How Jacob Riis Lived: Tom Buk-Swienty’s ‘The Other Half’
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
If you stand at the corner of Bayard and Mulberry streets in lower Manhattan and look south, you will be greeted with a vibrant street scene you could find nowhere but in New York. The streets are lined with the thriving businesses of Chinatown — bakeries and fish markets, souvenir shops, a funeral home. To the west is Columbus Park, where on a recent weekend a large crowd of older people were listening to two competing performances of Chinese opera, while the young played soccer and basketball or lay out in the sun. Looming over the playground, just to the south, are the massive courthouses of Foley Square. And on its eastern border, the park bulges out where Mulberry Street makes a pronounced bend — a rare grace note in the city’s rectilinear blueprint.
Nothing but that curve is left to remind the passerby that he is standing in the middle of what used to be, in the years after the Civil War, the worst slum in New York, and perhaps in the world. In 1890, when Jacob Riis published “How the Other Half Lives” — his epoch-making exposé of life in Manhattan’s tenements — he devoted a whole chapter to the area called Mulberry Bend. Even then, Riis wrote, the view looking south from Bayard Street was “one of the sights of New York.”
But he didn’t mean this as a compliment. The Bend, Riis explained in typically relentless rhetoric, was “a vast human pig-sty,” “the foul core of New York’s slums.” “Corruption could not have chosen ground for its stand with better promise of success,” he went on, since “the whole district is a maze of narrow, often unsuspected passageways — necessarily, for there is scarce a lot that has not two, three, or four tenements upon it, swarming with unwholesome crowds. What a bird’s-eye view of ‘the Bend’ would be like is a matter of bewildering conjecture.”
Yet Riis, more than any writer before him, was able to penetrate this urban maze. He did it, in part, by marshaling an army of statistics, setting out conditions in the Bend in stark terms no one could ignore. In 1882, Riis wrote, 155 children under the age of 5 died in a single block of the Bend. In one tenement he visited, 12 people slept in a room 13 feet square, paying 5 cents a night for the privilege.
Most important of all, though, were Riis’s photographs, which today are considered his most pioneering achievement. Using a newly invented flash powder, which allowed him to light up even pitch-dark tenement rooms, Riis took pictures of scenes that his affluent readers had never seen or imagined. His photographs of “Bunks in a Seven-Cent Lodging House, Pell Street,” “A Tramp’s Nest in Ludlow Street,” “The Trench in Potter’s Field,” and other scarifying sights finally prompted New York to take its housing problem seriously. One of the changes Riis helped to effect was the demolition of the Bend. On June 15, 1897, the park now called Columbus Park was opened on the site where so many tenements had stood. At the inaugural ceremony, a speaker noted that “without Riis, this park would not be here today.”
As Tom Buk-Swienty shows in “The Other Half” (W.W. Norton, 448 pages, $27.95), his new biography of Riis, the great reformer and muckraker earned his knowledge of the slums the hard way, over a dozen years of shoe-leather reporting. As a police reporter for the New York Tribune, Riis spent his nights huddled with other journalists at 301 Mulberry St., across from police headquarters. And because the police, in the late 19th century, were responsible for more than just crime, Riis’s beat involved more than just reporting each night’s quota of thefts and murders.
As Mr. Buk-Swienty says, Riis “wrote about everything from deaths, accidents, crimes, fires, murders, brawls, fraud, and embezzlement to epidemics of cholera, smallpox, typhus, yellow fever, and tuberculosis.” During plague season, he accompanied the squadrons of Health Department doctors — so frequently that Riis became known as “Doc” to residents of the Bend. During the summer, he joined health inspectors as they tried to keep babies and old people from dying of the heat. As he put it, “it was my task to cover … all the news that means trouble to someone.”
With most reporters, this steady diet of human tragedy might have resulted in ostentatious cynicism. That was certainly the effect on Riis’s hard-bitten colleagues from other newspapers, who sat in the police reporters’ room playing cards all day. As Mr. Buk-Swienty writes, most journalists “made a virtue out of working as little as possible. … There was tacit agreement among the reporters as to which stories they would cover.” Riis, with his driving ambition — becoming “the ‘boss reporter’ in Mulberry Street,” he once said, was “the only renown I have ever coveted” — made his colleagues look bad, and they knew it. They conspired against Riis, hiding major stories from him and even sending him fake telegrams about nonexistent scoops.
Yet if there was one quality that made Riis a great reporter — and more than that, a great American success story — it was tenacity. When Riis arrived in New York, in 1870, as a 21-year-old immigrant, he had no contacts, no money, and few marketable skills. Born in Ribe, a small, backward town in Denmark, he also had little experience of cities, and nothing to prepare him for America’s sheer scale. Mr. Buk-Swienty, a Danish journalist, is good at evoking Riis’s provincial upbringing. “We [in Denmark] discerned no difference between the east and the west coast,” Riis remembered late in life. He expected to find “herds of buffalo thunder[ing] down Broadway,” and he carried a pistol on a chain around his neck to defend against wild Indians.
Instead, Riis fell into the hand-to-mouth existence of the typical migrant worker, traveling around the Northeast doing short-term manual labor for low pay. More than once, he came close to starvation, sleeping on the street in the very slums he would one day write about. He never forgot the night when he took shelter in the police station on Church Street, along with the dog he had picked up in his tramping: He was thrown out, and a policeman killed the dog by smashing its head against the curb.
Another low moment came when Riis, after reading in The New York Sun that France was recruiting American volunteers for its war against Prussia, arrived at the Sun offices and demanded more information from Charles A. Dana, the paper’s great editor. Dana told Riis he wasn’t responsible for every item that appeared in his pages, then offered him a dollar, saying, “There, go and get your breakfast; and better give up the war.” Riis angrily refused the handout and marched out of the building.
But Riis, unlike most poor immigrants, would live to avenge such insults to his dignity. By the 1890s, his reputation as a crusading journalist had won him the friendship of New York’s reforming police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt. Riis guided Roosevelt on night visits through the slums, and advised him in cracking down on police corruption. One night, he took Roosevelt to the very police station where his dog had been killed, a quarter-century before. When Riis told the future president the story, T.R. offered to find out the names of the officers responsible and “smash them.” Riis declined, but the incident showed just how far he had risen in life. Even Dana finally came around, hiring Riis as the Sun’s police reporter at a princely salary.
Mr. Buk-Swienty has written a fast-paced and serviceable account of this eventful life. Still, it has to be admitted that Riis is not an ideal subject for a full-dress biography. What matters about him is his work as an urban reformer, not his childhood, his romances, or his failings as a father, which are treated rather perfunctorily in “The Other Half.” (Not that there is much new information about Riis’s life for Mr. Buk-Swienty to draw on: The major source for Riis’s early years is his own memoir, “The Making of an American.”)
And while Mr. Buk-Swienty does sketch the outlines of Riis’s achievement, he is not expert enough in American history to make clear the whole significance of Riis’s work, or its deep ambiguities. Try reading “How the Other Half Lives” — the full text can be found online — and see how far you get before stumbling over some outrageously racist statement about Italians, Chinese, Jews, or blacks. In many ways, Riis is not a man for our times. But Mr. Buk-Swienty shows why, all the same, we should continue to remember him.