Hell Is Cleaner

Documentarians – professional chroniclers by design or default – observe and report on human activities and social issues arising from those actions.  Ideally, such chronicling is conducted by dispassionate observers merely reporting what is.

The earliest historians used words and drawings for underscoring any particular, observable, social condition.  Photojournalist Jacob Riis, in battling social inequity, used the adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” as a weapon. He turned history’s best technological advance in visual media – photography – into a bludgeon fomenting reform.


Baby in tenement slum [frontispiece]Credit: Jacob Riis, ca 1888-1890; public domain
The greatest chroniclers are not without bias, and their objectivity may be compromised by editorial license or political ambitions.  The renowned Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus (ca 37 CE – 100 CE) wrote some of history’s earliest comprehensive works related to the Jewish people’s accession to the Holy Land and also about the Roman occupation of those lands.  Yet, his reporting was not dispassionate.  Josephus was himself a soldier, commanding a Jewish army fighting against Roman oppression.  After surrendering to the military of Rome in the wake of a city siege lasting 47 days, Josephus predicted his vanquisher (Vespasian) would become Emperor of Rome.  This happened in 70 CE; Josephus became a valued member of the Roman noble’s household and assumed the family name, “Flavius”, as part of his own.  Thus, his writings are influenced by his Jewish background as well as by his assimilation into Roman culture.

Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) was foremost a British Naval officer and a well-placed member of the extended household of Sir Edward Montagu (later, the Earl of Sandwich). Although Pepys led an adventurous life as a military man on the high seas, and on many occasions acquitted himself with valor, it is a curious pastime for which he is best recalled. 

About 1660, the aging Pepys began keeping a diary of his daily life.  He maintained this journal obsessively until failing eyesight in 1669 forced him to abandon it.  The musings and events recorded are amazing glimpses into daily life in Restoration London.  The diaries were discovered in 1825 – Pepys had written them in a cipher of his own devising based on a loose shorthand common in his day.  Once decoded, the volumes were learned to be the most complete first-hand record of the period ever uncovered. 

Pepys spares no details; he dutifully documents all things, great and small.  He recorded observations about the Black Death (bubonic plague) when it raged through London.  He documented the Great London Fire of 1666.  More amusingly, though, are some of his more picayune entries. [In one unintentionally humorous passage, he grumbled over a new wig – just coming into fashion for men – that was already infested with lice when he got it.  He mulled over the need to have it sent out for delousing.  Other entries remark upon his amorous adventures and other doings in his household.]  Pepys’ place in London society, however, certainly would have colored his perceptions – the poor were worthless and suspect, for example, in Pepys’ world.

In 19th Century America, though, the immigrant’s lot was nothing but “poor”: miserable housing in slums, inadequate sanitation, disease, death, and human exploitation at the hands of criminals and sexual predators is what awaited most travelers to US shores.

One man who might have lived and died as one of the faceless poor, however, used his artistic skills, his position as a journalist, and his powerfully placed friends to start a crusade to clean up the worst of New York City’s slums – the notorious Five Points section – and its rotten-to-the core main artery of evil, Mulberry Street.

Jacob Riis was born in Ribe, Denmark on May 3, 1849.  As was typical, the Riis household was large – of 13 children, twelve were the Riis’ and one was an orphaned niece who was fostered.  Jacob was the third oldest child in birth order. [Of this brood, only Jacob, the fostered niece, and one other sister survived into the 20th century).

Jacob’s father, Niels, was a schoolteacher and part-time writer for the local newspaper.  His mother, Carolina, was a homemaker.  Niels goaded the boy into a passion for reading, and early favorites were the works of James Fenimore Cooper, as well as the more satiric works of Charles Dickens published in his periodical, All the Year Round

Jacob’s philanthropic nature revealed itself early.  When he was eleven or twelve years old he gave all the money he had to a family in his town that lived in squalor.  The only condition the boy put on the cash gift was that the family had to clean up their house to make it livable.  They agreed, and Jacob enlisted the aid of his mother to help in the clean-up effort.

Niels wanted Jacob to pursue a literary career (as he had done).  However, Jacob wanted to be a carpenter instead, and he took an apprenticeship.  His employer’s daughter was a 12-year-old adoptee named Elisabeth Gjortz; the 16-year-old Jacob became infatuated with her.  Her father, naturally, was not pleased at Jacob’s amorous advances, and he contrived for Jacob to leave his employ to finish his carpentry apprenticeship in Copenhagen (roughly 150 miles east of Ribe) and away from his daughter. 

Jacob Riis finished his apprenticeship and returned to Ribe in 1868 when he was 19.  His persistence in pursuit of the teenaged Elisabeth Gjortz was fruitless – he had no money, steady jobs were not to be found, and her father strenuously objected to Jacob’s marriage proposal.  After many months, discouraged, he decided to emigrate from Denmark and head west to America in 1870.

Jacob cobbled together $50 on his own and bought a steerage fare to the US.  Friends donated some money, and he set out with $40 in hand.  He carried a letter of introduction to the Danish Consul for when he arrived in New York City (the letter had been written by an influential family friend).  Another personal item was a gold locket containing a strand of Elisabeth Gjortz’ hair – surprisingly, this sentimental trinket was given to him by her mother.  A small boat took him to Glasgow in Scotland – from there he settled aboard the steamer Iowa on May 18, 1870.

When Jacob disembarked in America on June 5, 1870, his first hope was to find work as a carpenter.  His first act, however, was taking half of his $40 and buying a revolver.  He felt he would need it to save himself from predators, mostly human.

Manhattan Island’s earliest occupants had been the Lenape Indians.  They were gradually dispossessed of their lands as Europeans encroached, first the Dutch then the English.  By the midLenape (Native American, ca 1900, dancer)Credit: public domain 1700s there were no more Lenape to be seen in the environs of New York City.

In one centralized spot on the southern end of the island of Manhattan the marshy, poorly drained lands upon which the Lenape had lived grew in population, with hodge-podge buildings thrown up almost overnight.  A neighborhood developed; its streets, originally rough-hewn cow paths and foot paths, improved enough to allow better traffic flow, and were given names: Canal Street in the north, Park Row in the south, Centre Street to the west, and The Bowery in the east.  A confluence of three area streets in this neighborhood (Park, Worth, andFive Points intersection (19th Century overlay)Credit: public domain Baxter) created a five-way junction.  This spot in particular, and the larger neighborhood in general, became known as Five Points.

This area was a magnet for immigrants first arriving in New York City, and almost any nationality, ethnicity, or color of human could be found there.  The earliest group of people to call the area home were emancipated African-Americans (New York had outlawed slavery in 1828).  Later predominant among the denizens were Irish immigrants, forced out of Ireland by starvation as a result of The Great Potato Famine (roughly 1845-1852) where potatoes were plagued by a mold that caused them to rot while in the ground.  Starving, the Irish fled.

Bleeker St (derelict, but occupied, shack)Credit: public domain

The Five Points was not anyone’s first choice of a place to live, but new arrivals had few assets.  Criminal gangs, bound by national or ethnic ties, roamed the streets preying upon strangers and fellow countrymen alike.  The squalor was almost unimaginable – diseases such as typhoid, cholera, and even yellow fever took hold occasionally and burned through the area.  Living accommodations were horrific, and many times people would pay as little as five cents a night for a space on a floor and a blanket.  Tenements, meant to house perhaps a few score people, held hundreds.  Many single room squats had as many as twelve people or more living in a 100-square-foot space.  Entire families might live, breed, and die in such horrific surroundings, sleeping, cooking, and trying to survive in one cramped room.

Cityscape (1890)Credit: Jacob Riis, 1890; public domain

Human predators were common enough. Pickpockets, muggers, even child gangs of sneak thieves, strolled, roamed and committed violence daily.  Rapes, assaults, and murders were frequent as was the incidence of drunkenness.  Girls as young as 10 years old were forced into prostitution to help out the family.  Others were simply raped at whim.  Add rats and a sense of utter despair and The Five Points was perhaps the most notorious ghetto on earth at the time.

Gang rivalries dictated the pace of life in The Five Points.  The Roach Guards, Dead Rabbits, and The Bowery Boys all fought for scraps of gang territory.  A full-scale gang war started on July 4,Growler Gang (staging a robbery)Credit: museumsyndicate.com 1857, when Dead Rabbits’ members ransacked and destroyed The Bowery Boys’ gang headquarters.  The Bowery Boys’ retaliation led to street fighting and rioting; barricades for cover were thrown up by the gangs along the streets.  As there was no unified police presence in New York City at the time (New York Metro police and Municipal police fought each other for jurisdiction) the gang war exploded into looting leading to extensive property damage. 
Estimates put the gang involvement at between 800 and 1,000 gang members; several hundred other residents, however, used the distraction for personal gain in looting The Bowery area.  Order was finally restored when the New York State Militia was called in.  Only eight people were reported killed with about a hundred injured (both body counts can reasonably be assumed as downplayed, suspiciously lower than what could be expected).  [Mary Rogers – The Beautiful Cigar Girl – went missing in July 1841.  She was later found brutalized and dead on the New Jersey shore.  The first theory was she had been abducted, raped, and murdered by one of the Five Points gangs of New York – Mary lived in a boarding house with her mother just a few blocks away from the rotten apple’s core.]

Criminal activity in the area was so concentrated that police made over 80,000 arrests in the neighborhood in the year 1862.  This represented 10% of the city’s population having been takenTenementCredit: Jacob Riis, ca 1888-1890; public domain into custody during that year.  The out-of-control element was so great here that the United States Government, in one of the few times it has ever used deadly force against its citizens, shelled the area from ships in the Hudson River to quell civil unrest among the immigrants and outcasts during the Draft Riots of 1863.  Five police officers were murdered in the Five Points district in 1864.  By the 1880s, conditions were intolerable – over 300,000 people were squashed together in a single square mile of space on the Lower East Side.  This qualified as one of the most densely populated places on the planet. 

But, as a true illustration of the horrors of daily life, there is the typical story of the cheapness of life in the tenements.   A little girl lived in a basement with 25 other people.  She managed to beg a penny on the streets; she was stabbed to death for her penny.  Adding to the insensitivity of killing a child for a penny was the fact her body was allowed to lie in a corner for five days before her mother finally scraped out a place in the basement floor in which to bury her.

There was one street that seemed to be the locus for all the area’s moral decay and a focal point for the city’s ire: Slaughterhouse Street, as it was once known.  It’s official designation as early as 1755 was Mulberry Street, named for the trees that once grew in a curve in the road called Mulberry Bend.  It was Mulberry Bend that typified the area:

“a narrow bend in Mulberry Street, a tortuous ravine of tall tenement-houses . . . so full of people that the throngs going and coming spread off the sidewalk nearly to the middle of the street.  The crowds are in the street because much of the sidewalk and all of the gutter is taken up with vendors’ stands.”

Mulberry "Bend" (1896)Credit: Jacob Riis, 1896; public domain
Street Survival
Jacob Riis spent his first five days on American shores looking for work.  He found a job as a carpenter in the nick of time – most of his remaining $20 left over from his gun purchase was gone. The company, an iron works, was located on the Allegheny River.  After only a few days, he tried to make more money by mining, but then returned to carpentry work. 
France declared war on Germany in July 1870 – the Danish-born Riis, in a patriotic fervor, high-tailed it back to New York City, hocked all his possessions, and tried to enlist in the French Army at the French Consul (France was Denmark’s political ally).  He was turned down.  Afterward, he pawned his gun and began wandering the streets.  Collapsing from exhaustion and hunger, he was cared for by a priest who found him, unconscious, on the street.  The next day, Riis was given a breakfast and was on his way again.

He did framework and whatever other odd jobs he could in the outskirts of New York City.  He returned to the city and lived hand-to-mouth. As the autumn of 1870 began, Riis was destitute.  He scavenged food from rubbish bins, and he was also given the occasional handout from Delmonico's RoomingCredit: Jacob Riis, ca 1888-1890; public domainRestaurant.  He flopped in public spaces or in a nasty, vermin-infested police lodging-house.  He awoke in a lodging-house one morning to find the gold locket with its sentimental strand of Elisabeth Gjortz’ had been heisted.  He reported the theft to the sergeant of the lodge who, instead of seeking redress, grew angry and bodily threw Riis into the street. 

Disheartened and disgusted, Riis traded a silk handkerchief (the last of his personal effects) for passage on a ferry out of New York.  After working some odd jobs and stowing away on passing freight trains, he made it to Philadelphia where he presented himself to the Danish Consul there.  He was taken care of by the Consul and his wife for two weeks.  The Consul provided Riis with a new suit and sent him to the home of a friend who gave Jacob work as a carpenter.  He worked the western end of New York state as a carpenter in the Scandinavian communities.

Having established himself with his carpentry skills, Riis took up writing first as a pastime, then with more serious literary leanings.  He tried to get a writer’s job with a Buffalo, New York, paper, but was rejected.  He started sending out stories to magazines, too – all were rejected.

Wanting to explore his creative aspirations more fully, Jacob went back to New York City and got a job selling flatirons.  As a salesman he was successful, and this eased his pecuniary problems for awhile. He was assigned a territory in Illinois, but a bad investment scheme cost him most of his savings in Chicago.  He made a tactical retreat to Pittsburgh, and then found several of his underling staff were cheating him out of sales money. 

Finally, to further his agitation, he developed an illness that left him bedridden with a high fever.  During this illness he received a letter from his Danish love, Elisabeth, advising him she was engaged to a cavalry officer. When he recovered enough for travel Riis made his way back to New York by selling flatirons as he went along.   

Extra! Extra!
Riis spotted a “help wanted” notice for an editor’s job for a Long Island newspaper.  He interviewed and got the position, but left after two weeks when he discovered the paper’s editor-in-chief was a grifter.

He went back to the Five Points neighborhood.  An acquaintance of his spotted him in the street and advised Jacob the New York News was looking to hire a trainee.  The night before he went for his interview, Riis hastily washed in a horse trough and tried to make himself as presentable as possible.  His shabby appearance did not distract from his obvious intellect, and he was given a test assignment.  He was to observe a society luncheon and then write it up.  His work was good enough: he got the job.

Over time, Jacob worked his way into the editor’s position of the weekly paper, the New York News.  He covered the streets from both ends, writing about the upper classes’ doings as well as the crime of the streets.  The paper went bankrupt.  At about the same time, he got a letter from Denmark advising him that his two older brothers, an aunt, and his ex-girlfriend’s fiancé had died.

In a moment of either brilliance or complete foolhardiness, Riis took action by first scraping together $75 of his own money and signing off on enough promissory notes to buy the bankrupt News.  Then, he wrote to Elisabeth and proposed marriage.  

He revived the paper but began using it as a tool to grind editorial axes against the paper’s former owners, a group of deep-pocketed politicians.  Elisabeth had responded to his marriage proposal conditionally, saying he needed to come back to Denmark first.  His public targets grew tired of his barbs, and the same people who had bankrupted the News bought it back from Riis at five times what he paid for it.  He took his wealth and headed for Denmark.

Back in the New York Groove
Marriage for Riis meant having what he most obsessed over, Elisabeth.  After only a few months in Denmark, though, Riis wanted to go back to America.  Taking his new bride with him they sailed for New York, and Riis quickly got another editor’s job, this time at the Brooklyn News.

To make some extra money, Riis came up with a clever advertising scheme.  Magic lanterns (light sources with lenses capable of projecting static images) were in vogue as parlor entertainments and as public lecture aids.  Jacob had the idea to hang a sheet between two trees or behind a store window display.  Then, he projected an image onto the sheet, thus creating a primitive version of lighted advertising. 

This business model was a huge success, and he and a partner moved to upstate New York, becoming itinerant ad men with their territory expanding into Pennsylvania.  This early success was short-lived; Riis and his partner got involved in an armed dispute between striking railroad workers and police.  He beat a hasty retreat to New York City.

Flash in the Pan
Jacob was given a short-term offer of employment in 1877 as a police reporter for the New York Tribune upon recommendation from a neighbor who was also that paper’s City Editor. He set up shop in a press office right across from Five Points’ Mulberry Street police headquarters. 

Mulberry Street had been given the ominous nickname “Death’s Thoroughfare” in the press.  Riis, however, was fearless, and he worked the most crime-ridden and impoverished slums New York City had to offer.  It was through his daily exposure to the misery of the poorhouses and slum-dwellers that led him to want to help somehow.  He began writing about the denizens of Mulberry Street.  He took the night-shift slot so he could crawl through the alleys and tenements for stories.  His writings on the things he saw made him one of the earliest of journalists with a social agenda and conscience.


Ad hoc lodgingCredit: Jacob Riis, ca 1888-1890; public domain

Jacob’s problem was he felt mere words alone were not enough to help the wealthy or the otherwise disinclined to understand just how bad things were in Five Points.  He was a lousy illustrator.  Cameras, relatively common but impractical in many ways, would not work for Riis because most of what he did was in the darkest hours of night.  With slow exposure times and indifferent processing there was no hope for a clear image at night.

In early 1887, Jacob Riis read of a new technique in photography to “take pictures by flashlight”.  A German innovator had created an explosive powder that fired cartridges like a pistol.  One of the materials used in the flash powder was magnesium, a brightly burning metal.  [The heat generated by burning magnesium is so intense it is used in underwater welding.]  This method of producing a blinding light, albeit briefly, was the beginning of flash photography.  [The gun was later replaced by the open pan most familiarly used in early slapstick films.]

Jacob knew he could put this technology to use in his work, and he talked with a friend who also happened to be New York’s chief of the Bureau of Vital Statistics in the city’s health department.  Lower east side (ca 1890)Credit: Jacob Riis, ca 1888-1890; public domainThis friend, Dr. John Nagle, was an amateur shutterbug, and he quickly enlisted the aid of two other photographer friends to help capture Riis’ poverty stories on photographic plates.  

Riis’ first news report of the iniquities in Five Points appeared anonymously in the New York Sun (the paper with which he was now employed) on February 12, 1888.  Line drawings made from the photos the group of amateur anthropologists had taken featured in the piece. 

He described his work in the article as the “foundation for a lecture called ‘The Other Half: How It Lives and Dies in New York’ to give at church and Sunday school exhibitions, and the like.”  Riis foresaw the need to take his revelations on the lecture circuit, complete with magic lantern.

Jacob’s first team of amateur photographers soon tired of the late hours and street crawling.  He was forced to hire two more photographers, but these men proved to be lazy and devious – one man sold the plates for which Riis had already paid.  Riis sued the man in court and prevailed

His friend, Dr. Nagle, advised Riis to learn photography and plate processing himself and that way he could be self-reliant.  In January 1888, Jacob bought a small box camera, a tripod, and chemicals and equipment for developing and printing images.  His cash outlay for this was $25.  He rowed out to Hart Island, home of New York’s Potter’s Field (a cemetery for the indigent and unidentified).  He made two exposures on plates to get a feel for his gear.  The results were overexposed but serviceable. 

With confidence and, certainly, growing professionalism Riis took photos in many of the most unlikely places in the slums.  He even got pictures of the gangs of New York.  Over three years, Riis amassed quite an archive, and he felt it deserved wider attention.  He wrote an article with his pictures that he submitted to Harper’s New Monthly.  The reviewing editor said he preferred the pictures but hated the writing, and would get a ghost writer for the text.  Riis objected and decided on taking his story directly to the masses himself. 

Public lectures were very popular entertainments (Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens, Lola Montez, and many other personalities all made very good money this way).  Riis first thought of churches – the humanitarian call-to-arms would surely appeal to Christians.  He was wrong.  Even his own church declined to sponsor a magic lantern lecture of the slums.  It was believed the attending churchgoers would be offended.  Or, probably more acutely, the agitation would upset the rich and powerful owners of the tenements.

Local characters (Salvation Army members, prostitutes)Credit: Jacob Riis, ca 1890s; public domain

Help came from an odd quarter, though.  An influential member of a benevolent mission group (whose specialty was saving “soiled doves”) and another man arranged to sponsor a presentation at a large church.  For seed money, Riis took on a partner who was also a clerk in the Health Department.

Upon invitation, Riis wrote and submitted an eighteen-page article called “How the Other Half Lives” that was published in the Christmas 1889 edition of Scribner's Magazine.  Nineteen of his photos were rendered as line drawings and accompanied the article.  He had already been thinking of expanding the project into a book.  He started writing the text at nights; he still worked as a newspaper reporter during the day, and his evenings were filled with the lectures.  Riis completed this work, How the Other Half Lives (subtitled “Studies Among the Tenements of New York”), and it was issued in 1890.  The book reused the line drawings of his Scribner's article.  To this were added seventeen reproductions of his photographs, the first extensive use of halftone photographic reproductions in a book. 

The documented hardships faced by the poor and the criminal, especially in the immediate vicinity of the notorious Mulberry Street, were met with shock, awe, and finally sympathy by many readers.  The book sold well, and reviews were generally good.  Some critics, however, carped that it was oversimplified and exaggerated.  Jacob followed this up with another photo essay, “Children of the Poor”, in 1892.  He wrote of specific children he had met during his beat.

Riis’ social agitation did not end with his cries for cleaning up Five Points.  He exposed the horrid, unsanitary condition of New York’s drinking water in a five-column news story called “Some Things We Drink” (August 21, 1891, edition of the New York Evening Sun).  He included six photographs with this piece.  Riis’ outrage was barely contained as he described the water supply:

“I took my camera and went up in the watershed photographing my evidence wherever I found it. Populous towns sewered directly into our drinking water. I went to the doctors and asked how many days a vigorous cholera bacillus may live and multiply in running water. About seven, said they. My case was made.” 

As a result of his investigative work the city bought up land in the watershed area; this pre-emptive move may have spared the city from a cholera epidemic.

Riis and his lecture partner had made almost no money on their venture.  Public awareness of the horrid living conditions along Mulberry Street was raised exponentially, though.  His exposure on the lecture circuit gave him access to many people who were not only inclined toward his reform ideas, but also in a position to do something about it.

Unky Ted
Theodore Roosevelt made an introduction to Riis at his first opportunity, and swore he would try to help in any way he could.  When Roosevelt was appointed president of the Board of Commissioners Illustration, late 1800s, T. Roosevelt followed by RiisCredit: public domainof the New York City Police Department in 1895, he called on Jacob Riis to show him the ropes.  Riis took him out on one of his typical nocturnal jaunts. 
Roosevelt learned the hard way of the sad state of affairs of police work in New York City.  On his first night stalk with Riis, Teddy found that 90% of his officers were missing from their assigned areas.  Riis wrote up this disgrace for the next day’s paper, and not surprisingly for the rest of Roosevelt’s term police were very visible as required.

Teddy forced the closure of the squalid police-managed lodging house from which Riis had been ejected shortly after his arrival in America.  Roosevelt was sufficiently impressed with Riis’ derring-do and fearlessness, and with his exposés of corruption and social ills, that he remained a lifelong friend of Riis, “whom I am tempted to call the best American I ever knew, although he was already a young man when he came hither from Denmark”. 

After Theodore Roosevelt was elected President of the United States, he wrote a tribute to Riis, in which he quoted another as calling Jacob “the most useful citizen of New York”.  [Riis had written a glowing campaign biography of Roosevelt, and this tribute was probably a tit-for-tat move.]

The Common Good
Riis’s solution for Five Points was demolition, always had been.  He felt by removing the cancer and replacing it with a park, the people would disperse into better areas.  An investigative committee was formed by the city that looked into the unsafe living conditions of the tenements thanks to Riis. 
Clean-up work began with improved sanitation and refuse control paramount.  Upon recommendation a beautification act was legislated, and in June 1897, the Mulberry Street park was opened.  Riis, though not invited to attend the opening ceremonies, went anyway.  The Street Cleaning Commissioner, in the last speech of the affair, gave credit to Riis and led the crowd in a cheer for Jacob.  Other parks were built in the poorer neighborhoods, and Riis was given popular credit for them as well.

In 1901, Jacob Riis wrote his autobiography. 

Jacob and his wife Elisabeth had three children: a daughter, Clara; and two sons, John (1882-1946), and Edward.  His son John joined the newly created US Forestry Service in 1907 and worked as a ranger and supervisor until 1913.  In 1937, John Riis wrote of his ranger experiences in Ranger Trails (1937).  His other son Edward held a civil service job of some importance as US Director of Public Information in Copenhagen toward the end of World War I.

The love of Jacob’s life, Elisabeth, died of an illness in 1905.  He remarried in 1907 and moved to a farm in Barre, Massachusetts.  He died at his farm home on May 26, 1914.  His grave bore no distinct headstone, but a memorial was erected at the cemetery indicating he was buried within.  His second wife, Mary, survived until 1967, working on Wall Street and as a teacher at Columbia university. 

Jacob Riis (memorial and unmarked grave spot)Credit: findagrave 2008


Jacob Riis – Reality Check
Jacob Riis’ efforts to raise awareness of immigrant living conditions in New York City were certainly ahead of his time and were admirable.  His artistry with narrative photographs gave a whole new dimension to journalism – even his staged “candid” shots [a street gang working over astreet urchins ("sleeping" in basement entryway)Credit: Jacob Riis, ca 1888-1890; public domain victim; children sleeping on a sidewalk grate] carry pathos and can still elicit a sympathetic response.  He is to be championed for his activism.

However, there is a slight dullness to this knight’s shining armor.  Like many people of his day–and it seems to be more true of the “rags-to-riches” successes (the “bootstrap” theory proponents in sociology: one can achieve success by pulling oneself up by the bootstraps)–Riis was very suspicious of the motives of many immigrants and was openly distrustful of others.  His most impressionable audiences were middle-class reformers who listened not out of concern for the poor but out of fear for themselves (the poor spreading diseases, reproducing rampantly, and causing violent crime).  [One observer noted, “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 “clean-up” envisioned by these people was more for protecting themselves than for improving the lot of the slum-dweller.

Riis was frankly disrespectful and impatient with his fellow immigrants’ failures to assimilate quickly.  As a white northern European his opinions of others could be very low, indeed: “The Jews are Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914)Credit: New York Sun (nysun.com)nervous and inquisitive, the Orientals are sinister, and the Italians are unsanitary.”  He also did not understand the fears of Eastern Jewish immigrants flooding into the area (and being persecuted by groups who had themselves been persecuted but a generation before).

Riis’ belief that tenement dwellers did not want better housing was baseless.  Certainly they did – but immigrants did things differently.  They usually took the absolute cheapest lodgings they could find, found jobs, and sent half their wages to their homeland to finance the rest of their family’s trip to America.  Then, naturally, they would all have to live in bad housing until they could afford better.  Though Riis had no family to bring over (other than Elisabeth upon marrying her) he had done what many immigrants did – he lived in Five Points, in the slums and on the streets, until he could afford to leave.

As a point of fact many of Riis’ objects of salvation did not want to be saved from the slums.  A large number resisted being moved from Five Points not because they had any special love of the neighborhood, but moving away meant spending more for higher housing costs.  This, in turn, would cut into the money they could send back for their relatives, delaying the immigration of others left behind.  Riis’ own life tends to support the obvious – he lived in the tenements only temporarily before gradually making more and more money which allowed him to gain better lodgings.

Mulberry Street (color print, 1900)Credit: Library of Congress, public domain

Typically, Jacob Riis was not a believer in a woman’s equal rights.  For his autobiography he invited his wife Elisabeth to write a chapter talking of herself and her assessment of him.  He read several pages of what she started under the chapter title “Elizabeth Tells Her Story.”  Riis scotched the chapter completely, deciding he did not like what she was saying.  Not only that, he thought she was taking up too much space to say it: “. . . it is not good for a woman to allow her to say too much”.


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