The "Emancipator of the Slums"
Jacob Riis was an investigative reporter and a pioneer in photo journalism at the dawn of the 20th century. He used photography to document the appalling conditions under which the poor were living in New York City. Riis knew that his photographs would evoke feelings of guilt that would make people feel some responsibility for the misfortunes of others and inspire them to take action to alleviate their suffering.
Jacob August Riis was born in Denmark in 1849, and immigrated to the United States in 1870 at the age of 21. He arrived in New York City with no money, but like so many other immigrants, he was hoping to make his fortune in America. Unfortunately for Riis, America was in the middle of a depression in 1870, and many people were out of work and homeless.
Riis managed to find a few odd jobs from time to time, but was unable
to find steady work. There were many times that he didn’t have enough
money for food or shelter and was forced to live on the streets. During
the winter months he couldn’t sleep outside, so he had to utilize the
only option for shelter available to people at that time who had no
money—a police lodging house. They were dirty and crowded, and people
had to sleep on the bare floor, on newspapers or a plank of wood, but at
least they had a roof over their head.
Riis was an advocate for the immigrant poor, the oppressed, the
exploited, and the downtrodden. He wrote that the poor were victims of
economic slavery and that they were the "victims rather than the
makers of their fate." He also believed that poverty and misfortune
were responsible for criminal behavior. He blamed much of the misery and
crime present in the slums on the greed of landlords and building
speculators. Riis called it "premeditated murder as large-scale
economic speculation." His reporting inspired shock and horror
among New York’s rich and middle classes.
His book also captured the interest of the New York Police Commissioner,
Theodore Roosevelt, who would later become governor and then the 26th
president of the United States. Riis took Roosevelt with him on his
forays into the dark corners of the city. When Roosevelt became governor
he closed down the police lodging houses, and led the fight to enact
many reforms. Roosevelt called Riis "the most useful citizen of New
Riis continued to write and lecture on the problems of the poor for the rest of his life. He wrote several other books; including Children of the Poor (1892), Out of Mulberry Street (1898), The Battle With the Slum (1902), Children of the Tenement (1903), and his autobiography, The Making of an American (1901).
Riis conducted "magic lantern" shows in cities all over
America, where he projected his photos onto a large screen. One
newspaper reported, "His viewers moaned, shuddered, fainted and
even talked to the photographs he projected, reacting to the slides not
as images, but as a reality that transported the New York slum world
directly into the lecture hall."
Jacob Riis has been credited with precipitating many of the reforms that improved the living conditions of the poor during what is now known as the Progressive Era. Health and sanitation laws were passed and enforced. Landlords were forced to make repairs and improvements. Laws were passed requiring modern improvements to new residential construction. The Mulberry Bend slums were eventually razed, largely due to his efforts. He also started the Tenement House Commission and the Jacob A. Riis Settlement House. By the time he died in Barrie, Massachusetts, on May 26, 1914, he was known as the "Emancipator of the Slums."
His work has proven to be an invaluable resource to historians and
social scientists ever since, but many of his photographs would be lost
today if it weren’t for a photographer and historian named Alexander
Alland. In 1946, he searched for and found Riis’s original glass plate
negatives in the attic of the Riis family home right before it was to be
torn down. They are now part of the collection of the Museum of the City
of New York.
Riis’ magnificent contributions to the betterment of living conditions for the immigrant poor might never have happened, were it not for the love of that little dog. He always concluded his lectures with the declaration, "My dog did not die unavenged!" and no one will ever disagree with that.
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