May 3, 2018
Happy 169, Jacob Riis!
by Melville House
In a country plagued by inequality, it might be nice to take a minute to reflect on Jacob Riis, born 169 years ago today. More than just the namesake of several excellent parks in US cities, Riis changed America forever with his 1890 book How the Other Half Lives.
Born in Copenhagen in 1849, Riis moved at twenty-one to a New York City still recovering from the ravages of the Civil War, where, among mustachioed bandits and emaciated garment workers, he suffered an almost comical string of horrendous luck. (Seriously, read the guy’s Wikipedia page.) After a fitful start as a journalist, Riis got hooked up with a job as a police reporter at the legendary New-York Tribune, founded by Horace Greeley (park).
In 1878, blessed by the recent invention of magnesium flash powder, Riis began taking pictures of New York City’s poorest communities. They were the same strugglers—workers, immigrants, sick and homeless folks—Riis had been writing about for years, but he surmised that clear visual depictions of the squalor in which the poor were living would attract greater attention. An 1888 slideshow of his photos proved him right.
Riis was soon in high demand as a speaker, and frequently gave public presentations of his photos. In 1889, he turned them into an eighteen-page illustrated article for Scribner’s, the magazine Scribner published at the time. The next year, he expanded them for Scribner into a full-length book, with photos.
The “Other Half” mentioned in the title included people from a range of backgrounds — newsboys, gangsters, prostitutes, garment workers, beggars. (The title is taken from Rabelais, who in Gargantua and Pantagruel wrote, “One half of the world does not know how the other half lives.”) Riis wasn’t the coolest guy — he was very into Christian virtue, and often blisteringly racist. But he was a trenchant critic of the systems that produced and worsened the city’s massive economic inequality, and his photographs succeeded in shocking “respectable” New York society back into its conscience.
Eventually, the book would be credited with almost single-handedly inspiring a series of accomplishments culminating in the passage of the New York State Tenement House Act in 1905, a milestone of housing safety legislation.
As for Riis, he would go on to publish another fourteen books over the next thirty-three years, including The Children of the Poor (1892), Out of Mulberry Street: Stories of Tenement Life in New York City (1896), an autobiography called The Making of an American (1901), and Theodore Roosevelt, the Citizen (1904). Riis had worked with Roosevelt, by now several years into his presidency, when the Bull Moose was New York’s sympathetic police commissioner, and in this last book sought to portray him not as a biographical subject but “as the friend, the man.”
Later in life, widowed and tired, Riis retired to Barre, Massachusetts, where he died in 1914 at the age of sixty-five. He is remembered not only in the names of one of New York’s best beaches and Chicago’s chillest parks, but with an Episcopal Feast Day (mark July 2nd in your calendars now, suckers), in the name of a housing project, and, arguably, in the lyrics to the Beatles’ Glass Onion.
You can find the complete images and text of How the Other Half Lives online right here, and hear some of it as an audiobook below: