In 1870, Danish carpenter Jacob Riis, 21, took his berth in steerage on the Iowa and journeyed from Glasgow to New York. Riis disembarked in New York on June 5. In his pockets he carried his worldly goods: a lock of his lover’s hair (while he was away she married a military hero in Denmark) and $40 his friends had given him. He soon invested half the cash on a revolver for defense “against human or animal predators”. He might have bought some bullets.
One night Riis was bedding down in the Church Street Station Lodging-room when his gold locket keepsake was stolen and his dog clubbed to death. That night, he recalled, cured him of dreaming. In squalor “all the influences make for evil,” he wrote.
His social conscience pricked and bloodied, Riss found work as a journalist covering the impoverished Lower East Side. He soon began lecturing on the state of the city’s poor. The title of his talks was morbid: “How the Other Half Lives and Dies.” It was abridged for his 1890 book How the Other Half Lives.
He realised photography possessed the power to capture a moment and transmit it to the nation. Leading a team of amateur photographers equipped with magnesium powder and potassium chlorate to produce Blitzlicht, and a tooled-up policeman, Riis fired a flashbulb into the dingy, airless rooms in rear tenements where natural light never ventured – where people would rent a “spot” on the floor for 5 cents a night – sweatshops and alleyways where people for whom New York’s Gilded Age was elsewhere existed and perished.
Some of his images seem staged. In one picture of urchins, or “street Arabs” as Riis called them, you can see the smile on a boy’s face as he’s told to lie still and wait for the flashlight to explode.
Photographs often need a narrative to make a point. Riiis’ writing, as he noted, “did not make much of an impression — these things rarely do, put in mere words — until my negatives, still dripping from the dark-room, came to reinforce them.” “I am a writer and a newspaper man,” said Riis. The story was all.
Riis’ campaigning style and work as police reporter for The New York Tribune brought him to the attention of police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, who said of his friend: “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.”
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, made me begin this book.
-Jacob Riis, Preface to How The Other Half Lives
As was then, so it now: the immigrant poor are monstered and ignored. Slum dwelling are for slum people. So they say. The NY Public Library tells us:
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries the population of Manhattan’s Lower East Side soared as tens of thousands of eastern European Jewish and Italian immigrants moved into the area’s crowded tenement buildings. These new immigrants found work in the garment industry, as pushcart vendors in the lively retail trade along Orchard and Grand Streets, and other trades. They established benevolent societies and fraternal organizations, joined local churches and synagogues, and participated in the thriving popular culture of the theaters and dance halls on 2nd Avenue and The Bowery. But flourishing alongside this working class culture were a host of urban problems. Poverty, hunger, disease, crime, decrepit housing and unsanitary streets were all pervasive on the Lower East Side. Such conditions dimmed the hopes of many immigrants. They also alarmed many wealthy and middle-class Americans who perceived in them threats to moral order, political stability and cultural progress. Early attempts to ameliorate conditions in a changing urban society included the creation of charity organizations, industrial training schools, and church missions.
LONG ago it was said that “one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.” That was true then. It did not know because it did not care. The half that was on top cared little for the struggles, and less for the fate of those who were underneath, so long as it was able to hold them there and keep its own seat. There came a time when the discomfort and crowding below were so great, and the consequent upheavals so violent, that it was no longer an easy thing to do, and then the upper half fell to inquiring what was the matter. Information on the subject has been accumulating rapidly since, and the whole world has had its hands full answering for its old ignorance.
– Jacob Riis, Introduction to How The Other Half Lives
When on May 25, 1914, Riis died of heart disease at age 65, Lillian Wald, founder of the Henry Street Settlement,
eulogized him “for friendship and encouragement and spirited fellowship, for opening up the hearts of a people to emotion, and for the knowledge upon which to guide that emotion into constructive channels.
Jacob August Riis (May 3, 1849 – May 26, 1914). Captions in italics by Riis.
Photos via: Museum of New York