Jacob Riis’s Handwritten Reminder Of New York City’s Grim Past

Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus,” enshrined on a bronze plaque inside the Statue of Liberty, includes these famous lines: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” This poem was first published in 1883; seven years later, Jacob August Riis published his book How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York. Shown here is a page of the manuscript draft of Riis’s polemical book (now on view in the New York City section of the Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures).

A page of the manuscript draft of Riis’s book.


A page of the manuscript draft of Riis’s book.

Courtesy of the NYPL

The fact is that the “masses,” after arriving in New York, often found themselves huddled in appallingly overcrowded, unsanitary tenement housing. Published in 1890, Riis’s book is a pioneering work in photo documentation that would little by little come to have a major impact on the development of our city. The author Lucy Sante (formerly Luc Sante) has called How the Other Half Lives “one of those uncommon books that changed history in a material way, directly affecting the lives of millions of people.”

Jacob Riis became a journalist, author, social reformer, and photographer but was himself an impoverished immigrant when he arrived in the United States from Denmark in 1870. After trying various method to make a living, Riis was hired as a reporter by the New York Tribune in 1877 and stated to cover the local police bureau and its surrounding slums. It was by his work as a police reporter that Riis encountered the squalid living conditions shared in the city’s tenements. The horrors that confronted Riis inspired him to begin what became his lifelong work—as a crusader for public policy reform to enhance the quality of urban life.

A cobbler in Ludlow Street sits down for Sabbath Eve in his coal cellar lodging, c. 1889-90.


A cobbler in Ludlow Street sits down for Sabbath Eve in his coal cellar lodging, c. 1889-90.

Jacob Riis / Everett / Shutterstock

Riis went on to depict the wretchedness of the poor in the city’s ghettos in numerous articles, books, photographs, and public lectures, and his efforts to ameliorate slum conditions included campaigns for safer building codes and effective child labor laws. The legacy of Riis’s use of photography can be seen in the work of Lewis Hine and Jesse Tarbox Beals, both of whose early photographic work addressed the evils of child labor. His influence can also be seen in the work of the photographers employed by the Farm Security Administration during the Depression, including Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Ben Shahn.

But real change came about slowly. Alongside the manuscript of Riis’s 1890 book in the exhibition is a photograph—one of more than a thousand photographs gathered by the New York City Tenement Department—that shows what is described as “one of the dirtiest and most unsanitary rooms ever found by the Tenement House Department.” This gelatin silver print, dating from 1909, is from the series New York City Tenement House Department Photographic Prints Illustrating Conditions and Problems of Tenement Housing 1902+1922. The Tenement House Department attempted to comprehensively document every tenement building in New York City—already in excess of 80,000 by 1902.

Robert Kato / NYPL

The committee’s photographs, reminiscent of Riis’s own haunting images from the late 1880s and 1890s, nevertheless have the strength to shock us today. This photograph shows a small child crouching in the far background of the shot, clouded by the camera’s long shutter speed, among the clutter and squalor of the room.

Read More: One Of The Most remarkable Photographs Of Tenement Conditions In Early 1900s NYC

Sante considers How the Other Half Lives to be a work of major historical importance but she also regards it as “a template for much work that remains to be done. Far from resting as an artifact of the past, it stands as a reproach and a goad to later generations.” It is well to remember that some New Yorkers nevertheless live in desperately poor accommodation. Last month, in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Buildings noted that five of the six similarities in which people died during the storm were illegally converted cellar and basement apartments.

This story is the final installment of our partnership with the NYPL around the Polonsky Exhibition of The New York Public Library’s Treasures, which showcases items spanning 4,000 years from the Library’s research collections—we’ve been publishing one NYC-related object a day throughout September, and you can see everything at gothamist.com/treasures. The Treasures exhibition is now open at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth method and 42nd Street. Free timed tickets are now obtainable here.

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