Features | July 21, 2015
Flowers and Thugs: the Slum Photos of Jacob Riis
During the winter of 1888, New York police reporter Jacob Riis’s children had scarlet fever, and from Christmas until Easter they seemed to waste away in their sick beds. On an early spring day, Riis saw a small green shoot pushing through the snow in his yard. He replanted it in a flower pot, placed it on the window sill of the children’s room, and weeks later it bloomed into a bright yellow dandelion. Delighted, they roused from their torpor and tended the weed. “It beat all the doctor’s medicine,” Riis recalled. His children thought that the slum kids he often talked of needed flowers too. The Riis family gathered blooms from the meadow near their house in genteel Richmond Hill, and he brought the bouquets to his Mullberry Street office on Newspaper Row amid New York City’s rickety frame tenements.
Children, barefoot and dirt-covered, more used to “dodging a helpful hand thinking that it was a blow,” approached Riis suspiciously, but when they saw that he meant well, “they went wild over the posies,” grabbing them from his arms. Most had never seen daisies and buttercups and violets before. Overwhelmed, Riis sat in the gutter and wept. The next day he wrote a letter to the editor of the Tribune, recounting the experience. He asked, “If we cannot give them fields, why not flowers?” He was certain that an armful of daisies would keep the peace better than a policeman’s club. People responded to his letter by bringing him bags, barrels and boxes of flowers to distribute.
Though he knew his story had the sentimental quality of something by Charles Dickens, Riis liked to recount his “flower project” because it embodied many of his core beliefs: small efforts can put a human face on poverty; and loving thy neighbor is worthless if not translated into action.
His flower campaign was not new—the Children’s Aid Society had built greenhouses around the city to connect urban children with nature—yet his views on welfare reform were. Newspaper “slumming stories,” as they were called, depicted poverty as shameful and a sign of laziness, using words such as “sinful,” “degenerate,” “wicked” and “dangerous” to characterize the poor. Riis did not believe that the slum dwellers were a breed apart or that poverty was their fault. They were a product of their circumstances. If children of the poor were raised in a healthy environment, they would thrive. He asked, “You do not expect a rose to grow out of a swamp?”
Owing to high levels of immigration and an overcrowded environment, Manhattan was particularly cruel to its young. With no welfare structure or safety net, children were routinely abandoned on the streets. Some formed small gangs that engaged in petty crimes, playing among the opium dens, bars, lodging houses and slaughterhouses. The luckier ones found periodic employment as newspaper boys, flower sellers, porters, domestic servants and errand boys or worked in factories or sweatshops. According to the 1880 Education Act, they were required to attend school until the age of eleven, but family survival came before education, and truancy was common.
Being a newspaper man, Riis understood the value of the press as a weapon against poverty, and he set out to help wealthy and middle-class New Yorkers visualize their lives. He put the tenement district at the center of his reporting but grew frustrated with the failure of his stories to effect change. “I wrote about it, but it seemed to make no impression.”
Riis discovered a revolutionary weapon—photography. The recent invention of flash powder used to create artificial light made it possible to take pictures at night or indoors. With it he could illuminate the dark alleys and poorly lit garrets, bringing to light places that many could not imagine.
He interviewed and photographed these “little toilers” who posed naturally for him, though some of the older “rascals” struck their tough guy poses. The adults were understandably less cooperative. To get interior tenement scenes, Riis, two photographers and a policeman would burst into the rooms unannounced. The light from the flash powder was temporarily blinding and filled the already stifling, squalid rooms with smoke.
Riis wanted to gather hundreds of photos, but the work was exhausting, and his photographers soon tired of the night forays. Out of necessity, he bought himself a camera and learned how to take pictures. Though he was uninterested in technique and impatient with details, he mastered the medium enough to create serviceable images. More importantly, he had a natural eye for composition and for scenes that told a meaningful story.
Improved lantern slide technology allowed Riis to project his images on a large screen, and he began traveling around, giving a lecture entitled “The Other Half: How It Lives and Dies in New York.” The title wasn’t exactly accurate. By 1890, “the other half” was two-thirds of the city’s population, with 1.2 million of New York’s 1.6 million crowded into tenements.
Riis delivered his lectures at churches, YMCAs, and to reform and religious groups. Avoiding a moralistic tone, he spoke without notes, telling stories of the inhabitants of Bandit’s Roost, Corlears Hook, Hell’s Kitchen, Gotham Court, Mott Street, Chatham Square and Chinese opium dens and seven-cent lodging houses. Ten years of experience as a police reporter helped him synthesize visual images, statistics, jokes, songs, history and vignettes. His audiences were spellbound by the photographs and his depiction of the tenement dwellers. He had become the first photographer to take pictures of the poor with the aim of jolting people into action.
A critic for the New York Tribune wrote that Riis was “so ingenious in describing scenes and brought to his task such a vein of humor that after two hours every one wished that there was more of the exhibition, sad as much of it was.” Riis became a widely sought-after lecturer.
Much of his lecture was reprinted in Scribner’s Magazine, a monthly aimed at upper-middle-class readers, the people Riis was trying to reach, and later by Charles Scribner’s Sons as a 300-page book. The technique for reprinting photographs was still primitive; half of the forty-four illustrations were reproduced as engravings. How the Other Half Lives became a best seller, receiving largely favorable reviews, and made Riis financially comfortable. The book also established him as one of the nineteenth century’s most important leaders of social reform. In his work Americans finally saw documentary evidence of the urban poor and their degraded conditions.
In 1901 Riis published his autobiography, The Making of an American, which chronicled his rise from penniless immigrant to literary celebrity. It extended his key themes—urban poverty and the Americanization of a hardscrabble immigrant. Riis was born in 1849 in Ribe, a tiny town in the southwest corner of Denmark. He recalled in his memoir that he was a forthright and confident child who at an early age was concerned with the welfare of others. Because of the deaths from illness of ten of his siblings, he was well aware of the fragility of life.
His father was a teacher, but though Riis was intelligent and bookish, he was a poor student, preferring to read James Fenimore Cooper, Hans Christian Anderson and Charles Dickens than attend to his studies. At fifteen he dropped out of school, moved to Copenhagen and apprenticed himself to a carpenter. Copenhagen, the most densely populated city in Scandinavia with 170,000 inhabitants, prepared him for life in New York City. The poorest residents were squeezed into tiny apartments, making for slum-like conditions.
When he returned home at nineteen, he found little work in the depressed rural district of Denmark. In 1870 at the age of twenty-one, with forty dollars and a few items of clothing, Riis set sail for the United States. He had recently proposed to a beauty named Elizabeth, daughter of the wealthiest family in Ribe, and she had rejected him. He wanted to put some distance between them, but he also had a sense of restlessness and spirit of adventure.
Riis spoke English, had a skilled trade as a carpenter and a burning ambition to succeed, though he wasn’t sure at what. Two days after his arrival, he was on a train to Pittsburgh to build cabins for miners. From there he moved on, drifting around mostly upstate New York doing odd jobs—cucumber picker, brickyard worker, cradle maker, steamship repairman, ice harvester, lumberjack and hunter and trapper.
By 1870, he found himself back in New York City in the city’s worst slum, Five Points. He was finding it hard to succeed; he had no money or food, took handouts from the backdoors of restaurants, and fought with other tramps for a spot to sleep in doorways. For a time he aspired to be a telegraph operator for Western Union, a well-paid, solidly middle-class position, and sold iron for Mann & Wilson during the day so he could attend operator training classes at a business school at night.
He showed some interest in journalism and in 1873 was hired by the New York News Association for $10 a week to cover general news in Manhattan, Harlem and the Bowery. He dug up sensational stories involving New York street life—robberies, brawls, murders—and quickly showed a flair for reporting. “I really think that journalism comes easily to me.”
“The Dutchman” as he was called by his fellow reporters moved on to the South Brooklyn News. It was a smaller operation, but he was hired to run the entire operation—report, write, edit. He increased the paper’s circulation and profits by adding editorials and gossip columns. He had made enough to buy the paper and then sell it at a $3,000 profit, which allowed him to return to Denmark a success and convince Elizabeth to marry him.
Returning to work as a reporter in 1876, this time for the New-York Daily Tribune, he was assigned the police beat, which meant that he followed the “bluecoats” who were the most public symbol of authority. Riis trailed them all over the city as they dealt with murders, suicides, fires and robberies, rescued children, pulled bodies from the river, and dealt with tenements and health issues. Riis saw human pain and suffering on a daily basis, but he also gained a comprehensive knowledge of the city, learning the intimate details of its underbelly.
He observed firsthand the damaging impact of the explosion of growth in tenement housing. In 1880 there were an estimated 600,000 New Yorkers in 24,000 tenements that had no water above the first floor, terrible ventilation, unsanitary conditions, and poor sewer connections. This resulted in a death rate far higher than in Philadelphia or Boston or in English or French cities. Riis believed that there was a clear connection between miserable housing conditions and the city’s high rates of mortality and premature death.
Between 1880 and 1910 the urban population in the United States tripled. Thousands of immigrants took up residency in New York each month, adding to the already high population density. Certain areas of New York City were the most densely populated in the world. Cutthroat competition for housing encouraged neglect and overcrowding, forcing people to live what Riis called “the barrack life.” He blamed “cockroach capitalism” and argued that society must protect itself by imposing checks on the greed of unscrupulous men who prey on the weak and ignorant.
How the Other Half Lives was a groundbreaking book that vividly conveyed the deplorable, squalid living conditions in New York City. Tenements were “the Frankenstein of our city,” destroyers of individuality and character.
Thirty-five years after his death from a heart attack in 1914 at the age of sixty-five, a steamer trunk was discovered in the attic of his farm house by the family who had bought it; the trunk contained 412 glass plates, 161 slides, and 193 paper photos. In 1948, the Museum of Modern Art held an exhibit of fifty of his prints, which launched a rediscovery of his work.
Today Riis is considered an independent social critic and is credited with the beginning of what we call documentary photography. He inspired reformers of all kinds to use photography to promote their causes. Despite his revolutionary foray into this medium, he had very little sense of his contribution. He called himself simply, “A photographer after a fashion.” His aim was to show the darkest corners of slum life to the public and to jolt them from their complacency.
Riis summarized his life and work when he said that he was a man who had no specific genius, no specific talent; he just possessed endurance and a desire to show how things really are rather than simply theorizing about them. “Deed not creed” was the motto that defined his life, and his surviving deed was to leave a powerful record of the living conditions of the urban poor in turn-of-the century New York.
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