis believed that introducing immigrant children to the principles of American democracy would go a long way toward making them proud citizens. The administrator of the Beach Street Industrial School on the Lower East Side of New York asked the students to vote on whether the school day should begin with a salute to the American flag. Riis’s photograph shows the students casting their ballots, monitored by the student election inspectors

Jacob Riis. Pietro Learning to Write, 1891&ndash1892. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (90.13.4.163) (032.00.00)

Jacob Riis. The First Patriotic Election in the Beach Street Industrial School, 1891&ndash1892. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (90.13.4.172) (033.00.00)

Perris & Browne. Beach Street from Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map], 1889. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (034.00.00)

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Homelessness

Jacob Riis, himself once homeless as a young man new to the United States, wrote sympathetic vignettes about those who fell on hard times and became homeless&mdashoften due to the loss of a job or an injury or, because they were evicted from their tenement homes when they could not afford escalating rents. Riis lamented the indifference of employers and the greed of landlords. But he reserved particular venom for those who begged for a living or who did not actively seek work, a category of homeless he referred to as &ldquotramps.&rdquo His campaign against police lodging houses, which acted as nightly homeless shelters, was due to their poor conditions and their role in the spread of crime and disease, but also because they perpetuated this form of homelessness. With the help of then Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, the police station lodging houses were closed in 1896, with the intent that those displaced were to be served by improved charitable and civic services.

Jacob Riis. &ldquoPolice Lodging Houses: Are They Hotbeds for Typhus?&rdquo Christian Union, January 14, 1893, from Riis&rsquos scrapbook. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (038.00.00)

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Eldridge Street Station

In 1892 and 1893, Riis took photographs of the deplorable conditions of the police lodging houses, which served as the city&rsquos homeless shelters. These images illustrated his articles and a lecture at the Academy of Medicine in February 1893&mdasha lecture Riis gave to garner support for closing the houses and replacing them with a municipal wayfarer&rsquos lodge. The police station lodging rooms at 87/89 Eldridge Street, located on the lower right portion of the map above, sheltered only women. When a sick man asked to stay for the night, he was placed in an empty room and laid down on the bare plank floor. It was soon discovered that he had typhus. Riis wrote:

Jacob Riis. The Single Typhus Lodger in Eldridge Street, 1893.Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (90.13.4.247) (036.00.00)

Perris & Browne. &ldquoEldridge Street, north of Grand Street&rdquo from Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map of Lower East Side], 1880. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (037.00.00)

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Immigration

Ellis Island served as the gateway for more than twelve million immigrants from many nations between its opening as the U.S. immigration inspection station at the port of New York in 1892 to its closing in the 1950s. When Riis emigrated from Denmark in 1870 to seek &ldquoan honest dollar,&rdquo the German, Irish, and Chinese immigration of the mid-century was ebbing. Most Scandinavian immigrants headed to farmland and cities in the West and Midwest. As Riis gained fame in his career&mdashbetween 1890 and his death in 1914&mdasha &ldquothird&rdquo or &ldquonew&rdquo wave of immigrants arrived in New York. Of many nationalities and faiths, they came primarily from Russia, Italy, and Eastern Europe. When featuring New York&rsquos immigrant groups and their neighborhoods in his articles and bestselling books, Riis expressed personal religious and ethnic prejudices, but he steadfastly championed immigrants he perceived to be of good character and drive.

Jacob Riis. &ldquoThe Gateway of All Nations,&rdquo Christian Herald, October 11, 1905. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (041.00.00)

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In Jersey Street

An Italian family lived in this one-room, windowless home on Jersey Street, a few blocks from Riis&rsquos Mulberry Street office. Jersey Street in the map above is sandwiched between Prince and East Houston Streets and is crammed with the back-to-back tenements that Riis railed against. In Riis&rsquos photograph the family&rsquos possessions and furnishings, which includes a rolled mattress, barrel, and piles of clothes a dustpan, a basin, a wooden pallet that may have served as a bed, and a cast iron stove and various containers, fill the frame. Riis commented on the Italian custom of swaddling: &ldquoYou can see how they wrap [their babies] around and around until you can almost stand them on either end and they won&rsquot bend, so tightly are they bound.&rdquo

Jacob Riis. Italian Mother and Her Baby in Jersey Street, 1888&ndash1889. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (90.13.4.160) (039.00.00)

Perris & Browne. Plate 24 showing Jersey Street, between Prince and East Houston Street from Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map], 1880. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (040.00.00)


Watch the video: Jacob Riis: Revealing How the Other Half Lives (December 2021).