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."
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).
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 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. 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.
© John Simkin, April 2013