A Slum City For Slum People: Jacob Riis’ Photos Of New York’s Other Half (1890)

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.

 

The Church Street Station Lodging-room, in which I [Jacob A. Riis] was robbed. DATE:ca. 1890

The Church Street Station Lodging-room, in which I [Jacob A. Riis] was robbed.

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.

 

Original Cover of 1890 edition Riis New York

Original Cover of 1890 edition

 

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.

 

A map of the area Jacob Riis surveyed while collecting material for How the Other Half Lives.

A map of the area Jacob Riis surveyed while collecting material for How the Other Half Lives.

 

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.”

 

New York Jacob Riis, "Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement--'Five Cents a Spot'"

Jacob Riis, “Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement–‘Five Cents a Spot'”

 

Bandit's Roost by Jacob Riis, New York, 1888

Bandit’s Roost by Jacob Riis, New York, 1888

 

Jacob Riis 1900 New York City Lodger in Pell Street 7 cents lodging house (Happy Jack's Canvas Palace) going to bed. DATE:ca. 1890

Lodger in Pell Street 7 cents lodging house (Happy Jack’s Canvas Palace) going to bed.

 

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

 

New York Talmud SChool

Talmud School on Hester Street

tenement-yard-new-york Tenement yard New York slum Baxter Street New York Mulberry Bend New York

Bunks in a Seven-Cent Lodging House, Pell Street. DATE:ca. 1890

Bunks in a Seven-Cent Lodging House, Pell Street. DATE:ca. 1890

Rogue's Gallery, Funeral Wells & Sofy Levy; and 2 other women thieves -- the prettiest & the ugliest in the Rogue's Gallery put together. The Pretty one is a blackmailer; the ugly one a horse theif. DATE:ca. 1890 Mug shots depicted differ from title description. Based on descriptive information in Thomas Byrnes's "Professional Criminals of America" (1886 and 1895), the image purported to be of James "Funeral" Wells does not look like him. According to Byrnes, Sofy Levy's real name was Sophie Lyons.

Rogue’s Gallery, Funeral Wells & Sofy Levy; and 2 other women thieves — the prettiest & the ugliest in the Rogue’s Gallery put together. The Pretty one is a blackmailer; the ugly one a horse thief.
DATE:ca. 1890
Mug shots depicted differ from title description. Based on descriptive information in Thomas Byrnes’s “Professional Criminals of America” (1886 and 1895), the image purported to be of James “Funeral” Wells does not look like him. According to Byrnes, Sofy Levy’s real name was Sophie Lyons.

A Black-and-Tan Dive in "Africa." DATE:ca. 1890 An African American man seated on a whiskey keg flanked by two women in a "Black and Tan" dive bar on Broome Street near Wooster Street.

A Black-and-Tan Dive in “Africa.”
DATE:ca. 1890
An African American man seated on a whiskey keg flanked by two women in a “Black and Tan” dive bar on Broome Street near Wooster Street.

 

A Downtown "Morgue." DATE:ca. 1890 Men in a crowded in an "Black and Tan" dive bar

A Downtown “Morgue.”
DATE:ca. 1890
Men in a crowded in an “Black and Tan” dive bar

 

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.

 

A Flat in the Pauper Barracks, West Thirty-eighth Street, with all its Furniture. DATE:ca. 1890

A Flat in the Pauper Barracks, West Thirty-eighth Street, with all its Furniture.
DATE:ca. 1890

 

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

 

Baby in slum tenement, dark stairs--it's playground. DATE:ca. 1890

Baby in slum tenement, dark stairs–its playground.
DATE:ca. 1890

It costs a Dallar a Month to sleep in the Sheds. DATE:ca. 1897 A woman holding a child, and men sitting in a rear yard of a Jersey Street tenement.

It costs a Dallar a Month to sleep in the Sheds.
DATE:ca. 1897
A woman holding a child, and men sitting in a rear yard of a Jersey Street tenement.

In Poverty Gap, West Twenty-Eighth St. An English Coal-Heaver's Home. DATE:ca. 1890

In Poverty Gap, West Twenty-Eighth St. An English Coal-Heaver’s Home.
DATE:ca. 1890

Old Mrs. Benoit in her Hudson Street attic, an Indian widow who lived there four years. DATE:ca. 1897

Old Mrs. Benoit in her Hudson Street attic, an Indian widow who lived there four years.
DATE:ca. 1897

Arch under the first rear tenement at 55 Baxter Street leading to the second rear, with stairs up which Vincenzo Nino went to murder his wife in 1895. House believed to be haunted. DATE:ca. 1890

Arch under the first rear tenement at 55 Baxter Street leading to the second rear, with stairs up which Vincenzo Nino went to murder his wife in 1895. House believed to be haunted.
DATE:ca. 1890

Baxter Street Alley, directly in the rear of Bandits' Roost. DATE:ca. 1890

Baxter Street Alley, directly in the rear of Bandits’ Roost.
DATE:ca. 1890

Nibsy's Alley at 47 1/2 Crosby Street, torn down in the Fall of 1895. DATE:ca. 1890

Nibsy’s Alley at 47 1/2 Crosby Street, torn down in the Fall of 1895.
DATE:ca. 1890

Police Station Lodgers 13. Elizabeth Street Station--Women Lodgers. DATE:ca. 1890

Police Station Lodgers 13. Elizabeth Street Station–Women Lodgers.
DATE:ca. 1890

Men's lodging room in West 47th Street Station. DATE:ca. 1890

Men’s lodging room in West 47th Street Station.
DATE:ca. 1890

A Boarder at the Rutgers Street Dump.

A Boarder at the Rutgers Street Dump.

Bohemian cigar makers at work in their tenement. DATE:ca. 1890

Bohemian cigar makers at work in their tenement.
DATE:ca. 1890

Blind Beggar. DATE:1994

Blind Beggar.
DATE:1994

The Tramp. DATE:1994

The Tramp.
DATE:1994

Ready for Sabbath Eve in a Coal Cellar - a cobbler in Ludlow Street. DATE:1994

Ready for Sabbath Eve in a Coal Cellar – a cobbler in Ludlow Street.
DATE:1994

"Slept in that cellar four years." DATE:1994

“Slept in that cellar four years.”
DATE:1994

Minding the baby; Baby yells a Whirlwind Scream, Gotham Court. DATE:ca. 1890

Minding the baby; Baby yells a Whirlwind Scream, Gotham Court.
DATE:ca. 1890

In the home of an Italian Ragpicker, Jersey Street. DATE:ca. 1890 Italian mother and her baby in Jersey Street.

In the home of an Italian Ragpicker, Jersey Street.
DATE:ca. 1890

In a Sweat Shop. DATE:ca. 1890 "12 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."

In a Sweat Shop.
DATE:ca. 1890
“12 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.”

"Knee-pants" at forty five cents a dozen -- A Ludlow Street Sweater's Shop. DATE:ca. 1890

“Knee-pants” at forty five cents a dozen — A Ludlow Street Sweater’s Shop.
DATE:ca. 1890

Shine, sir? DATE:1994 Tommy holding his bootblack kit.

Shine, sir?
DATE:1994
Tommy holding his bootblack kit.

Street Arabs -- night, Boys in sleeping quarter. DATE:ca. 1890

Street Arabs — night, Boys in sleeping quarter.
DATE:ca. 1890

[Chinese Opium Joint.] DATE:ca. 1895

Chinese Opium Joint.
DATE:ca. 1895

[Bringing foundling to police.] DATE:ca. 1895

Bringing a foundling to police.
DATE:ca. 1895

A Downtown "Morgue." DATE:ca. 1890 Men in a crowded in an "Black and Tan" dive bar.

A Downtown “Morgue.”
DATE:ca. 1890
Men in a crowded in an “Black and Tan” dive bar.

Prayer-time in the Nursery - Five Points House of Industry. DATE:ca. 1890

Prayer-time in the Nursery – Five Points House of Industry.
DATE:ca. 1890

Court at No. 24 Baxter Street. DATE:ca. 1890

Court at No. 24 Baxter Street.
DATE:ca. 1890

n All-Night Two-Cent Restaurant, in "The Bend". DATE:ca. 1890

n All-Night Two-Cent Restaurant, in “The Bend”.
DATE:ca. 1890

The only Bath-tub in the Block: it hangs in the Air Shaft. DATE:ca. 1897

The only Bath-tub in the Block: it hangs in the Air Shaft.
DATE:ca. 1897

Women's Lodging Room in Eldridge Street Police Station. DATE:ca. 1890 Women sleeping on plank beds and the floor.

Women’s Lodging Room in Eldridge Street Police Station.
DATE:ca. 1890
Women sleeping on plank beds and the floor.

Two Greek children in Gotham Court debating if Santa Claus will get to their alley or not. He did. DATE:ca. 1890

Two Greek children in Gotham Court debating if Santa Claus will get to their alley or not. He did.
DATE:ca. 1890

A "Scrub" and her Bed -- the Plank. DATE:ca. 1890 An old woman with the plank she sleeps on at the Eldridge Street Station women's lodging room.

A “Scrub” and her Bed — the Plank.
DATE:ca. 1890
An old woman with the plank she sleeps on at the Eldridge Street Station women’s lodging room.

Mulberry Street Police Station. Waiting for the Lodging to open. DATE:ca. 1890

Mulberry Street Police Station. Waiting for the Lodging to open.
DATE:ca. 1890

An Italian Home under a Dump. DATE:ca. 1890

An Italian Home under a Dump.
DATE:ca. 1890

"I Scrubs." Katie , who keeps house in West Forty-ninth Street. DATE:ca. 1890

“I Scrubs.” Katie , who keeps house in West Forty-ninth Street.
DATE:ca. 1890

 

Children in "The Ship," destroyed by B. of Health in 1897, after the visit of Roosevelt & myself [Jacob A. Riis] there. DATE:1895 Four children at a table, eating, in a tenement building known as "The Ship" on Hamilton Street.

Children in “The Ship,” destroyed by B. of Health in 1897, after the visit of Roosevelt & myself [Jacob A. Riis] there.
Four children at a table, eating, in a tenement building known as “The Ship” on Hamilton Street.

The Old Gribbon sisters at 5 Van Dam Street photographed Dec. 1895 after I [Jacob A. Riis] had got them pensioned by Miss Emily Vanderbilt Sloane. DATE:1895

The Old Gribbon sisters at 5 Van Dam Street photographed Dec. 1895 after I [Jacob A. Riis] had got them pensioned by Miss Emily Vanderbilt Sloane.

New York "The Battle with the Slum" poster for Riis lecture.] DATE:1905

“The Battle with the Slum” poster for Riis lecture.

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