Sections: Biography | Reporter | Photographer | Writer | Reformer | Lecturer | Ally | Riis and Reform | Legacy

New York City

Detail view of a panoramic map of New York City in 1879.

Will L. Taylor. The City of New York. New York: Galt & Hoy, 1879. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (002.00.00)

When Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives in 1890, the U.S. Census Bureau ranked New York as the most densely populated city in the United States—1.5 million inhabitants. Riis claimed that per square mile, it was one of the most densely populated places on the planet. The city is pictured in this large-scale panoramic map, a popular cartographic form used to depict U.S. and Canadian cities and towns during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Known also as bird’s-eye views or perspective maps, panoramic maps render places as if viewed from above at an oblique angle. Although not generally drawn to scale, they show street patterns, individual buildings, and major landscape features in perspective. This map helps visualize the extreme density, particularly in the Lower East and West Sides of Manhattan, and Jacob Riis’s lifelong concern with ameliorating the lot of those that lived in its crowded slums.

Housing

As governor of New York, Riis’s friend Theodore Roosevelt appointed a Tenement House Commission, which led in 1901 to the creation of the Tenement House Department, headed by another Riis friend, Robert de Forest of the Charity Organization Society. Riis and this circle of municipal citizen-reformers, which included social welfare activists Josephine Shaw Lowell and Lillian Wald, worked to gather statistical evidence and raise public awareness. They advocated for new housing designs to ease crowding and improve fire safety, sanitation, and access to air and light. Riis described the evolution of tenement house reform as a forty-year effort, which included demolishing the Five Points and Mulberry Bend neighborhoods, initiating new construction, cleaning the streets, creating parks and playgrounds, tearing down rear tenements, and cutting more than 40,000 windows through interior walls to let in light. 

Jacob Riis. “The Tenement House Exhibition.” Harper’s Weekly, February 3, 1900, page from Riis’s scrapbook. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (006.00.00)

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Flat in Hell’s Kitchen on the West Side

Riis wrote in his 1889 article for Scribner’s Magazine, “How the Other Half Lives:” “Not that all the tenements above Fourteenth Street are good, or even better than those we have seen. There is Hell’s Kitchen and Murderers’ Row in the region of West-side slaughter-houses and three-cent whiskey. . . . ”  The couple in this photograph taken by Riis lived on New York City’s West 38th Street in a barracks that covered an entire city block and lacked interior windows, ventilation, and indoor plumbing.

Jacob Riis. Flat in Hell’s Kitchen, “Ruin,” 1887–1889. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis, 199 (90.3.4.155) (003.00.00)

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Fire Insurance Map

During the first half of the nineteenth century, most fire insurance companies were small and based in a single city. The underwriters could personally examine properties they were about to insure. As insurance companies became larger and expanded their coverage to numerous cities, a mapping industry developed to support the greater need. Insurance maps provided block-by-block inventories of existing buildings–such as the map of the New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen, home to a large population of Irish immigrants in Riis’s time. The outline or footprint of each building is indicated, and the buildings are color coded to show the construction material: pink for brick, yellow for wood, and green indicated “specially hazardous risks” for insurers.

Perris & Browne.  West 42nd to West 37th Streets, between 10th Avenue and the Hudson River from Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map], 1889. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (004.00.00)

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Public Health

Disease, sanitation, garbage and hygiene issues were constant concerns in crowded impoverished tenement districts, where vital statistics were alarming. Jacob Riis wrote frequently to urge measures to protect public health and to alert wealthy residents of the city to slum conditions that put everyone at risk. Poor water quality, filth, vermin, and compromised living conditions meant typhus and cholera outbreaks were common, as were high rates of child mortality and tuberculosis. Rag pickers and petty thieves made city dumps their homes, while unemployed “tramps” lived in shack housing in back alleyways. The Tenement House Committee of 1894 (known as the “Gilder Committee) called rear tenements “infant slaughter-houses,” where as many as one in five babies died. Riis collaborated with health and hygiene department officials to compile and report sources of disease and seek remedies to improve public health.

Jacob Riis. “Extra: Real Wharf Rats,” Evening Sun, March 18, 1892, page from Riis’s scrapbook.  Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (012.00.00)

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Children of the Dump

In the winter of 1892, Riis visited eleven of the city’s sixteen riverside dumps to investigate the enforcement of two public health laws: one required that old rags be washed before resale, and the other forbade rag pickers from living in the dumps. He learned that neither law was enforced. Riis interviewed the rag pickers and took seven photographs, five of which were reproduced as line engravings in the Evening Sun. Riis saw women and children working and living in the dumps. He wrote: “I found boys who ought to have been at school, picking bones and sorting rags. They said that they slept there, and as the men did, why should they not? It was their home. They were children of the dump, literally.”

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  • Jacob Riis. A Child of the Dump, 1892. Gelatin printing out paper on board [vintage print]. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (90.13.3.116) (008.00.00)

  • Jacob Riis. In Sleeping Quarters, Rivington Street Dump, 1892. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (90.13.4.208) (007.00.00)

  • Perris & Browne.  Piers along the East River from Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map], 1889. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (009.00.00)

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Public Space

As older dense buildings gave way to new tenement design, Riis advocated for open-air parks for children, who previously had nowhere but the streets or the dark hallways and cramped back spaces of tenements to play. Riis helped raise support for small public parks and thought that every public school should have a playground. He believed in the right of boys and girls to play as part of healthy early child development, and as an outlet for energies that could instead be turned to lives of vice or crime. One of Jacob Riis’s triumphs as a reformer was the creation of Mulberry Bend Park where crime-ridden housing had once been. Riis believed in the benefits of exposure to nature and also supported the idea of excursions for city kids to farms and meadows in the countryside.

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“Playgrounds as a Cure for City Crime,” Brooklyn Times, April 27, 1900, from page in Riis’s scrapbook. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (017.00.00)

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Establishing Parks and Playgrounds

Riis photographed a privately funded, experimental playground at West 28th Street between 11th and 12th Avenues, the block pictured in the map above, where equipment was installed, and a janitor and two teachers were hired to watch the children. Riis described the park: “It was not exactly an attractive place. . . . But the children thought it lovely, and lovely it was for Poverty Gap, if not for Fifth Avenue.” Riis helped establish several small public parks in tenement neighborhoods including a park on Rivington Street. This petition, signed by 300 school girls “to make the corporation yard at the foot of Rivington St. into a public play-ground,” succeeded. Hamilton Fish Park opened in 1900.

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  • Jacob Riis. Children’s Playground, Poverty Gap, 1892.Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (90.13.4.121) (013.00.00)

  • Petition for Rivington Street Park, 1897, page of signatures. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (026.00.00)

  • Perris & Browne. West 32nd to West 17th Streets, between 10th Avenue and the Hudson River from Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map], 1889. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (015.00.00)

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Crime

As a young new immigrant, alone, homeless, and struggling to find work—with only a stray dog as a companion on the street—Jacob Riis was the victim of crime at a police lodging house. A locket bearing an image of his beloved Elisabeth was stolen from him in his sleep. Reporting the crime, he was thrown from the premises by a disbelieving policeman, who clubbed his dog to death when it snarled in his defense. Riis never forgot either the theft or the brutality, and his crusade against conditions in police lodging houses became his vendetta. Claiming the true crime was the lack of action on the part of municipal authorities to institute reform, Riis campaigned for the establishment of city-run lodging houses as an alternative, both to alleviate public menace and provide decent habitation for men and women in crisis.

Jacob Riis. “Vice Which is Unchecked in Police Lodging Houses,” New York Tribune, January 31, 1892, page from Riis’s scrapbook. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (025.00.00)

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Bandits’ Roost

Bandits’ Roost was an alley on Mulberry Street on New York’s Lower East Side, where Italian immigrants paid excessive rent to live in “rear tenements,” ramshackle structures that were added onto old houses. Riis, working with amateur photographers Richard Hoe Lawrence and Henry G. Piffard, took this photograph with a stereoscopic camera, which produced two side-by-side images: on the left is a woman with two small children; on the right, young “toughs” look warily at the camera. Riis led a ten-year crusade to clean up the area in which this photograph was taken; called “Mulberry Bend,” it was notorious as a haven for gangs and criminal activity.

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  • Jacob Riis, Richard Hoe Lawrence, and Henry G. Piffard, photographers. Bandits’ Roost, 1887–1888. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Roger William Riis (90.13.4.104 & .105) (018.00.00)

  • Perris & Browne. “Mulberry Street” from Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map of Lower East Side], 1880. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (021.00.00)

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Labor

Jacob Riis worried about sweatshop labor taking place within tenement apartments and in small factory locations in the Lower East Side. Whole families, including children, as well as hired help, would often be involved in various levels of piecework. Garment making (cutting, sewing, tailoring, pressing), cigar making, millinery, and artificial flower assembly, were among the forms of production at which immigrant laborers worked in crowded hot conditions inside residences and were paid by the “piece” or the lot. Sweatshop labor meant health risks, including high rates of consumption and shortened life spans. Riis was dismayed about child labor in particular—in homes and in factories. Adolescent girls tended younger siblings while parents worked, or took on heavy domestic jobs like laundry and scrubbing. Out in the streets, newsboys roamed at night and vice beckoned boys and girls alike. Riis lamented that many of these little children appeared old before their time from taking on adult forms of labor.

Jacob Riis. How the Other Half Lives, Studies Among the Tenements of New York. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1890. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (030.00.00)

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Piece Work—Cigar-Making

Riis devoted a chapter of How the Other Half Lives to “The Bohemians—Tenement-House Cigar Making.” Riis described these Eastern European  immigrants as working seventeen-hour days, seven days a week, inside their apartments rank with toxic fumes, making pennies an hour by stripping and drying piles of tobacco leaves and rolling finished products. In the Riis photograph, the parents work at the cigar mold and their oldest child, at the center of the frame, prepares the tobacco leaves for rolling.

Jacob Riis. Bohemian Cigar Makers at Work, 1889–1890. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (90.13.4.149) (027.00.00)

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Fire Insurance Map

During the first half of the nineteenth century, most fire insurance companies were small and based in a single city. The underwriters could personally examine properties they were about to insure. As insurance companies became larger and expanded their coverage to numerous cities, a mapping industry developed to support the greater need. Insurance maps provided block-by-block inventories of existing buildings—such as the map above of an area east of the Bowery where there was a dense concentration of Jewish tenement sweatshops. The outline or footprint of each building is indicated, and the buildings are color coded to show the construction material: pink for brick, yellow for wood, and green indicated “specially hazardous risks” for insurers.

Perris & Browne. Plate 24 ½ Lower East Side from Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map], 1889. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (028.00.00)

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Education

Jacob Riis honored education, especially for children, as a way up and out of slum life. The son of a schoolmaster, Riis had been a rebellious student; nevertheless, he loved to read as a child. He believed that education was not just a pathway to better employment and a more fulfilled and informed life, it made good naturalized citizens. Riis was a strong supporter of industrial schools, which imparted practical job-related skills and taught civics lessons to children whose families originated from many nations. Though work was almost always a necessity, some first-generation immigrants recognized the better chances that literacy in English could bring to their children, and supported their sons and daughters in their desire to learn to read and write. Riis also worked with the New York Kindergarten Association and settlement house workers to promote early child education.

“‘A Message from the Slums,’ Jacob Riis of New York Addresses the Congregational Club,” Hartford [CT] Courant, May 22, 1895, from Riis’s scrapbook. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (035.00.00)

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Educating the Young

Pietro worked as a bootblack before he was hit by a streetcar and maimed. Riis made two photographs of the boy at his home on Jersey Street, where he was learning to write English, “in the hope of his doing something somewhere at sometime to make up for what he had lost.” In the photograph above, the thirteen-year-old Pietro is shown with his mother and young sibling.

Riis believed that introducing immigrant children to the principles of American democracy would go a long way toward making them proud citizens. The administrator of the Beach Street Industrial School on the Lower East Side of New York asked the students to vote on whether the school day should begin with a salute to the American flag. Riis’s photograph shows the students casting their ballots, monitored by the student election inspectors

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  • Jacob Riis. Pietro Learning to Write, 1891–1892. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (90.13.4.163) (032.00.00)

  • Jacob Riis. The First Patriotic Election in the Beach Street Industrial School, 1891–1892. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (90.13.4.172) (033.00.00)

  • Perris & Browne. Beach Street from Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map], 1889. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (034.00.00)

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Homelessness

Jacob Riis, himself once homeless as a young man new to the United States, wrote sympathetic vignettes about those who fell on hard times and became homeless—often due to the loss of a job or an injury or, because they were evicted from their tenement homes when they could not afford escalating rents. Riis lamented the indifference of employers and the greed of landlords. But he reserved particular venom for those who begged for a living or who did not actively seek work, a category of homeless he referred to as “tramps.” His campaign against police lodging houses, which acted as nightly homeless shelters, was due to their poor conditions and their role in the spread of crime and disease, but also because they perpetuated this form of homelessness. With the help of then Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, the police station lodging houses were closed in 1896, with the intent that those displaced were to be served by improved charitable and civic services.

Jacob Riis. “Police Lodging Houses: Are They Hotbeds for Typhus?” Christian Union, January 14, 1893, from Riis’s scrapbook. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (038.00.00)

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Eldridge Street Station

In 1892 and 1893, Riis took photographs of the deplorable conditions of the police lodging houses, which served as the city’s homeless shelters. These images illustrated his articles and a lecture at the Academy of Medicine in February 1893—a lecture Riis gave to garner support for closing the houses and replacing them with a municipal wayfarer’s lodge. The police station lodging rooms at 87/89 Eldridge Street, located on the lower right portion of the map above, sheltered only women. When a sick man asked to stay for the night, he was placed in an empty room and laid down on the bare plank floor. It was soon discovered that he had typhus. Riis wrote:

It was a piece of good luck that it was this [station] the typhus lodger found his way, or there is no telling where the trail of contagion he would have started might have ended

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  • Jacob  Riis. The Single Typhus Lodger in Eldridge Street, 1893.Modern gelatin printing out paper.  Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (90.13.4.247) (036.00.00)

  • Perris & Browne. “Eldridge Street, north of Grand Street” from Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map of Lower East Side], 1880. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (037.00.00)

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Immigration

Ellis Island served as the gateway for more than twelve million immigrants from many nations between its opening as the U.S. immigration inspection station at the port of New York in 1892 to its closing in the 1950s. When Riis emigrated from Denmark in 1870 to seek “an honest dollar,” the German, Irish, and Chinese immigration of the mid-century was ebbing. Most Scandinavian immigrants headed to farmland and cities in the West and Midwest. As Riis gained fame in his career—between 1890 and his death in 1914—a “third” or “new” wave of immigrants arrived in New York. Of many nationalities and faiths, they came primarily from Russia, Italy, and Eastern Europe. When featuring New York’s immigrant groups and their neighborhoods in his articles and bestselling books, Riis expressed personal religious and ethnic prejudices, but he steadfastly championed immigrants he perceived to be of good character and drive.

Jacob Riis. “The Gateway of All Nations,” Christian Herald, October 11, 1905. Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (041.00.00)

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In Jersey Street

An Italian family lived in this one-room, windowless home on Jersey Street, a few blocks from Riis’s Mulberry Street office. Jersey Street in the map above is sandwiched between Prince and East Houston Streets and is crammed with the back-to-back tenements that Riis railed against. In Riis’s photograph the family’s possessions and furnishings, which includes a rolled mattress, barrel, and piles of clothes; a dustpan, a basin, a wooden pallet that may have served as a bed, and a cast iron stove and various containers, fill the frame. Riis commented on the Italian custom of swaddling: “You can see how they wrap [their babies] around and around until you can almost stand them on either end and they won’t bend, so tightly are they bound.”

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  • Jacob Riis. Italian Mother and Her Baby in Jersey Street, 1888–1889. Modern gelatin printing out paper. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Roger William Riis (90.13.4.160) (039.00.00)

  • Perris & Browne.  Plate 24 showing Jersey Street, between Prince and East Houston Street from Insurance Maps of the City of New York [fire insurance map], 1880. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress (040.00.00)

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Sections: Biography | Reporter | Photographer | Writer | Reformer | Lecturer | Ally | Riis and Reform | Legacy