NYC has welcomed many gifted immigrants to its shores over time. And one of the most gifted was Danish Immigrant Jacob Riis who by his efforts as an journalist and photographer helped change living condtions in NYC for the better.
He turned his hand to many things before becoming what was called at the time a ‘muck raking’ journalist. He was part of a small group of NYC journalists who pioneered a new form of journalistic writing that highlighted things that were previously not known to the public and were scandalous in one way or another. Riis’s focus was on the desperately poor living conditions in the part of NYC called at that time the Five Points around what is today Mulberry street in Chinatown.
He made a conscious decision to try to bring about social change, so appalled was he by the living conditions in this area that he reported on daily. To further illustrate the horrors he wrote about he eventually became a pioneer of what was to become flash photography. it was a form of photography well suited to the very dark and dank areas he wrote about. It was not easy to get people to pay attention and after trying public lectures and slide shows as well as his journalism, he wrote a book called ‘How the Other Half Lives’ amply illustrated with his photographs.
Theodore Roosevelt befriended Riis, having been deeply affected by genuine commitment to social reform and they remained friends for the rest of their lives even though Roosevelt moved onwards and upwards from the role he held as Police Commissioner at the time the two met. Riis also campaigned to improve NYC’s drinking water after he realized that sewerage was being allowed to drain into he water drunk by New Yorkers and this contaminated water was causing cholera.
His work eventually resulted in the demolition of some of the worst tenements in NYC and the establishment of what is today called Columbus Park in their place. His efforts to prevent cholera in NYC by protecting the catchment area around the reservoir that supplied NYC’s drinking water was also successful.
The path that Riss and a few others pioneered was the field of investigative journalism which today holds a valued place in society but which was initially seens as in some way scandalous and not quite seemly by some of NYC’s wealthier residents. Riis was no socail revolutionary or a critic of the economic conditions of NYC life. He had a deep compassion for the poor and was a staunch critic of the corruption in much of NYC’s civic life in the 19th and early 20th Century.
His photographs are today a vivid and shocking reminder of the desperate living conditions of the poorest people in NYC. In the video attached you will see many of these photographs. One in particular is of 3 homeless children sleeping in the street. It is possibly the most shocking and moving picture which sums up why Riis did what he did to bringa bout social change.