Jacob Riis was born the third of fifteen children on May 3rd, 1849 in Denmark. He was a carpenter by trade when he headed to the United States in 1870. Like a lot of immigrant folks, he was unable to find work when he landed on New York’s hard-scrabble streets, and sought shelter wherever he could– often spending the night sleeping on the floor in temporary police station shelters. Through perseverance and hard work Riis landed a gig with a NYC news bureau in 1873, which eventually led to him becoming a police reporter for the New York Tribune. All too familiar himself with life on the NYC’s mean streets, he made it his personal mission to use his position to become the voice for the city’s suffering poor– especially the children. Jacob Riis strongly believed that the “poor were the victims, rather than the makers, of their fate.”
Manhattan’s Lower East Side, particularly the wretched areas known as Mulberry Bend and Bone Alley were teeming with poverty, violence and disease– “The whole district is a maze of narrow, often unsuspected passage ways—necessarily, for there is scarce a lot that has not two, three, or four tenements upon it, swarming with unwholesome crowds.” Jacob Riis wrote the epic, “How the Other Half Lives, Studies Among the Tenements of New York” published in 1890 (which also featured his iconic photography) to expose the horrible truth.
In 1895, Teddy Roosevelt sought Jacob Riis out, wanting to assist him in his efforts anyway he could. Then the acting President of the Board of Commissioners of the NYPD, Roosevelt asked Riis to personally show him the daily routine of street cops. On their first outing together, they uncovered nine out of ten patrolmen totally absent while on duty. Riis wrote of this, and it got the attention of everyone at the NYPD. The two became great friends, and after becoming President of the United States, Roosevelt said of Riis–
“Recently a man, well qualified to pass judgment, alluded to Mr. Jacob A. Riis as ‘the most useful citizen of New York.’ Those fellow citizens of Mr. Riis who best know his work will be most apt to agree with this statement. The countless evils which lurk in the dark corners of our civic institutions, which stalk abroad in the slums, and have their permanent abode in the crowded tenement houses, have met in Mr. Riis the most formidable opponent ever encountered by them in New York City.”
If it were not for the tireless work of Jacob Riis, the city’s poor may have long suffered with little hope. Riis was eventually successful in having the most crowded and dangerous areas torn down and replaced with new public parks and playgrounds. The infamous Mulberry Bend and Bone Alley areas gave way to Columbus Park, the Hamilton Fish Park and a public swimming pool, respectively.
In his last dying days, Riis recounted to a friend, “Now that I have to fight for almost every breath of air, I am more thankful than ever that I have been instrumental in helping the children of the tenements to obtain fresh air.”
Bandit’s Roost (1888), by Jacob Riis, from “How the Other Half Lives.” Bandit’s Roost, at 59½ Mulberry Street (Mulberry Bend), was the most crime-ridden, dangerous part of all New York City.
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