Riis, Jacob (1848-1914)
Jacob Riis (1848-1914)
Reporter and photographer
Firsthand Experience. Born in Ribe, Denmark, Jacob Riis immigrated to New York in May 1870 at a time when the United States was in an economic slump. Although he could speak and read English and had served as an apprentice carpenter in Copenhagen, he found it difficult to find work. He tried mining in Pennsylvania, and after nearly starving to death he returned to New York, where he lived in crowded lodgings run by the police. These early experiences of poverty made a powerful impression on the young man that he carried with him for the rest of his life.
Reporter. Riis found work with a Long Island newspaper in 1873 and soon bought and sold a small paper in Brooklyn. He traveled back to Denmark where he married a childhood sweetheart in 1876. Returning to New York, he found work in 1878 at the New York Tribune for twenty-five dollars a week. Assigned to the police beat, cranking out stories in the little press room at 301 Mulberry Street, Riis found his calling. The building was surrounded by tenements, and Riis was able to translate the miserable scenes there into human-interest stories that did not blame the victims for their own distress. Infused with the desire to help, he wrote stories that were alive with both suffering and hope.
Reformer. Riis frequently accompanied members of the Drexel Committee, appointed in 1884 to look into dangerous conditions in the tenements. The city passed the Small Park Act of 1887 to tear buildings down and make parks, but after city politics blocked any serious action, Riis began photographing overcrowded tenement rooms and delivering the pictures to the board of health. He brought unceasing publicity to the plight of the poor on the Lower East Side of New York, crusading for school playgrounds, better working conditions, and restrictions on the sale of liquor. His “How the Other Half Lives,” printed with his photographs in the December 1889 issue of Scribner’s, was published as a book the following year. In a culture that was still oriented around the printed word, Riis showed the power of the documentary photograph in shaping public opinion. Not only did How the Other Half Lives cause significant public outcry, it brought Riis to the attention of up-and-coming reform politician Theodore Roosevelt. Riis became Roosevelt’s good friend and later his biographer.
Successes. In 1890 Riis applied for a position with the Evening Sun. Although editor Charles A. Dana was cynical about effecting reform, he nevertheless paid Riis fifty dollars a week and provided him with an assistant. In 1891 Riis wrote his biggest story, an expose on the impurities, including raw sewage, in New York’s Croton Reservoir. As a result of his investigations and pressure from the board of health, New York City bought the properties surrounding its water supply. In 1892 Riis published The Children of the Poor, a vivid description of how poverty affected the lives of young urban dwellers. He continued his attacks on corruption in the police department, and in 1894 a commission was appointed to investigate it. When Roosevelt was appointed president of the police commission in 1895, Riis took him on a tour of the worst crime- and poverty-stricken areas of New York City. Roosevelt spent $10,000 for new shelters and closed the horrific police lodgings. A park was constructed on the site of the Mulberry Bend slum in 1895.
Early Muckraker. Riis temporarily left newspaper work in 1899 to travel around the country lecturing about urban reform. He was a forerunner of the muckrakers, a group of journalists who wrote about civic corruption, corporate greed, and national apathy. Despite all the time he spent in the nether-worlds of cities, Riis never became disillusioned nor did he lose his hope for reform. He died at the age of sixty-five after years of heart disease on 26 May 1914.
Sidney Kobre, The Yellow Press and Gilded Age Journalism (Tallahassee: Florida State University, 1964;)
James B. Lane, Jacob A. Riss and the American City (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1974);
Edith Patterson Meyer, “Not Charity but Justice” The Story of Jacob A. Riis (New York: Vanguard, 1974).