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'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel. This is a story of a social reformer, a famous campaigner against slum housing, and a device that made his campaigning effective. 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: Italians, Irish, Germans, Jews, Czechs, 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, too - 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.

(Soundbite flash lamp)

SIEGEL: A flash illuminates 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.

(Soundbite flash lamp)

SIEGEL: 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 - that's spelled R-I-I-S -took pictures that way in lower Manhattan.

Ms. BONNE YOCHELSON (Curator, Museum of the City of New York; Co-Author, "Rediscovering Jacob Riis"): We're on the corner of Baxter and Bayard Street.

SIEGEL: There are a couple of new books about Jacob Riis, and Bonnie Yochelson co-authored one of them.

Ms. YOCHELSON: One of Riis' most famous pictures was taken on Bayard Street. It's called "5 Cents a Spot." At the time, it was legal to charge $.07 for someone to sleep for the night. And this place, this "5 Cents a Spot" place was illegal. There were over 20 people in the room, including a mother and a baby.

SIEGEL: A spot didn't mean a room. A spot meant a piece of floor, perhaps in a room with strangers.

Ms. YOCHELSON: A spot meant a place on the floor. Exactly. Exactly. And when you look at this picture, you see the shock on the faces of the many people who are on the floor and sort of bunk beds in back.

SIEGEL: 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.

Ms. YOCHELSON: So we're crossing Canal Street and headed down to what was in Riis' day the notorious Mulberry Bend.

SIEGEL: A few days ago, we took the walk with Bonnie Yochelson and her co-author, Daniel Czitrom, through Mulberry Street. It's recently gentrified, but this was where Riis campaigned against the housing conditions of the day. Czitrom is a historian.

Mr. DANIEL CZITROM (Historian; Co-Author, "Rediscovering Jacob Riis"): You can still see the really small size of the building lots. The typical building lot in New York for a tenement was 25 feet wide and 100 feet deep going back. And if you look at some of these buildings, you can see that the front is only about 25 feet - four or five stories. And that's one of the things that Riis railed against, the small size of the building lots and the fact that people used up the whole lot, which led to the fact that a lot of these tenements, the so-called rear tenements built behind other tenements, would have no access to light or air.

SIEGEL: And all the rooms were interior rooms in those units, then. And…

Mr. CZITROM: That's right. Correct. And interestingly enough, up through the 1890s, there were a series of court decisions - one of my favorite ones was essentially saying that there is no right to light or air for a renter or an owner. And so the idea that you have somehow a right to a window or the right to some breathing space was not a legal right that anyone recognized until much later.

SIEGEL: That's Daniel Czitrom. His co-author, Bonnie Yochelson, is a curator at the Museum of the City of New York. She writes about Jacob Riis' photography. Riis thought of himself as a writer, and he was evidently a gripping storyteller in the lectures that he gave to accompany his lantern slideshows. Yochelson says that he 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.

Ms. YOCHELSON: 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 and describing ethnic group by ethnic group. That was a pre-established literary genre, which he was borrowing. It had a lot of entertainment value. It was come see the colorful Italians and the mystifying Chinese. And there was this sense of he was playing on a certain - the entertainment value of these stereotypes. So on the one hand, there was a sort of racial typology that he believed in. But it was also popular culture, and he abandoned that after "How the Other Half Lives."

Mr. CZITROM: 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 those - that 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.

SIEGEL: "Rediscovering Jacob Riis," the book that Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel 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. He's a Danish historian who only heard of Riis when he was a Danish newspaper correspondent in the US.

Riis was once one of the most famous men in this country, a close friend and confidante of President Theodore Roosevelt, the epitome of the immigrant made good - good, in his case, being measured by political and social influence, not by wealth. But Tom Buk-Swienty says all that success didn't impress the Danes back in Riis' hometown of Ribe.

Mr. TOM BUK-SWIENTY (Danish Historian; Author, "The Other Half"): That, I mean, that is very difficult for Americans to understand. The mindset is so different in Denmark, at least it was very different. I mean, although was not a rich town, it was sort of a place where there was a lot of scarcity. And you sort of had the opposite philosophy as you do in America. If someone does well, people are sort of mistrusting of that person because they believe maybe he's taking something away from me. If my neighbor does well, maybe he's sort of taking something away from me. And it's sort of place where you cherish the egalitarian value. So if someone sticks out, people are mistrusting that person. So when he came back later as a famous person, he was almost cold-shouldered. And it's very, very strange. And Riis couldn't really understand that himself, because he had become an American in that process. He was very proud of his achievements. But people, they were just very skeptical.

SIEGEL: The attitude being that sort of, who do you think you are, Mr. Big Shot?

Mr. BUK-SWIENTY: Exactly. Yeah. Exactly.

SIEGEL: Buk-Swienty tells the story of how young Jacob Riis - the under-achieving son of a school master - set off for America when the girl he adored turned down his proposal of marriage. He worked in the US as a carpenter. And in the financial panic of 1873, he experienced unemployment first hand.

Mr. BUK-SWIENTY: He himself experienced extreme poverty. There was a time where just didn't have a place to sleep. He had no money. He totally penniless. When he came - worked as a journalist later and he worked in the tenement districts, also as a police reporter, he knew by experience that this mass of poor people were not sort of faceless people, but they were, like himself, people that came to America in order to try to make a better living. So he felt empathy with these people and could write about them because he knew what they were going through.

SIEGEL: And he, when he experienced poverty, he experienced it not as someone who had fled famine or extreme poverty in the old country, but who had actually been the school teacher's son and had known some comfort back in a very old world part of the old country.

Mr. BUK-SWIENTY: Yeah. That's a very precise way to put it. He did know better. He thought that the rest of the world was like Denmark.

SIEGEL: Poverty struck Jacob Riis as something 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, and it's just about the same share today. Millions of immigrants were in the process of becoming American. Tom Buk-Swienty studied Riis' diaries and says he's found the moment with the Danish carpenter - he wasn't yet a reporter - became an American mentally. He says it happened when Riis learned that the girl back home, the one he'd been pining for, had gotten engaged to a Danish military hero.

Mr. BUK-SWIENTY: Now when he learned about that, and at that time he had been in the US for a couple of years, he was shocked. I mean, that came for him as a total surprise. And his world, you could say, went dark for a few days. He's sort of resting in an inn, and he's writing about that. And he says there's nothing more left for me. And he writes all this in Danish. But what happens a few days later, which I find very significant, is that all the sudden, he begins to write in English.

SIEGEL: It's a remarkable turning point when decide to change the language in which you write the diary, which, at least at that point, Riis would have no reason to think would be a document that people would pour over in libraries. It was a very private document.

Mr. BUK-SWIENTY: Exactly. It is. It's very remarkable, and it's almost eerie when you sit with that diary and you have it in your hands and you just can see that something is changing in this man.

SIEGEL: Tom Buk-Swienty's "The Other Half" is being published in this country in August. The book uses a famous Jacob Riis photo on the cover. It's a street scene, and Bonnie Yochelson took us to the place where Riis shot it. It's now in the middle of Columbus Park.

Ms. YOCHELSON: Where we're standing in this park is the sight of Riis's most famous photographs, which is "Bandit's Roost." He actually put the address of Bandit's Roost on the negative sleeve of that image, which was 69 1/2 Mulberry.

Mr. CZITROM: I want you to describe the picture.

Ms. YOCHELSON: The picture shows an alley with laundry hanging in the background. On the left side is a mother with two children and some ash cans and garbage cans out in the alley. And on the right side are a group of bandits, sort of scary-looking guys hovering and hulking and looking at the camera in a threatening way. So it's those - it has a kid of romanticism to it, and an exotic air and a sort of sinister air -essentially, very cinematic.

SIEGEL: Think Martin Scorcese's "Gangs of New York." That's what it looks like. And Jacob Riis, who died in 1914, might not have resisted that comparison. He was a social reformer who was also - with his slideshows and his lectures - a natural showman. Historian Daniel Czitrom.

Mr. CZITROM: I do think Riis is the first muckraker. I think he represents sort of the beginning of a sort of progressive sensibility. And by that I mean this: 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. And that becomes a real hallmark, it seems to me, of the Progressive Era, of Progressive reform. And the photograph, really, was the way that, you know, he tried to do that, along with the journalism.

SIEGEL: And along with that chemical reaction that made the obscure lives of the poor brightly visible to rest of the country.

(Soundbite of flash lamp)

SIEGEL: Daniel Czitrom and Bonnie Yochelson's book is called "Rediscovering Jacob Riis." That sound of the 19th-century flash, by the way, is from a 21st-centry hobbyist, and we'll hear from him in a moment. And Jacob Riis's beloved Elizabeth, the woman in Denmark who turned him down in favor of the military hero, well, as the story goes, the hero died. Riis wrote to her. She answered. He went back to Denmark and married her. Biographer Tim Buk-Swienty says there was never any doubt in Riis's mind that they would live in America, which they did. You can read about that and see some of Riis's pictures at npr.org.

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