On this day in 1870, Jacob Riis stepped off a ship from Denmark to begin a new life in New York. The immigration office found him a job in western Pennsylvania, but news of a war in Europe prompted him to soon return to New York City to volunteer to serve in the French Army.
The French Army didn’t want him. He had sold everything down to his boots to pay for the trip to New York, so now he was destitute and homeless. During the summer, he was able to find some seasonal work just outside the city, but when those jobs ended in the fall, he “joined the great army of tramps…fighting at night with vagrant curs or outcasts as miserable as myself for the protection of some sheltering ash-bin or doorway.” He spent weeks sleeping in doorways or alleys in the most notorious neighborhood in the country, Five Points. He was even evicted from the police station and put on a ferry to Jersey City.
From there he walked 100 miles to Philadelphia and then found work doing everything from making furniture to harvesting ice from frozen lakes. For a time he peddled goods and then returned to New York to enter telegraphy school. His real ambition all along, however, was to be a reporter. Three years after his arrival, having worked at over sixteen different jobs, he finally got his chance.
He obtained a job running a political newspaper and when the party officials decided to discontinue the publication, he bought it. Once he paid off the debt, he started criticizing local political decisions with which he disagreed. He was so successful with his well-placed attacks that the party bosses offered to buy back the newspaper at five times the price they had sold it to him for just one year earlier.
That gave him enough money to return to Denmark to marry the woman he loved.
None of this would matter to Americans if he had not moved back to New York a year later.
Upon his return, Riis wrote under difficult conditions for very little money to get his foot in the door as a temporary reporter at one of the major daily newspapers, finally getting a break when he knocked his editor into a snowdrift in his haste to file a story on time.
His assignment was to cover police, fire and health department news. Soon, he was accompanying police to the immigrant slums he had haunted years earlier during his homeless days. The appalling conditions of these neighborhoods, Five Points in particular, became a frequent theme in his stories. Instead of blaming the problems on the ignorance or laziness of the immigrants, he blamed the tenements themselves. He argued that the high rents charged for the wretched apartments forced the tenants to take in too many boarders. This led to overcrowding which then led to epidemics made worse by the lack of ventilation. In turn, tenement dwellers who were so consistently ill found it difficult to retain steady jobs.
He knew–he had seen it, he had lived it.
And now not only was he writing about it, he started to photograph the dreadful conditions. The invention of flash photography in 1887 made it possible for him to conduct late night “raiding parties” in some of the worse lodging houses, stale-beer dives and tenement apartments. Unfortunately, the newspaper printing process at the time prevented him from publishing his photos in the newspaper. With much persistence, he eventually interested a magazine publisher in a story on “How the Other Half Lives” which featured moving photos of homeless children sleeping on the streets.
The article had no effect on city policies. But soon Riis was asked to expand his article into a book, also titled How the Other Half Lives. The photographic journal finally achieved the attention he had hoped for. The Chicago Tribune said that no one could “read it without an instant and unappeasable desire to do something.”
As a result of the spotlight this book shone on a dark corner of the city ignored and largely unknown by the rest of the population, things changed. Soon the most notorious places documented in the book were torn down, new laws were passed and old laws were enforced to ensure standards for hygiene. Homeless shelters and public bathhouses were established. The worst of the Five Points tenements were torn down and after much bureaucratic delay, the land was turned into a park (after Riis filed suit against the city for “maintaining a nuisance.”). He was not invited to the grand opening celebration, but attended anyway.
I have downplayed all the rejection and failure that Riis endured and the resulting perseverance he displayed because it would have made this article as long as War and Peace. Suffice it to say that most people in his situation would have given up or settled for what they could get rather than what they wanted. He never gave up.
The story of Jacob Riis should inspire us all to never give our dreams whether they be for a successful career, personal fulfillment, true love, or bettering the plight of others. He achieved them all.
Most of the information in this article comes from Five Points by Tyler Anbinder (Plume/Penguin 2001) and How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis (Dover edition, 1971). Photo courtesy of the University of Illinois at Chicago.