Jacob Riis: Shedding Light On NYC's 'Other Half' Through photos and writings documenting poverty in New York City in the late 19th century, a Danish immigrant became a famous campaigner against slum housing. Two new books tell the story of Jacob Riis, a social reformer and natural showman.

Jacob Riis: Shedding Light On NYC's 'Other Half'

Jacob Riis: Shedding Light On NYC's 'Other Half'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/91981589/92043727" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Jacob Riis, circa 1900. Jacob A. Riis Collection, Museum of the City of New York hide caption

toggle caption
Jacob A. Riis Collection, Museum of the City of New York

Jacob Riis, circa 1900.

Jacob A. Riis Collection, Museum of the City of New York

Watch a demonstration of a powder flash like those used by photographer Jacob Riis.

Media no longer available

In one of Jacob Riis' most famous photos, "Five Cents a Spot," 1888–89, lodgers crowd in a Bayard Street tenement. Jacob A. Riis Collection, Museum of the City of New York hide caption

toggle caption
Jacob A. Riis Collection, Museum of the City of New York

In one of Jacob Riis' most famous photos, "Five Cents a Spot," 1888–89, lodgers crowd in a Bayard Street tenement.

Jacob A. Riis Collection, Museum of the City of New York

The scene in "Bandit's Roost," 1887-88, was re-enacted in the 2002 Hollywood film Gangs of New York. This is one of 20 stereographic negatives that have been cut in half. Jacob A. Riis Collection, Museum of the City of New York hide caption

toggle caption
Jacob A. Riis Collection, Museum of the City of New York

The scene in "Bandit's Roost," 1887-88, was re-enacted in the 2002 Hollywood film Gangs of New York. This is one of 20 stereographic negatives that have been cut in half.

Jacob A. Riis Collection, Museum of the City of New York

Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom, co-authors of Rediscovering Jacob Riis, stand in Columbus Park in lower Manhattan. It was formerly the site of the slum known as Mulberry Bend and where Riis' most famous photo, "Bandit's Roost," was taken. Riis campaigned to do away with the tenement buildings that were eventually demolished to make the park. Franklyn Cater/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Franklyn Cater/NPR

Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom, co-authors of Rediscovering Jacob Riis, stand in Columbus Park in lower Manhattan. It was formerly the site of the slum known as Mulberry Bend and where Riis' most famous photo, "Bandit's Roost," was taken. Riis campaigned to do away with the tenement buildings that were eventually demolished to make the park.

Franklyn Cater/NPR

Through photos and writings documenting poverty in New York City in the late 19th century, a Danish immigrant became a famous campaigner against slum housing. Two new books tell the story of Jacob Riis, a social reformer and natural showman.

Imagine it's 1888. New York City. The Lower East Side is the most densely populated place on Earth: Block after block of tenements house the working-poor immigrants of the city, including Italians, Irish, Germans, Jews, Czechs and Chinese.

Imagine the darkness of an unlit corridor in one of those tenements, a corridor that opens onto windowless rooms, 10 feet square, where entire families live and might even work — sewing, or rolling cigars.

Out of the darkness, a door opens. A man with a Danish accent leads a team of amateur photographers, who are accompanied by a policeman. They position their camera on a tripod and ignite a mixture of magnesium and potassium chlorate powder. A flash explodes, illuminating their squalor.

It would take the photographers a few minutes to reload that early ancestor of the flash bulb. And then, on to another tenement scene.

And despite the blackness of a room or an unlit street, a picture is taken, a document of urban poverty.

In the late 1880s, a New York City police reporter named Jacob Riis took pictures that way in lower Manhattan.

'5 Cents A Spot'

One of Riis' most famous photos was taken on Bayard Street. It's called "5 Cents a Spot," which shows a room full of people bedding down for the night. (A "spot" meant a place on the floor.) They must have been shocked. Magnesium flash powder was something new. It was developed in Germany in 1887. Riis' burst of light must have been a stunning surprise, but it made the dim, airless lives of the poor visible to the middle class.

In public slideshows and in his book, How the Other Half Lives, Riis — who was born in Ribe, Denmark — used those images and his descriptions to jar the conscience of prosperous, native-born Americans.

A few days ago, we took a walk with Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom, co-authors of Rediscovering Jacob Riis, through Mulberry Street. The neighborhood is recently gentrified, but this was where Riis campaigned against the housing conditions of the day.

"You can still see the really small size of the building lots," says Czitrom, who is a historian. "The typical building lot in New York for a tenement was 25 feet wide and 100 feet deep going back," and the buildings often took up the entire lot, he says.

No Light Or Air

So-called rear tenements, built behind other tenements, would have no access to light or air, and all the rooms were interior rooms, Czitrom says

A court decision from that era essentially said there is no right to light or air for a renter or an owner, he says. "So the idea that you have a right to a window or the right to some breathing space was not a legal right that anyone recognized until much later," Czitrom says.

Riis thought of himself as a writer, and he was evidently a gripping storyteller in the lectures he gave to accompany his lantern slideshows.

Yochelson, a curator at the Museum of the City of New York, says Riis was a passionate reformer, but he was also very conservative. He believed that Protestant philanthropy and the self-restraint of ethical landlords was the best remedy — not the government. And he was very much a product of his time.

A Slum Tour

"Riis organized his most famous book, which was a best-seller and launched his career as a reformer — How the Other Half Lives — as a kind of a slum tour, going neighborhood by neighborhood, describing ethnic group by ethnic group," Yochelson says. "That was a pre-established literary genre, which he was borrowing. It had a lot of entertainment value. 'Come see the colorful Italians and the mystifying Chinese.'

"And there was the sense of he was playing on the ... entertainment value of these stereotypes," she says. "So on the one hand, there was a certain racial typology that he believed in. But it was also popular culture, and he abandoned that after How the Other Half Lives."

Czitrom adds, "One of the things that makes Riis so fascinating are these contradictions in his work. I see Riis more as a transitional figure. He's somebody that did bring with him those stereotypes and sort of racialized thinking of the day, but he's also somebody that began insisting on the importance of environment. Or, as he put it at one point, it's the squalid houses that make for squalid people."

Rediscovering Jacob Riis, the book that Yochelson and Czitrom collaborated on, is one of two new books about Riis. The Other Half is the title of a new biography by Tom Buk-Swienty, a Danish historian and former newspaper correspondent in the United States.

Poverty Firsthand

Riis was once one of the most famous men in America: a close friend and confidante of President Theodore Roosevelt and the epitome of the immigrant made good — good, in his case, being measured by political and social influence, not by wealth.

But Buk-Swienty says that didn't impress the Danes back in Riis' hometown of Ribe, who viewed anyone who seemed well-off as being so at their expense.

Buk-Swienty tells the story of how young Riis, the underachieving son of a schoolmaster, set off for America when the girl he adored turned down his proposal of marriage.

Riis worked in the U.S. as a carpenter; in the financial panic of 1873, he experienced unemployment firsthand.

"He himself experienced extreme poverty," Buk-Swienty says. "There was a time where he just didn't have a place to sleep. He had no money. He was totally penniless."

The experience led Riis to feel empathy with New York's poor immigrants, Buk-Swienty says.

"He could write about them because he knew what they were going through," he says.

Poverty struck Riis as abnormal — even for the various immigrant groups whom he regarded as exotic. When he lived in New York City, about 40 percent of the population was foreign-born. It's just about the same share today.

A Personal Transformation

Millions of immigrants were in the process of becoming American.

Buk-Swienty studied Riis' diaries and says he found the moment when the Danish carpenter, not yet a reporter, became an American, mentally. He says it happened when Riis learned that the girl back home, the one he had been pining for, had gotten engaged to a Danish military hero.

"He was shocked," Buk-Swienty says. "That came for him as a total surprise, and his world, you could say, went dark for a few days."

Riis wrote about his sorrow in Danish, but a few days later, he began to write his diary in English. "It's very remarkable," Buk-Swienty says. "You can see that something is changing in this man."

Riis was a social reformer who was also, with his slideshows and lectures, a natural showman.

"I do think that Riis is the first muckraker," Czitrom says. "I think he represents the beginning of a sort of progressive sensibility ... Riis believed that it was important, that it was crucial, to try to rouse the conscience of the public, to appeal to the conscience. This belief that if we could simply expose conditions, if people simply knew how bad things were, they would rise up and change them."

Excerpt: 'Rediscovering Jacob Riis'

'Rediscovering Jacob Riis' book cover

The following excerpt is adapted from the introduction to Rediscovering Jacob Riis.

When Jacob Augustus Riis died on May 25, 1914, at the age of sixty-five, he was a beloved public figure. How the Other Half Lives, his 1890 call-to-conscience for housing reform, had been a bestseller and was still in print. The Making of an American, his popular 1901 autobiography, which told the heartwarming story of his rise from penniless immigrant to confidant of President Theodore Roosevelt, had made him a celebrity. His nationwide lecture tours and steady stream of magazine stories had kept his message in public view. Nearly a century later, Riis maintains a stubbornly persistent hold on the American imagination. The twin themes of his writing—urban poverty and the Americanization of the immigrant—are as relevant today as in his time. The recovery in the 1940s of Riis's original photographs—images of decrepit rear tenements, "black-and-tan dives," newsboys, and "little mothers," which constitute a unique pictorial record of New York's late-nineteenth-century slums—added another dimension to his fame. Indeed, images such as "Bandit's Roost," which was reenacted in the 2002 Hollywood film Gangs of New York, have become emblems of urban poverty.

His most enduring legacy remains the written descriptions, photographs, and analysis of the conditions in which the majority of New Yorkers lived in the late nineteenth century. The new immigrants of the tenements—Italians, Jews, Bohemians, Chinese, Slavs, and "low Irish"—threatened the political stability of the city and the nation. The explosive mixture of grinding poverty, sweatshops, and mass immigration, the growing power of urban Democratic political machines, the declining influence of Protestant evangelical churches, the persistence of life-threatening public health conditions, the increase in child labor and juvenile crime, the "murder of the home"—all these were passionately portrayed in his "Studies Among the Tenements of New York," the subtitle of How the Other Half Lives.

In that first book, Riis employed every means he could muster to arouse his readers: curiosity, humor, shock, fear, guilt, and faith. His passion ignited his audience, but his message was not truly incendiary. A deeply contradictory figure, Riis was a conservative activist and a skillful entertainer who presented controversial ideas in a compelling but ultimately comforting manner. His social scientific method of careful observation and deployment of statistics and photographs would become hallmarks of the Progressive movement, yet his writings hark back to several nineteenth-century literary traditions, including police journalism, Protestant charity writing, the "sunshine and shadow" guidebooks to "the secrets of the great city," and the tales of Horatio Alger. His disturbing photographs were safely embedded in Christian sermons. It was precisely Riis's ability to straddle the old and the new that won the confidence of his audiences and secured his success.

In the writings and lectures that followed How the Other Half Lives Riis stayed on message. But the racial stereotypes faded in favor of anecdotes about individuals, and his photographs also became more personal, with "flashlight" exposures giving way to portraits that evolved naturally out of interviews. Otherwise, the later books and articles are numbingly repetitive. Indeed, by the late 1890s, many of Riis's innovations, such as tenement-life storytelling and photographic illustration, became commonplace, and a change in sensibility occurred that left Riis behind. The shift can be seen, for example, in Stephen Crane's Maggie, A Girl of the Streets (1893), which scandalized the public not because of its subject matter but for its utter lack of moral uplift; or in Lincoln Steffens's The Shame of the Cities (1904), which employed a streetwise, cynical tone to expose government corruption. Steffens, who warmly regarded "Jake" Riis as a mentor, wrote about politics and crime with a clinical detachment that was entirely foreign to Riis.

Although his innovations quickly became commonplace, Riis posed a series of urgent, often implicit, questions to himself and his readers, which remain surprisingly apt today: What is the structural relationship between persistent poverty and new immigrants? If different "races" and nationalities possess inherent moral and cultural characteristics, how can that be reconciled with the American creed of individualism? How does environment shape "character"? What are the proper roles of government, private philanthropy, and religion in reform efforts? How important is spectacle and entertainment in rousing the public conscience?

While the Manhattan slum neighborhoods that Riis documented have been transformed into fabulously lucrative real estate, his work still resonates on a global level. The 2003 United Nations report on The Challenge of Slums presents a grim picture of a planet where more than 900 million people, nearly a third of the world's urban population, live in slums. That figure may reach a staggering 2 billion by 2030. The report summarizes the situation in twenty-nine city case studies with an urgency that echoes Riis: "Slums are distinguished by the poor quality of housing, the poverty of the inhabitants, the lack of public and private services and the poor integration of the inhabitants into the broader community and its opportunities . . . . Slum dwellers have more health problems, less access to education, social services and employment, and most have very low incomes." In Rediscovering Jacob Riis we offer a fresh look at a journalist, reformer, and photographer whose world is long gone, but whose probing imagination, moral passion, and intellectual contradictions are as imperative as ever.

Excerpted from Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography In Turn-of-the-Century New York, copyright 2007 by Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom

Excerpts: 'The Other Half'

'The Other Half' book cover

Before Jacob Riis immigrated to America from Denmark in 1870, he had courted Elisabeth Giørtz, but she spurned him.

While Riis spent his time working, Elisabeth took classes in French, German, English, history, biology, and music. She was an accomplished pianist. French conversation was one of her most demanding subjects. Her teacher, Mademoiselle Janoski, from Poland, did not speak any Danish, "so, we really have to work hard in her classes," wrote Elisabeth.

A conscientious student, she always did her homework and managed to make a favorable impression on Nathalie Zahle. In her evaluation of Elisabeth, Zahle wrote: "[she] has always shown a great interest in her classes and worked with increasing diligence. Her fluency in foreign languages is satisfactory, English especially. In history and Danish essay writing, however, her skills are affected by her youth and lack of prior guidance." Zahle concluded by saying, "with her open mind and charming personality, she has been a delightful student to work with, and we [at the school] will always remember her with pleasure."

In her letters home, Elisabeth mentioned many names, old and new, but never Riis, who was simply of no interest to her. Yet he continued to admire and court her, sending her flowers when she was sick—which she promptly discarded to avoid her friends' teasing. Her rebuffs only made her more attractive to him: "She is among the prettiest girls in Copenhagen, which is full of pretty girls." His obsession was so intense that he once interrupted a theater performance because one of the actresses—about to be attacked in the play—bore an uncanny resemblance to Elisabeth. In the audience were King Christian IX and the king of Greece. When Riis leapt out of his seat and onto the stage to save the young woman, he was thrown out of the theater.

Elisabeth finished her schooling in May 1869 and returned to Ribe. Five months later Riis concluded his apprenticeship as a carpenter and hurried home. It was now or never, he decided: Now twenty, he would propose to the seventeen-year-old Elisabeth. It was obviously an absurd plan, but at least he had the sense not to approach her in person. He also knew that the doors to The Castle were closed to him. Instead he declared his intentions in a letter, which his mother delivered on October 17, 1869, to Clara Giørtz, who in turn gave it to Elisabeth with these words: "I don't have to tell you that your father and I will not agree to this marriage until Jacob can provide properly for a family."

The day marked a turning point for Riis, and for many years he believed it to be one of the most consequential in his life. He waited alone, at home, for Elisabeth's reply, pacing up and down the small rooms of the house on Sortebrødregade, lying down on his bed, then getting up again and continuing his pacing. It was as if time had stopped or slowed down. Each tick of the clock, as he wrote one year later, "bruised my heart." He knew she was reading his letter, or maybe she had already read it and dispatched one of the servants with her answer: "It was a terrible time for me. I thought it would never end."

When Elisabeth's response arrived, it was late afternoon and already dark. The messenger handed him a sealed envelope, which he took with trembling hands. Among the thoughts that rushed through his mind, he later wrote, was that her hand had, moments before, touched this paper: "Letter in hand, kissing it, I knelt and prayed. Oh, how I prayed I would read the answer I so desired in that letter."

When he opened the letter a surge of fatigue swept over him.Elisabeth's neat handwriting, he wrote, crushed all his hopes and dreams for the future. She had been moved by his beautiful words, she told him; she had even been moved to tears. But she was never in doubt of her answer—and she was completely honest with him. "Jacob," she wrote, "I will never be able to love you."

For almost five years he had been convincing himself that it was only a matter of time before she would fall in love with him. He had been sure that, once he completed his apprenticeship and got a job, she would say yes. Knowing that he would one day share his life with Elisabeth had been his sole motivation for finishing his vocational training. Incredibly, he was not prepared for rejection.

Riis's parents, too, were devastated. The sympathy displayed even by Niels Edvard, who had admonished his son to give up his hopeless dreams of Elisabeth time and again, was heartfelt and profound.

Riis spent a grim winter in Ribe. Though they could ill afford it, his parents allowed their unemployed son to live at home. With Ribe still suffering economic hardship in the wake of Denmark's lost war, Riis found himself unable to get work. Caroline and Niels Edvard looked on helplessly as he sank into depression. The death of his sister Charlotte Emilie, from consumption, added to the family's heartache. Riis spent much of his time at the local tavern, lamenting his fate to anyone willing to listen. Luckily, he had many caring friends: Making friends had always been easy for him, as people were naturally drawn to his high energy. In the spring, as the days grew lighter, Riis's determination and drive began to resurface, as did his innate restlessness—the restlessness that had made it impossible for him to sit still in school—and the undaunted drive that had given him the resilience to pursue the indifferent Elisabeth for five years.

Years later, after Raymond Baumann, the man she had intended to marry, fell ill and died, she reconsidered her feelings for Riis.

Elisabeth returned to Haderslev. Fall set in with cold, rainy weather and short days. There was little to cheer her up, and she became, in her own words, "a pale, anemic, sorrowful girl to look at." In the evening she tried to busy herself with sewing, but her thoughts wandered. One night, when she was particularly restless, she remembered a conversation she had had with Baumann shortly before his death. He had gently admonished her to marry after his death, even if she did not love the man; it was better to be with a man who truly loved her than to be alone, he had said. Thinking back, Elisabeth wondered if Baumann had not obliquely been suggesting that she marry Riis. At the time Elisabeth had brushed the idea aside, not wanting to contemplate the possibility of Baumann's death. Baumann did not know Riis; Elisabeth had never talked about him. But Baumann had read the congratulatory letter Riis had sent Elisabeth upon their engagement and had surely understood that he loved Elisabeth.

Riis had loved her faithfully for twelve years, Elisabeth realized. By October he was constantly on her mind. She needed, as she wrote Christine, "to be loved. I hope you can understand that when you have been through what I have, it can seem a great gift to be loved by someone whom you may not have appreciated—can you understand this? And can you understand that I think I could be fulfilled by being there for someone who loves me with all his heart and will always be faithful to me?"

One evening in October, Elisabeth found it impossible to sleep before she had imparted her changed position in a letter to Riis.

Dear Jacob,
Please do not be angry with me for writing to you like this after all that has happened between us. But the thing is, my heart is so uneasy, and so many thoughts fill my mind that I simply must speak—please do not think me unwomanly, but hear me out and you will know why I could not have stopped myself from speaking even to save my life. I have not had a peaceful moment since I sent my last letter to you. When I sent it, there was no doubt in my mind as to my answer to your proposal. I knew I did not love you and therefore said no. But the very next day when the letter had been sent, a thought hit me like lightning: I could have said yes, perhaps my feelings for you were not those of a woman in love, but with time I might have learned to love you; you are noble, loving and a good Christian, and you would love me faithfully if I were to become yours. Then I would have someone to live for again, to live the rest of my life for, a wonderful sacrifice, I think. These were my thoughts, Riis, and I could not chase them away, and they kept me awake at night and now, after two weeks of thinking and contemplating, I am writing to you to tell you all, you my childhood friend. You have loved me faithfully for many long years though I have given you no hope, on the contrary I have caused you much pain. If you will have me as I am with the kind of love I can give you, I am yours from this moment on, and I will give you my hand in marriage. I cannot give you beauty, wealth or passion, I can only give you a heart which has loved, been hurt and longs for true love, oh, I will with great joy allow myself to be loved by you. I have been thinking perhaps I will disappoint you when you see me as I really am, but I pray, you will lead and guide me. You are good and strong, and together we will strive for all that is good and noble in life, will we not? I will do all that is in my power to be a good wife to you.

But let us keep this to ourselves for now, do not even tell your mother. I have not told my parents that I am writing these words to you and do not want them to hear of this news from strangers. And I do not wish to tell them before you are here, too. Can you possibly come home this summer? I think I will be in Ribe then, and we could meet and plan everything.

Until then my decision must remain a secret. Write me as soon as you can, and promise me in your letter that you will not breathe a word of this to anyone. And tell me you are happy about the turn of events. Although there is not much to be happy about, I think you might in fact be happy, but be careful that your joy will not be read between the lines of the letters you send home to Denmark, except of course in the letters you send to me. And will you not, please, send me your photo that I might familiarize myself with the way you look now. Me, I am a teacher here, but you probably already know that from your parents, though I will not speak of that just now. I can think of only one thing now, that I am your bride—how mysterious are the ways in which Our Lord works, only a fortnight ago I should have thought this impossible, but I am sure it was God who helped me think of this solution. May He bless our union. Please feel no anger toward me because of the things I wrote in my previous letter, which caused you a disappointment you could have been spared. Listen to me, please, don't be angry. And now farewell, I trust you to keep all this to yourself until we meet. I long to hear from you, and oh, I seem already to miss you. I enclose a little flower for you, and it is this flower that brings you these wonderful tidings from Denmark, and in my thoughts I am also sending you your first kiss from your future bride.


"I came in late from work," Riis wrote in his diary, ". . . and found the letter from Elisabeth which brought joy and sunshine to my heart. God bless her. She is my bride now, and so ends this chapter of my unsettled life with a blessing. In the name of Our Lord, Elisabeth is my bride, my betrothed at last."

That evening and all through the night Riis paced the floor of his small room, too excited to sleep. The landlord, who lived in the apartment below, heard him and, fearing something was wrong, went up to check on him. A jubilant Riis opened the door, and it required only a brief glance at his young tenant's face for the landlord to understand that Elisabeth had finally consented to marry him. Like all of Riis's acquaintances the landlord knew about her. Now he uttered a heartfelt, "Wish you joy, old man."

Excerpted from The Other Half: The Life of Jacob Riis and the World of Immigrant America by Tom Buk-Swienty, translated by Annette Buk-Swienty. Copyright (c) 2005 by Tom Buk-Swienty and Gyldendal. English translation copyright (c) 2008 by Annette Buk-Swienty. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.