The Accidental Icon

How Jacob Riis went from the muck to muckraker

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.

Encouraged by the developments in his personal and professional life, Riis began to excel as a journalist. By 1878, having already switched papers several times, he found himself covering the police beat for the New York Tribune. The job often took Riis to the squalid, high-crime neighborhoods where just a few years earlier he had almost starved to death. He accompanied police officers and health inspectors “on their patrols into the darkest corners of New York’s tenements. Riis not only developed his writing by reporting on these journeys, but he also sharpened his devotion to reform. Seeing the circumstances under which so many of New York’s tenement dwellers lived moved him deeply, and he was in turn able to move his readers, letting them travel vicariously through his articles.”

In 1887, Riis read about an invention by two German chemists who had found a way “to take pictures by flashlight.” With such a tool, he hoped to visually document the dank and demeaning tenements, which bred not only crime but such deadly diseases as tuberculosis and cholera. “With the flash he would finally be able to show New Yorkers the dark side of the city,” Buk-Swienty reports.

The flashlight could illuminate dark alleyways and penetrate filthy, poorly lit tenement garrets. It could expose basement dives and overcrowded five-cent lodging houses, show the trash heaps where tramps had dug caves to shield themselves from the elements. Riis could show his audience—the wealthier segments of society, policymakers and voters, whose actions could translate into social reform—what they had never seen before.

Riis never considered himself a talented photographer. Yet the power of the images he shot is evident even today. (In the recent Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-Century New York, Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom argue that his photos continue to frame the discussion about urban poverty, more than a century after he took them.)

Certainly their impact was not lost on Riis’s contemporaries. When an editor from Scribner’s magazine attended a lecture and slide show by Riis, he promptly offered a contract for a package deal: an exposé illustrated by the photographs. The story ran in the December 1889 issue. It was followed by an expanded version in book form, How the Other Half Lives, which included forty-four searing images. (Buk-Swienty ups the ante, peppering his own text with fifty-five of the photographs.) The book sold briskly, providing Riis with the elusive financial security he had sought. It also led to considerable fame—although not in his native Denmark, where Buk-Swienty had never encountered his name. Indeed, it wasn’t until 1994 that the author began delving into Riis’s life, and that was only because he covered an exhibition of the muckraker’s photographs at the Museum of the City of New York.

It is impossible to gauge the precise impact of Riis’s exposé. Clearly, though, the book made an enormous impression on the city’s future police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt. As Buk-Swienty writes:

Riis became his mentor and his guide to the slums, leading Roosevelt on nightly expeditions, showing him how ‘the other half,’ a staggering two-thirds of the city’s population, lived . . . . The horrid conditions, previously unfathomable to Roosevelt, would influence him throughout his political career, shaping his distinctive brand of Progressivism. Roosevelt, who was rapidly accruing political clout, became an unusually powerful ally for Riis. Together they pressured the city into tearing down the worst tenements; they brought about the closing of the lodging houses run by the corrupt and brutal police, the shelter of last resort for the poorest, often homeless men.

For Riis, meanwhile, it was business as usual. A year after achieving wealth and fame, he was still on the streets of New York City. During a visit to the municipal health department, he learned of a report about elevated nitrate levels in the drinking water, probably caused by leaking sewers. Riis speculated that the pollution could lead to a cholera outbreak. Lugging his camera and notebook, he traveled up and down the Croton River for a week, noting where small towns along the river were dumping raw sewage. When he published the photographs accompanied by his text, the New York City Council members eventually earmarked large sums to purchase the land along the river to prevent illegal dumping.

Throughout the next decade, Riis delivered one book-length exposé after another. The Children of the Poor, Out of Mulberry Street: Stories of Tenement Life in New York City, and A Ten Years’ War all struck chords with average citizens and policymakers alike. In 1901, he solidified his hold on the American consciousness with his wildly popular autobiography, The Making of an American. By the time of his death in 1914, Riis was something of a national icon, whom Teddy Roosevelt had called “the best American I ever knew.”

His reputation survived, as did his searing words. But the revolutionary photographs almost did not. For many years they moldered in one of the former Riis family homes, until that building was scheduled for demolition in 1946. The owner, who knew little about the former tenant’s significance, stumbled across a box of photographs before the wrecking ball started swinging. The box contained 412 glass plates, 161 slides, and 193 paper photos. Fortunately for posterity, the owner tracked down the location of a Riis descendant and carried the box over to the proper Manhattan address. Nobody answered the door, so the bearer of this visual legacy placed it on the doorstep and walked away. 

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Steve Weinberg is the author of eight nonfiction books. His most recent book, Taking on the Trust: How Ida Tarbell Brought Down John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil, has just been published in a paperback edition.