Why 'The Other Half' Lived — And Lives On

Print More

Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-Century New York, by Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom, The New Press, $35.

In his autobiography, Jacob Riis tells of being so inspired by a sermon from a local preacher that he considered abandoning journalism and becoming a minister himself. “We have preachers enough,” was the advice he received. “What the world needs is consecrated pens.” He took this to heart. “Then and there, I consecrated mine,” he wrote. Year later, Riis would refer to his slideshow lecture on the ills of urban life as a “lay sermon” — one that always ended with an image of Jesus Christ.

That slide is lost. But nearly 120 years after the publication of Riis' other slides in “How the Other Half Lives,” two authors have turned again to the book that heralded the Progressive Era and shaped how generations think about cities. In “Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-Century New York,” Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom extricate Riis from the hagiographic narratives built up around him as photographic pioneer and “the best American” Teddy Roosevelt “ever knew,” and meticulously reconstruct the details of his practice as a photographer, his personal motivations and the historical and political context in which he worked.

The title of Riis' epochal work concealed one of his wry jokes: As Riis made clear in the book's introduction, in 1890 when the book was first published, the “other half” had swollen to three-fourths of New York City's population. According to Riis' figures, more than 1.2 million people were crammed into 37,000 tenements. While the law defined a tenement as any building “occupied by three or more families, living independently and doing their cooking on the premises,” Riis saw a starker reality—of a family in “one or two dark closets, used as bedrooms, with a living room twelve feet by ten…” and of four families sharing a floor.

“How the Other Half Lives” was arranged as the sort of “slum tour” popular among the era's enlightened upper class, with Riis leading the reader from one ethnic neighborhood to another, from tenement to tenement, stopping along the way to observe the particular problems posed by children, paupers, drunks and an assortment of other urban types. The book was an instant bestseller and went through multiple editions; it was still in print when Riis' died in 1914, just short of a quarter-century after its initial release.

As Yochelson and Czitrom make clear, the structure of Riis' book reflected the form in which the photographer's raw material was originally presented. Riis first used the photographs of “How the Other Half Lives” in what was known as a “lantern slide lecture.” At the time, lectures exploiting new slide projection technology had become popular entertainments; Riis hoped to join the lecture circuit and galvanize his audience into action.

Riis had lived in the slums himself when he first arrived in New York, and then covered the city's tenements as a reporter for 13 years before writing his book; he earned his outrage at the conditions there firsthand. But Czitrom's work in particular highlights another important contributing factor to Riis' crusading spirit: His conversion to Methodism early in his career. Indeed, Czitrom writes that when, “Riis took his [slide] show on the road… [he appeared] almost exclusively before Christian audiences at churches and YMCAs.”

But Riis' embrace of the Christian community was selective. “Riis was disillusioned by most clergymen in New York,” says Tom Buk Swienty, a Danish reporter and the author of a forthcoming biography of Riis, “because they did not open their churches to his lantern-slide lectures out of fear that this would be too radical and morally corrupting for a God-fearing Protestant audience to see.” Riis' own church withdrew an invitation for Riis to speak, and Yochelson notes that Riis resigned as a deacon in protest.

His response, however, was not to turn away from the churches but, as Czitrom observes, to try to secure the imprimatur of prominent Protestant figures. He had some success: After A.T. Schauffler, the superintendent of the New York City Mission, attended Riis' lecture at the Broadway Tabernacle, he became Riis' informal agent, “helping him to find new venues and evidently splitting the lecture fees.” Schauffler's endorsement opened new doors to Riis and established him as a lecturer, allowing him to test the material that would be the basis for “How the Other Half Lives.”

The Christian dimension of Riis' work was complex. In his lectures and his book, Riis often presented the tenements as just another field for missionary work. He was absolute in condemning what he saw as the problem: The tenements as a corrupting influence—something like a stand-in for Satan. As to who could be considered “honestly” poor (as distinct from undeserving “paupers”), nearly all of the communities Riis profiles in the book—Italians, Chinese, Jewish, Bohemian, and African-American—are judged in part on their openness to Christian conversion.

However, while Riis appealed to the congregations' sense of Christian charity, he did not argue that charity per se was the solution to the problem posed by the tenements. “The business of housing the poor, if it is to amount to anything, must be business, as it was business with our fathers to put them where they are,” he wrote. “As charity, pastime, or fad, it will miserably fail, always and everywhere.” Riis saw “philanthropy and five percent” as the only tenable solution: Guided by their Christian faith, the wealthy had to settle for extracting a more reasonable five percent profit from the buildings. If this seems a strangely modest proposal, it's important to recognize that Riis did not necessarily endorse a democratic solution to the city's woes. “New York,” Riis wrote, “… has often sadly missed a Napoleon III, to clean up and make light in the dark corners.” In the absence of such a figure, Riis believed that only business had served (and could continue to serve) as “New York's real Napoleon III, from whose decree there was no appeal.”

Passages like that complicate the understanding of Riis' legacy. After all, New York was to get its Napoleon III, arguably, in the form of Robert Moses. None other than Moses himself penned an article celebrating the centennial of Riis' birth for the New York Times Magazine, presenting his own work (specifically the conversion of Randall's Island into a park and the provision of playgrounds for new public schools) as a continuation of Riis' efforts. In laying claim to Riis' legacy, Moses clearly saw few if any contradictions between their work; after all, in one of several similar passages in “How the Other Half Lives,” Riis wrote that, “The old houses that from private dwellings were made into tenements, or were run up to house the biggest crowds in defiance of every moral and physical law, can be improved by no device short of demolition.”

It was that device that both turn-of-the-century reformers (inspired by Riis) and, later, Moses (armed with Title I funds) turned to—and in so doing, framed a debate that continues today. In 2008 New York, gentrification and development have replaced demolition as the agents of, depending on one's view, the benign “deconcentration of poverty” or the nefarious “displacement” of the poor.

In both the deconcentration and displacement narratives, the poor exist largely as objects, not actors. In a way, this is Riis' legacy, too. “How the Other Half Lives” made the poor into people—but for Riis, their humanity had limits. They deserved better living conditions, health and dignity. But the specter of the other half (much less the other three-fourths) assuming actual political power was, to Riis and his audience, one more cause for concern. Riis, as Czitrom observes, inspired others to see the poor as fully human. But he did not go so far as to let them speak for themselves.

– Nicholas Jahr