Riis, Jacob A, and Francesco Cordasco. Jacob Riis Revisited Poverty and the Slum in Another Era. 1st ed. ed. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, 1968.
In the late 19th century, progressive journalist Jacob Riis photographed urban life in order to build support for social reform. Riis also wrote descriptions of his subjects that, to some, sound condescending and stereotypical. In this lesson, students look at Riis’s photographs and read his descriptions of subjects to explore the context of his work and consider issues relating to the trustworthiness of his depictions of urban life.
On May 3, 1849, Jacob August Riis was born in Denmark. At age 21, he immigrated to New York, arriving June 5, 1870. He immediately felt the need to protect himself, and purchased a gun.
You may know his name from Jacob Riis Park on the Rockaway Peninsula, or from the Jacob Riis Houses in the East Village, between East 8th and East 13th Streets, Avenue D and F.D.R. Drive. But he is widely known as a photojournalist and social reformer whose concern for the living conditions of New York’s poor led to changes in city government health and building codes.
People & Events|
Jacob "Jake" Riis, the Danish-born journalist and photographer, was among the most dedicated advocates for America's oppressed, exploited, and downtrodden. Riis's 1890 book, How the Other Half Lives, documented through word and image the lives of those who lived in New York's slums in a brutal, uncensored fashion. Among those moved by Riis's reportage was Theodore Roosevelt, then New York police commissioner. Alerted to the inhumane conditions endured by many of New York's inhabitants, Theodore Roosevelt accompanied Riis on his rounds of tenement houses and back alleys. Roosevelt grew to consider Riis "the most useful citizen in America."
By 1900, Riis's mission began to yield results: city water was purified, incidences of yellow fever, smallpox, and cholera were waning, and efforts to establish child labor laws were underway. Still, Riis was realistic about how far the "haves" would go toward helping the "have-nots." Reflecting on the prospect of charging a small tax on tenement owners to fund the hiring of additional sanitation inspectors, Riis concluded, "The delicate task is to propose (a tax) that will do the least violence to the Anglo-Saxon reverence for property."
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