The Other Half: The Life
Of Jacob Riis and the World
Of Immigrant America By Tom Buk-Swienty
Translated from the Danish
by Annette Buk-Swienty
W. W. Norton
448 pages, $27.95
When contemporary journalists honor their professional ancestors, the accolades are frequently based on secondhand knowledge. Too often, we have never actually read the words or studied the images from long ago. I am less guilty than many of my colleagues, but only because of circumstance. Dubbed an “investigative reporter” early in my career, I often paid careless homage to Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, Ray Stannard Baker, Jacob Riis, and the other so-called muckrakers. For many years, my acquaintance with them derived from brief passages in history books instead of any actual immersion in their work.
What made me an honest admirer of the muckrakers was my appointment in 1983 as executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a membership organization of about five thousand journalists. In my new role as spokesman for investigative journalism, I figured maybe I should know what I was talking about. I began with The History of the Standard Oil Company (1904), Tarbell’s eight-hundred-plus-page exposé of the world’s most powerful corporation and its chief executive, John D. Rockefeller. Next, I moved on to Jacob Riis’s classic How the Other Half Lives: Studies of the Tenements of New York (1890).
Tarbell’s book so impressed me that I went on to research her entire life. The result, Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller, was published earlier this year. With the approaching centennial of Riis’s death in 2014, I was tempted to dig deeply into his life as well. But before I could, the Danish journalist Tom Buk-Swienty took care of it. And his biography is superb—not only as an instructive tale for today’s journalists, but as a remarkable immigrant saga for readers from all vocations.
An impoverished Dane, the twenty-one-year-old Riis had no intention of becoming a journalist when he arrived in the United States in 1870. He left primarily because of a broken heart, after courting a teenage girl who could barely tolerate his attentions. Assuming its streets were paved with gold, Riis never considered the possibility that he would find it difficult to earn a living in the United States. After all, his fellow Danes were emigrating there by the thousands. By 1920, about a quarter of Denmark’s two million inhabitants would make the journey.
The challenge of earning a living wage during his first three years in America led Riis to near starvation and severe depression. His dire circumstances soon acquainted him with the very slums he would eventually immortalize, expose, and help to reform. As the winter of 1870 arrived, Riis had become a tramp in lower Manhattan. “Fifteen thousand tenements stretched from lower Manhattan to Fifty-ninth Street,” writes Buk-Swienty,
with the infamous Hell’s Kitchen commanding some two dozen blocks, from Thirty-fourth Street upward. About half a million people and their numerous animals lived in the slums. As the temperatures dropped, Riis’s situation became increasingly desperate. He got soaked by rain, and freezing winds cut through his thin clothes . . . . Most evenings he waited for food at the back door of Delmonico’s, an exclusive restaurant at the corner of Chambers Street and Broadway. The French cook often gave him leftover bones and bread . . . . After his meager meal, he began the fight with other tramps for a place to spend the night, sometimes ending up on the doorstep of Barnum’s Clothing Store.
He considered suicide, fought with beat cops, and was eventually removed on a ferry to New Jersey. His tramping took him to numerous states. No job lasted long enough or paid an adequate salary for Riis to live comfortably until 1872, when he took a job as a traveling iron salesman. In mid-1873, back in New York City, Riis applied for an opening at the Long Island City Review. He had never considered working in journalism, but luckily, he was the only applicant. Soon he was writing and editing neighborhood news items for the paper—and launching, with almost no premeditation, a distinguished career.
Meanwhile, he was still distracted by his unrequited love for Elisabeth Giørtz, the teenager he had attempted to woo back in Denmark. In 1874, he learned that her fiancé had died, and in a turn of events straight out of a Harlequin romance, Elisabeth agreed to marry Riis and move to the United States. The wedding was on March 5, 1876. The couple lived happily ever after, more or less, until her death at age fifty-two in 1905.