Born in Denmark as the third of 15 children, Jacob Riis arrived in the US in 1870 aged 21 as just one 125,000 Scandinavian immigrants hoping for a better life. After experiencing the harsh reality of the American dream first hand – Riis spent half of the $40 he arrived with on a revolver to protect him from attack – he became a trainee with the New York News Association, reporting on immigrant communities in the swelling metropolis.
Eventually becoming crime reporter at the New York Tribune and then The Sun, Riis witnessed the worst that the Big Apple – and its notorious Five Points borough, whose rogues gallery in the mid-1800s are memorably documented in Herbert Asbury’s shocking 1927 volume The Gangs of New York – had to offer and took upon the emerging art of flash photography as the best way to fully show the deprivation and squalor that he passionately railed against in his writing.
Riis first photos, printed in The Sun on 12 February 1888, formed the basis of a lecture series and book entitled ‘The Other Half: How It Lives and Dies in New York’ (which is now in the public domain and you can read it here) and are now held by Norway’s Preus Museum.
Though many have argued that they’re staged (and his commentary frequently crosses over into racism and classism), they remain incredibly powerful scenes of what Riis called a “sea of a mighty population, held in galling fetters, heav[ing] uneasily in the tenements.”
Here are our 10 favourite with some appropriate quotations from his masterwork:
1. Mulberry Bend
Where Mulberry Street crooks like an elbow within hail of the old depravity of the Five Points, is “the Bend,” foul core of New York’s slums. Long years ago the cows coming home from the pasture trod a path over this hill. Echoes of tinkling bells linger there still, but they do not call up memories of green meadows and summer fields; they proclaim the home-coming of the rag-picker’s cart. In the memory of man the old cow-path has never been other than a vast human pig-sty. There is but one “Bend” in the world, and it is enough.
2. “Bandit`s Roost” 59 1/2 Mullbery Street
In this metropolis, let it be understood, there is no public street where the stranger may not go safely by day and by night, provided he knows how to mind his own business and is sober.
3. “The Mongomery Guards” (A Growler Gang)
Along the water-fronts, in the holes of the dock-rats, and on the avenues, the young tough finds plenty of kindred spirits. Every corner has its gang, not always on the best of terms with the rivals in the next block, but all with a common programme: defiance of law and order, and with a common ambition: to get “pinched,” i.e., arrested, so as to pose as heroes before their fellows.
4. A Growler Gang in Session
The gang is an institution in New York. The police deny its existence while nursing the bruises received in nightly battles with it that tax their utmost resources. The newspapers chronicle its doings daily, with a sensational minuteness of detail that does its share toward keeping up its evil traditions and inflaming the ambition of its members to be as bad as the worst.
5. Baxter Street in Mulberry Bend
Even the alley is crowded out. Through dark hallways and filthy cellars, crowded, as is every foot of the street, with dirty children, the settlements in the rear are reached. Thieves know how to find them when pursued by the police, and the tramps that sneak in on chilly nights to fight for the warm spot in the yard over some baker’s oven.
6. “Ready for Sabbath Eve in a Coal Celler” A Cobbler in Ludlow Street
Evening has worn into night as we take up our homeward journey through the streets, now no longer silent. The thousands of lighted windows in the tenements glow like dull red eyes in a huge stone wall. From every door multitudes of tired men and women pour forth for a half-hour’s rest in the open air before sleep closes the eyes weary with incessant working.
7. Tenement Yard
The truth is that pauperism grows in the tenements as naturally as weeds in a garden lot. A moral distemper, like crime, it finds there its most fertile soil. All the surroundings of tenement-house life favor its growth, and where once it has taken root it is harder to dislodge than the most virulent of physical diseases.
8. “The Short Tail gang” Under the Pier at the Foot of Jackson Street. (Now Corlears Hook Park)
By day they loaf in the corner-groggeries on their beat, at night they plunder the stores along the avenues, or lie in wait at the river for unsteady feet straying their way. The man who is sober and minds his own business they seldom molest, unless he be a stranger inquiring his way, or a policeman and the gang twenty against the one. The tipsy wayfarer is their chosen victim, and they seldom have to look for him long.
9. “Five Cent a Spot” Unauthorized Lodgings in a Bayard Street Tenement
In a room not thirteen feet either way slept twelve men and women, two or three in bunks set in a sort of alcove, the rest on the floor. A kerosene lamp burned dimly in the fearful atmosphere, probably to guide other and later arrivals to their “beds,” for it was only just past midnight. A baby’s fretful wail came from an adjoining hall-room, where, in the semi-darkness, three recumbent figures could be made out. The “apartment” was one of three in two adjoining buildings we had found, within half an hour, similarly crowded. Most of the men were lodgers, who slept there for five cents a spot.
10. “One of four Pedlars Who Slept in the Celler of 11 Ludlow Street Rear”
Neatness, order, clean-liness, were never dreamed of in connection with the tenant-house system, as it spread its localities from year to year; while reckless slovenliness, discontent, privation, and ignorance were left to work out their invariable results, until the entire premises reached the level of tenant-house dilapidation, containing, but sheltering not, the miserable hordes that crowded beneath mouldering, water-rotted roofs or burrowed among the rats of clammy cellars.