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. 

 

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.