Jacob Riis's New York
In the great "dumb-bell" tenements, in the rickety old frame buildings, in the damp, unwholesome cellars, on the sidewalks and in the gutters reeking of filth and garbage, is a seething mass of humanity, so ignorant, so vicious, so depraved that they hardly seem to belong to our species. Men and women; yet living, not like animals, but like vermin! —Allan Forman, American Magazine (1888)
I miss all those ratty little wooden tenements, born with the smell of damp in which there grew up how many school teachers, city accountants, rabbis, cancer specialists, functionaries of the revolution, and strong-arm men for Murder, Inc. —Alfred Kazin, A Walker in the City (1951)
The Making of a Journalist
The essentials of Jacob Riis's biography are well known, and indeed his life story long ago took its place beside other classic narratives of American immigration and assimilation. This was surely part of why Theodore Roosevelt famously referred to him as "the best American I ever knew." He was born in 1849, the third of fourteen children, and raised in the rural northern Danish town of Ribe. Riis's schoolmaster father, who also wrote for the local newspaper, had hoped his boy would pursue a literary career, but Jacob was a diffident student at best. He had no use for Latin or mathematics, but he did enjoy learning English, largely through reading the novels of Charles Dickens and James Fenimore Cooper. The teenage Riis traveled to Copenhagen where he lived for four years while learning the carpentry trade. He returned to Ribe in 1868, a nineteen-year-old member of the carpenters' guild, but he was deeply discouraged by the lack of work in the depressed rural districts of Denmark. His childhood sweetheart Elisabeth turned down his marriage proposal, in part because her prosperous, cotton mill–owning father thought a journeyman carpenter beneath his daughter's station. Thus both economic and personal motives shaped Riis's decision to immigrate to America. When he landed at New York's Castle Garden in June 1870, he brought with him very little cash, but he possessed other valuables that gave him advantages over most other immigrants of the day: a skilled trade, some knowledge of English, a burning ambition to succeed.
Riis's first five years in the United States were extremely difficult. His autobiography recounts the life of an itinerant workingman, tramping across New Jersey, New York State, and the Midwest, including stints in lumber mills, shipyards, furniture factories, ice houses, and peddling books and flat irons. Riis's diary from this period, recently translated from the Danish, gives us a more emotionally nuanced picture of the young immigrant. In addition to the gnawing poverty and difficulties securing regular work, Riis suffered from severe homesickness and lovesickness. Daydreams of his parents and his unrequited love for Elisabeth brought on regular fits of deep depression. A long entry written on New Year's Eve, 1871, found Riis deeply depressed, wrestling with his religious faith, fearing that he would never see his parents again, and pining for his lost love, who had stopped writing:
The story of the year! O, God, it seems to me that I might sing on this last evening of the year:
"I have wandered about aimlessly.
Life's pearls I scattered like sand.
I have spent my hope and my faith and my peace, And now I stand on the edge of the abyss."
God, please let not this be my mood next New Year's Eve; Give me peace, give me patience and trust in you during the difficult days ahead ... Say whatever you will, the rest of you, She alone, Elisabeth is my only ideal, the ultimate perfection. Everything that a woman can ever mean in my eyes—and slander cannot touch her and never will, as long as I can lift a hand!
In this period Riis's experiences were representative of a large fraction of the American working class—economically insecure, full of doubt for the future, and, particularly in the wake of the 1873 depression, increasingly itinerant. He gave little attention to politics, save for the occasional denunciation of radicals. While working in a Buffalo shipyard he described how "the other day an international (socialist) babbler came up to our ship during the lunch break and attempted to fill the workers' ears with communism, but to the hilarity of everyone, I took him on and thoroughly ran down the internationals so he finally chose to make a sad retreat with all his fine intentions and hopes stranded. If ever such a gathering were to take place here in Buffalo, I really do believe that I would get up and speak, for the first time in English, against this crazy idea, which I hate. Well, I think people in this country are much too enlightened to buy such nonsense." The ideal or practice of class solidarity, either in unions or in politics, held no attraction for Riis. Nor would they ever, although he would later regularly invoke these early hard times as a source of his sympathy for working people.
The diary also reveals Riis to have been uncomfortable with the working-class amusements enjoyed by his friends. He rued the $4 expense of a Christmas Day jaunt along Main Street in Jamestown, New York, "visiting on the way every saloon and public house, we enjoyed ourselves well and jovially ... and drank until 2 o'clock and then back home to bed. All in all it might have been done in a somewhat more decent manner, considering it was a holiday!" After "having once witnessed American theater"—probably the popular burlesque spectacle The Black Crook—he wrote, "no earthly power will ever drag me along to anything like this phantasmagoria since it is all alike. The scenery was gorgeous, very fine costumes, sufficient female beauty to look at, exposed and not exposed, there was—Oh, I thought, if only we had a few of the well-known Danish ballet dancers in the government here, they would quickly gain another concept of 'The limitations for propriety in the theater.' ... God have mercy! I never thought or dreamed of anything like it. I should think not!, now nothing can surprise me anymore."
Uninterested in collective action and uneasy with the plebian pleasures of working-class culture, Riis instead pondered schemes for individual self-improvement, including writing newspaper articles for the Danish press (there were no takers) and taking a course in telegraphy (which he eventually did). The diary meticulously records his living expenses, wages, travels, and debts, along with his restlessness and the frequent bouts of despair that he believed might be the sign of a "dangerous nervous condition." Riis's diary also embodied the old Protestant tradition of examining the progess of the soul and looking to faith as a bulwark against laziness, wasted time, lack of direction—a harbinger of the piety and steely sense of purpose evident in the later writings. In these bleak early years Riis looked to God for help in fighting lethargy, sorrow, anguish, and "dark memories": "If these memories were always to be the master of me, I'd never amount to anything other than a layabout and a misanthrope; the shining hope for good times and happiness yet again, is penetrating, slowly but surely; if only it would finally be victorious and reach its goal."
In the fall of 1873 Riis moved to East 30th Street in Manhattan, where he studied telegraphy and made his first forays into the newspaper world. He landed a $10-a-week job as a reporter for the New York News Association, which published his reports of city events in subscribing newspapers. By the spring of 1874 he had left for a reporting job with the South Brooklyn News, a small Democratic weekly that soon promoted him to editor. Riis made the paper a commercial success by adding crusading editorials and a lively gossip column to the partisan political stories, and early in 1875 he bought the paper. He had found his calling, and confided in his diary, "I really do think that journalism comes easy for me. At least, I've been successful in everything I touch in that field." That same year he learned that Elisabeth's fiancé had died, and after resuming his courtship via mail, he sold the paper and used the profits to sail back to Denmark to marry her. They returned to Brooklyn in the summer of 1876, whereupon Riis resumed his editorship of the South Brooklyn News.
But a dispute with the owners led him to quit and briefly take up the advertising trade and, crucially, gain his first experience with photography. He bought his first stereopticon, or "magic lantern," and traveled that fall around towns and villages on Long Island, "giving open-air exhibitions in which the 'ads' of Brooklyn merchants were cunningly interlarded with very beautiful colored views, of which I had a fine collection. When the season was too far advanced to allow of this, I established myself in a window at Myrtle Avenue and Fulton Street and appealed to the city crowds with my pictures." Along with a partner Riis tried expanding this business by traveling through upstate New York towns, but they were unsuccessful. In the fall of 1877 he returned to New York and, after several rejections from city papers, he finally managed to land a staff position as a police reporter on the New York Tribune, where he remained until 1890. Many of his pieces would be routinely reprinted in other New York papers as part of the Tribune's membership agreement with the Associated Press.
Thus by 1877 the various uncertainties in Riis's life had been resolved. Settled in Brooklyn and working in Manhattan, he found his vocation, his wife, and his religion all at more or less the same time. In later years Riis recalled that his early forays into journalism occurred simultaneously with his conversion to Methodism. As he told it, he was so moved by the fiery eloquence of a local preacher that Riis offered to abandon his job at the South Brooklyn News to take up preaching himself. But the minister discouraged him: "'We have preachers enough. What the world needs is consecrated pens.' Then and there I consecrated mine. I wish I could honestly say that it has always come up to the high ideal set it then. I can say, though, that it has ever striven toward it, and that scarce a day has passed since that I have not thought of the charge then laid upon it and upon me." Journalism would provide the outlet for both his reforming instincts—what he called "a reporter's public function"—as well as his own very competitive nature, "the only reknown I have ever coveted or cared to have, that of being the 'boss reporter' in Mulberry Street."
Like nearly all reporters of his day, Riis struggled to make a living, which was why he pursued syndicated and freelance work even after joining the staff of the Tribune. Less well known than Riis's police reporting is the very different sort of journalism that he practiced simultaneously, one that today might be labeled feature writing. Much of this was composed in Danish and published in Riis's home country, and some found its way, through syndication, into American newspapers halfway across the continent. These articles focused less on New York doings and more on national politics, personality profiles, and scandals among the social elite. In pursuing both New York–centered police reporting and this more general sort of feature writing, Riis made himself proficient in two different journalistic styles, which melded into a hybrid that combined a debunking tone with his sharp commercial instincts. In short, through these twin journalistic experiences, Riis developed the critical themes and distinctive voice that would distinguish How the Other Half Lives and his later books.
From the Mulberry Street office, just across the street from police headquarters, Riis developed his lifelong reportorial encounter with New York's underside. His autobiography stressed what became known as the "human interest" aspect of the work. Riis defined the job as "the one who gathers and handles all the news that means trouble to some one: the murders, fires, suicides, robberies, and all that sort, before it gets into court." He sought to give meaning to it all as "a great human drama in which these things are the acts that mean grief, suffering, revenge upon somebody, loss or gain." The reporter's task, he argued, was to "portray it that we can all see its meaning, or at all events catch the human drift of it, not merely the foulness and the reek of blood." Indeed Gilded Age police work meant a great deal more than the prevention and solving of crimes [Figures 1.1, 1.2]. Policemen of the day were very visible public agents, particularly for the poor, the recent immigrants, and the city's huge "floating" population. They routinely provided lodging and sometimes food for the indigent, helped lost children find their parents, aided accident victims, transported the sick to hospitals, stopped runaway horses, fished unidentified bodies out of the harbor, and removed dead animals from the streets. To be sure, in addition to social welfare functions, police also engaged in repressive social control of "the dangerous classes" through the power of arrest, beatings, and head cracking on picket lines and at political demonstrations. Special squads were assigned to sanitary inspections of tenements and such "nuisance" industries as slaughterhouses and fat boiling. The NYPD also oversaw the work of the Board of Elections. The job of police reporter, therefore, offered the opportunity for the most comprehensive coverage—and understanding—of city life.
Riis's police reporting from these years reflected the expansive domain of the NYPD, and the bulk of his writing addressed roughly four general groups of subjects from the vantage of daily police work: the obscure and transient sides of New York life; mostly celebratory accounts of the work and history of the NYPD; "human interest" sketches heavily dependent upon racial and ethnic typing; and sanitation and health issues, especially in the rapidly growing tenement districts. His editors expected him to be able to cover a wide variety of events and topics, and much of his writing reflects a formulaic approach required to meet these demands. Yet as his journalism matured through the 1880s, Riis evolved a distinctive and highly clinical approach, one that fused empathic descriptions of human misery and resilience, statistical data culled from police and other government sources, and a fierce skepticism directed at popular myth and the more sensational mysteries of the city.
A large fraction of Riis's police journalism turned on explorations of the anonymity and randomness of big-city life. If the city offered unique opportunities for remaking one's identity, it was also a place where many people lost it, as illustrated by the high rates of missing persons, abandoned children, and suicide. Thus an 1883 piece on "People Who Disappear" asked of the five hundred New Yorkers reported lost each year, "Do they ever return? Or, once sucked under in the mad whirlpool of metropolitan life in which only the sum, not the individual, counts, are they nevermore cast up to the surface and to the sight of men?" In fact, Riis found, five-sixths of those sought for turned up, and "a brief glance at the 'missing' book at Police Headquarters quite disposes of the ignorant claim that there is a growing quota of the population that annually disappears and leaves no trace behind." The ranks of the missing included many men on drunks, who often returned after a ten-day term on Blackwell's Island. "Most of the self respecting citizens whom a temporary moral and financial bankruptcy cause to embrace the city's hospitality for the period of ten days travel incognito." For women, the notation "'found performing' at this or that theatre, or preparing for it, is not the among those least frequently entered on the police record." A related article, "Secrets of the River," described how city police routinely pulled more than 150 bodies out of New York's rivers, with as many as twenty per week in the spring. "The warm weather brings up the dead from the river bottom where they have lain, frozen and whole, all winter.... To look at the bundles of foul, ill-smelling clothes thrown in a corner of the dead house or laid out on the pier to dry, is not inviting; to handle or touch them repulsive to the last degree." But with this work, "Many an anxious query is answered then, many a dreadful secret revealed when the 'floaters' come," and about half of the bodies are claimed.