No Escape from New York: Revisiting Jacob Riis, New York and Urban America at the Library of Congress

"Jacob Riis", Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
"Jacob Riis", Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
“Jacob Riis”, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Two years ago, Washington Post journalist Paul Schwartzman drove war photographer Seamus Murphy and a quiet, black-haired, “poet/musician” on a “windshield tour” of Anacostia, Washington D.C. They toured East Capitol Street “where the city had replaced a notoriously violent housing project with mixed-income townhouses, created under a federal program known as Hope VI”; took in the future Homeland Security Headquarters to be located at what had been previously St. Elizabeth Hospital, a large mental health institution; and generally explored “the darker side” of the city, Schwartzman wrote recently.

Of course, that quiet, dark-haired woman in the back seat turned out to be P.J. Harvey, one of the more provocative musical artists of the last two decades. Harvey transformed the two-hour tour into a song on her controversial new album, The Hope Six Demolition Project.

The album, a documentation of her travels over the past couple of years through Kosovo, Afghanistan and D.C., addresses U.S. imperialism, the ravages of war, and urban housing policy among its numerous subjects. The first song, “Community of Hope” focuses on the plight of D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood, which over the past decade has witnessed creeping gentrification even as crime and poor schools continue to afflict long-time residents.


Understandably, local leaders and community members have taken issue with Harvey’s depiction; “galled by lyrics that characterized Ward 7 as a ‘drug town’ filled with ‘zombies,’” wrote WAPO’s Chris Richards. One critic praised the album but also recognized the song’s failures and Harvey’s occasional faults in this regard: “She can be strangely thoughtless here, in ways that aren’t easy to parse.” While Harvey had apparently adapted the lyrics from Shwartzman’s “windshield tour” commentary, as Pitchfork’s Laura Snipes wrote, “there’s a frustrating reluctance on her part to assign any value or judgment to the things she sees…”

Harvey’s attempt to shed light on troublesome subjects—the failure of federal housing policies, the struggles of black communities in a gentrifying city—might be awkward and even problematic; it remains unclear how much one can cull from a “windshield tour” of anywhere, let alone a community with the history and complexity of Anacostia. However, Harvey’s ungainly attempt has sparked discussion and drawn further attention to housing and urban policy in the nation’s capitol. Granted, one would certainly do better to consult Anacostia Unmapped, a podcasting project by John A. Johnson, Kymone Freeman, Schyla Pondexter-Moore in collaboration with D.C.’s WAMU, which documents the lives of Anacostians and attempts to map the community conceptually, narratively, and physically. Unsurprisingly, one finds more than stories of poverty and tragedy in such an endeavor: resilience, pride, and a more diverse set of experiences that Harvey apparently missed. Still, all these examples—journalism, popular music, and podcasting—represent the intersection of traditional and new forms of social media that can help inform the public about community, housing, and urban life.

From "Unmapped Anacostia" via
From “Unmapped Anacostia” via

Over a century ago, Jacob Riis wrote the seminal How the Other Half Lives (1890), a book that at the time of its publication few would have predicted would become a bestseller. HOTHL channeled the popular “slum tours” of the late nineteenth century into text, much as Harvey attempted to use popular music to do the same and Unmapped Anacostia deploys podcasting to give its community a tangible face to a public that has long ignored, or worse, dismissed it. As a comparison, Harvey and Riis might sometimes slide into sensationalism or in moments oversimplify complex processes, but both fuel discussion.

If Harvey’s career has unfolded as the music industry and social media have changed dramatically, so too did Riis witness parallel societal transformations. Riis bridged two distinct eras, the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, and put forth an amalgam of the two periods in regard to the dominant theories regarding poverty, crime, immigration, and housing, noted Dr. Barbara Bair recently. Bair, a historian in the Library of Congress’s (LoC) Manuscript Division and curator of the new exhibit “Jacob Riis: Revealing How the Other Half Lives” currently on display at the library until Labor Day, spent over a year working with Exhibition Director Cheryl Regan organizing the event. It is the second in a series of related exhibitions at four different institutions that combine Riis’s photos from the Museum of the City of New York and original writings from the Jacob A. Riis Papers in LoC’s Manuscript Division. The LoC exhibit reevaluates Riis’s career, his role in turn of the century urban America, and his legacy regarding housing, education, and development as it extended through the New Deal and Urban Renewal.

The idea for an inter-institutional collaboration began in 2013 when the Museum of the City New York (MCNY) contacted Regan at LoC about combining efforts and collections: MCNY’s Riis photos and the LoC’s Riis papers. In October of 2015, the MCNY opened the first leg of the co-presentations, with “Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half” curated by longtime Riis scholar and former MCNY photograph curator Bonnie Yochelson, who consulted with Regan, Bair, and other LoC specialists in selecting Riis materials from LoC that were loaned to New York. The second co-presentation in the series, “Jacob Riis: Revealing ‘How the Other Half Lives” opened at LoC April 15th, 2016, planned by Regan and Bair and designed by contract designer Michael Shveima.

Two more co-presentations are currently being distinctly designed for separate institutions in Copenhagen and in Riis’s hometown of Ribe, Denmark, with Yochelson as contract curator. Yochelson again consulted closely with LoC staff in recommending selections for the Danish venues. As Regan and Bair noted in a recent gallery talk, due to the various collections at play, the differing spins used in interpretation, and the context of different locations and designers, each iteration of the exhibit promises to reveal something different about the man and the era. The LoC exhibition includes many materials not seen in New York or Denmark. It highlights the Library’s special collections, including 19th-century maps, 20th-century photographs, rare historic films, and items from manuscript collections other than Riis (including the Booker T. Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, and Andrew Carnegie papers, as well as the records of various Progressive reform organizations).

In his time, Riis occupied several roles: journalist, lecturer, writer, ally, and social reformer. He harnessed every means available to him to highlight the plight of the poor and the problematic conditions of turn-of-the-century New York.   According to Bair, the exhibit “repositions Riis” as “a master of the social media of his day,” demonstrating how he deployed magic lantern shows (similar to modern day slide or Powerpoint shows), newspapers, magazines, books, and photography. The lantern shows in particular gave audiences striking visual images of urban poverty especially since at the time newspapers and magazines lacked the technology to reproduce photos in print, depending instead on illustrations based on Riis photos. In contrast, magic lantern shows, the exhibit notes, projected images that were large enough to be viewed vividly by hundreds of spectators at a time, accompanied by Riis’s often entertaining spoken commentary.

Riis himself acknowledged he was one of numerous others working toward similar reformist goals but that through his deft use of media, he cut through the cacophony of voices in his day. “I yelled the loudest,” he once wrote, noted Bair. She added that though HOTHL might be his most famous work, the LoC hoped to bring his others to the fore, especially Children of the Poor (1892), Ten Year’s War (1900), the Riis autobiography The Making of an American (1901), and Theodore Roosevelt, the Citizen (1904). Throughout, Riis’s work engaged numerous aspects of the industrializing city: sanitation, crime, urban space, child and family labor, education, housing conditions, ethnic enclaves, and street life.


Much as Riis combined media to reach various audiences, so too does “Jacob Riis” juxtapose several ways of seeing and experiencing the city for visitors. Spectators begin with an 1879 Will L. Taylor map from the LoC’s Geography and Map (G&M) division that impressively lays out the density of the city’s housing. In 1890, 1.6 million people lived in New York (then confined to the island of Manhattan alone), with 1.2 million living in Lower Manhattan and spread across some 37,000 tenements. It would be hard to understate the map’s effectiveness; it gives visible and tangible representation of the suffocating conditions of late nineteenth century NYC.

Along the exterior or side walls, visitors encounter the issues of the day: housing, public health, public space, crime, labor, education, homelessness, and immigration, with each issue illuminated by a fire insurance map from the G&M’s Sanborn Map collection, a Riis photograph from the MCNY, and an article from Riis’s journalistic career. Among the highlights in this section is a rare transcript of a Riis lantern show from the Manuscript Division’s Jacob A. Riis papers. In addition, spread across the entire exhibition, are blown up versions of Riis’s photographs, as Bair notes, perhaps the best means to appreciate their content.

Insurance Map of Los Angeles, California New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1919, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress
Insurance Map of Los Angeles, California
New York: Sanborn Map Company, 1919, Geography and Maps Division, Library of Congress

Additional aspects of Bair and Regan’s multimedia approach can be found at both ends of the exhibit. Atop the rear wall, six films shown on a continuous loop and separated by a photograph of Mulberry Street taken by Riis depict “life on the streets of New York” from the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division’s (MBRS) Thomas Edison and American Mutoscope and Biograph Company collections. Slowed down to about 50 percent of their original recorded speed, the two films provide a sense of kinetics to the impressive but static photos that appear throughout the exhibit.

As film expert and MBRS Division Chief Mike Mashon pointed out in a recent talk, they represent the evolution of cinema in U.S. history as it shifted from “the cinema of attractions,” such as scenes documenting the arrival of immigrants at Ellis Island or city cops shooing away immigrant push cart vendors in the street, to the “narrative cinema” as evidenced by the release of first feature film, Edwin S. Porter’s ten minute long The Great Train Robbery (1903). In a neat example of symmetry, one of the films highlighted on the back wall, “New York City Ghetto Fish Market,” was shot by Porter himself.

Regan and Bair have also edited a MCNY HD video that simulates an actual Riis magic lantern show, giving visitors a feel for Riis’s presentation and a documentarian’s insight into the lives of turn of the century New Yorkers. Bair points out that so far it has been one of the most compelling aspects of the exhibit for visitors.

"Our House in Winter" [Jacob Riis' Home in Richmond Hill, Queens], circa 1890-1904, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
“Our House in Winter” [Jacob Riis’ Home in Richmond Hill, Queens], circa 1890-1904, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
The Real Riis

Riis’s own story traverses continents and class. Himself an immigrant from Denmark in 1870, Riis found work in New York in 1873 after itinerant labor in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Success did not come immediately; Bair points out that Riis rather ironically found himself selling copies of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times door-to-door before eventually finding work as a reporter for the New York Tribune and later the New York Evening Sun. Like many New Yorkers then and now, Riis struggled with homelessness, living in police lodging housing from time to time, an experience that contributed to his advocating for their closure and the establishment of alternative shelters operated by charitable societies and municipal partnerships.  He was also an advocate of the community-based social services provided by settlement houses.

Riis feared the police lodging houses spread communicable diseases and enabled “seasoned criminals” to prey upon younger people and vulnerable newcomers. With the support of then-Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, the lodges were closed. Riis’s crusade against them illustrates his multifaceted concern with housing and poverty and the various ways those struggling with inadequate shelter and inequality suffered.

By 1884, he had settled with his wife Elisabeth in Richmond Hill, Queens—a fitting site, considering that today Queens County is ranked as one of the top three most racially diverse counties in the nation, with residents hailing from South Asia, North and South America, and the Caribbean, to say nothing of its smattering of Russians and Europeans. Take the 7 train to Jackson Heights and dive into the ocean of culinary delights as one’s taste buds can travel from Lahore to Quito to Mexico City. Over 167 languages are spoken there on a daily basis; Frederick Weisman released a three-hour documentary on the community last year. In other words, though Richmond Hill was hardly as diverse as modern Queens, Riis remains as relevant today as he was in 1890.

"Richmond Hill, the parlor - flash-light", the Riis children in the Richmond Hill home, circa 1890-1904, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
“Richmond Hill, the parlor – flash-light”, [the Riis children in the Richmond Hill home], circa 1890-1904, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Working for the newspapers, the close proximity of what was then printer’s row to the Mulberry Street Police Station contributed to his first assignment as a police beat reporter, which provided Riis with unfettered access to the tenements and, in moments, the tougher side of urban life. As noted, Riis straddled two distinct eras that drew different conclusions regarding the causes of poverty and its possible solutions. Riis reflected this dynamic as his explanation for and responses to the urban ills of the day mixed the negatives and positives from each period. Riis harbored racial and religious prejudices of his time. He hardly viewed blacks as equals and found the Chinese troubling due to their lack of Christianity; Riis embraced an evangelical Christianity. Aspects of Social Darwinisn also crept into his thought. Like the Progressives with whom he often worked or interacted with, he expressed a great deal of trepidation regarding immigration, despite his own history. The larger Progressive Movement, though concerned about the plight of immigrants, also demonstrated its own prejudices and worries about this burgeoning population. In this way and others, Riis was a man of his time as much as one ahead of it.

For Riis and other reformers, the large scale of immigration meant education served several purposes. On one hand, it led to employment and a deeper engagement with life in part through the acquisition of basic literacy skills; on the other it provided a path toward upward mobility and instructed newcomers on the meaning of American citizenship. “The kindergarten in the worst tenement districts of New York,” he wrote in 1895, “with its dirty ragged children washed clean and their clothes mended had often been known to improve the conditions of an entire block.”[1] In addition to highlighting education’s importance through his various publications, Riis promoted vocational schools and collaborated with the New York Kindergarten Association and settlement house workers.

Contradiction, like history itself, defined Riis. Though famous for his photos, many were taken by others at his direction, rather than Riis himself. From 188-1890 though he staged photos, he rarely took them, instead hiring amateur photographers. In the early 1890s, he began taking his own until, with the rise of prominent photographers like Lewis Hine , he began purchasing them instead. Riis admitted in his 1901 work, The Making of an American that he was “no good at all as a photographer.” He did not pioneer photo journalism; Lewis Hine and Progressivism did, noted Bonnie Yochelson in 2008’s Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-Century New York, a book she co-authored with historian Daniel Czitrom.

Still, Bair takes a different view, noting that his photos served as precursor to Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and others who worked in the social realism school of the medium that became prominent in the 1930s. Riis, Bair argues, “was incredibly important in the history of photography” and his work directly influenced social policies of his day and those decades later. The exhibit connects Riis’s influence to Camilo José Vergara, the Chilean-born, New York-based writer and photographer, who produced influential work over decades that has “embrace[d] the vitality of urban America and archive[d] its decline.” Though in recent years his work on Detroit has been derided by some critics as “ruin porn” (photography that highlights urban dystopia at the expense of residents and communities), Vergara undoubtedly draws upon Riis’s legacy and adds to it. “I want to discover, what happens to the most desolate corners of Urban America, what new activities and uses emerge, and get glimpses of the future,” he has noted in the past. To this end, the exhibit features several photos from his “Old New York, 1970-1973” series, drawn from the LoC’s impressive Prints and Photographs Division, including selections that focus on Harlem and the Lower East Side.

Riis’s views on politics and government were also evolving. Riis did not immediately ascribe to the kind of Progressivism that expressed faith in science, technocratic expertise, and government intervention that dominated the first two decades of the twentieth century, Yochelson noted. He viewed government intervention warily. Yet as Bair points out, over time he began to see a role for state and municipal government in addressing urban ills. He became close with NYC Police Commissioner (and later New York Governor) Teddy Roosevelt and would advise him even as TR rose to the presidency. So clearly, he saw some value in government intervention. Moreover, Riis died in 1914, before WWI, the New Deal, and WWII, massive historical events which proved influential in shaping ideas about government intervention and policy.

Riis’s views on race and poverty also contained nuance. He conveyed compassion and understanding for the poor through his images but also deployed racial and ethnic stereotypes, in HOTHL, historian Daniel Czitrom noted in a 2008 interview. “I’ve always been struck by the tension between the empathy and sympathy that’s powerfully depicted in many of those images, and the kind of stereotypes, racial language, that he uses in the text,” Czitrom asserted in a 2008 interview. Still, one need only look to the new exhibit to see that Riis nonetheless viewed racial and ethnic minorities with a certain approval:

The Jew, the Italian, the Bohemian, the Hungarian … as martial for citizenship every bit as good as the manor born. I am not so sure that it is not better material than the Native. A good many of us have grown old with the idea of political freedom that we have forgotten that the Republic is not a cow to be milked for privilege and graft … the naturalized citizenship has stood … for an honest dollar … they came here for the square deal.[2]

None of this is to ignore his faults or those of the larger Progressive Movement. Through Roosevelt, Riis and Booker T. Washington forged a friendship and, as the exhibit demonstrates through correspondence between the three men, learned from one another. Riis gave Washington a tour of New York’s Lower East Side and Riis was impressed by educational uplift on a visit to the Tuskegee Institute in 1905. Yet, from a broader perspective, Progressivism did little to help African Americans and Riis himself, as illustrated in HOTHL, depicted New York’s black community in ways that would be jarring to modern sensibilities. Likewise, President Roosevelt might have consulted with Washington for advice on government policy and the lives of African Americans but he would never again invite the Tuskegee leader to dine in the White House after the outraged responses of the public to Washington’s first and only dinner there in 1901.

Jack E. Boucher, Elevation view of the south front (beach) center section, with scale (similar to HABS No. NY-6374-29) - Jacob Riis Park, Rockaway Point, Queens County, NY, 1990, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress
Jack E. Boucher, Elevation view of the south front (beach) center section, with scale (similar to HABS No. NY-6374-29) – Jacob Riis Park, Rockaway Point, Queens County, NY, 1990, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress


In the most immediate sense, Riis’s ability to broadcast his message to the public contributed to the development of settlement houses, unionization, protective legislation, and a more professionalized approach to solving the ills of poverty and the problems of urbanization. During his lifetime he travelled the country carrying the struggles of New York and, by extension cities across the nation, to places like Nebraska where residents might have been wholly ignorant of such difficulties. Moreover, as Progressivsm promoted technocratic management and charitable organizations professionalized, Riis’s case studies, fieldwork, photography, and public relations would be the arsenal from which reformers would draw.

Other activists followed the path paved by Riis, establishing institutions such as Lillian Wald’s Henry Street Settlement, which like Riis, extended its work far beyond housing. Florence Kelley led the National Consumers League (NCL), encouraging women to deploy their “buying power to support fair wages, the ten hour day, maternal well-being, and children’s rights.” Others like Lewis Hine worked to end the horrors of child labor through the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC). The papers of both organizations, the NCL and NCLC, are housed in the LoC’s Manuscript Division and appear in the exhibit.

From a policy perspective, Teddy Roosevelt’s cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt would draw upon Riis’s legacy in both his creation of federal public housing and programs to promote homeownership. Housing Act of 1934 created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and other agencies that would reform home financing for Americans. Of course, it also led to redlining which for decades contributed to suburban segregation, but today millions of Asian, Latino, and African Americans strive for and achieve homeownership much as their white counterparts.

Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., "New York City postwar exhibit, 500 Park Ave., New York City. Jacob Riis and Lillian Wald houses", June 4, 1944, Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc. Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress
Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., “New York City postwar exhibit, 500 Park Ave., New York City. Jacob Riis and Lillian Wald houses”, June 4, 1944, Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc. Collection, Prints and Photographs, Library of Congress

The Housing Act of 1937 provided subsidies for public housing and many cities, like New York did in 1934, created local housing agencies to do so. Far fewer public housing units would be built than promised by the acts and over time the housing would be underfunded and used to resegregrate cities under Urban Renewal’s various versions of Title I legislation (1949-1979), but in New York it proved successful on the whole.

The controversial Robert Moses was deeply influenced by Progressivism. In a 1949 article in the New York Times Magazine on display in the LoC exhibit, the powerful NYC city planner credited Riis with drawing his attention to urban issues like housing and public parks. In 1946, Moses constructed the Jacob Riis Houses along the East River just north of, appropriately enough, the Lillian Wald Houses (1947). Later Moses would update Jacob Riis Park (1936-1938) in Rockaway Queens, in the mold of a latter day Jones Beach (which Moses built in the late 1920s) for city dwellers, to say nothing of the numerous pools he built across the five boroughs.

Walter Albertin, "Mayor Robert Wagner (r) joined by Robert Moses (l) and Frank Meistrell (c) on a housing project tour, August 9, 1956, New York World Telegraph and Sun Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Walter Albertin, “Mayor Robert Wagner (r) joined by Robert Moses (l) and Frank Meistrell (c) on a housing project tour, August 9, 1956, New York World Telegraph and Sun Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Moses too struggled with race; critics like Robert Caro have alleged he purposely had the viaducts along the parkway to Jones Beach built too low for public buses and that he rarely constructed pools in minority communities.   Caro goes on to critique Moses for destroying the city of ethnic neighborhoods with overzealous highway construction and using urban renewal as a cudgel.

To some extent, many of these allegations, like those levied against Riis, ring true. However, there is a complexity too. As historians like Kenneth Jackson, Hilary Ballon, Joel Schwartz, Martha Gutman and others have argued in works such as Robert Moses and the Modern City: The Transformation of New York (2007), today New Yorkers of all races, ethnicities, and creeds enjoy Moses’s public works, whatever his original intention might have been. In a city increasingly stratified by economic inequality, the Jacob Riis houses persist, as do thousands of other public housing units under the NYCHA. From 2001 to 2009, Tino Hernandez, a resident of the Riis houses during the 1960s helmed the housing agency. As P.J. Harvey sings on her new album, most other cities have turned to problematic HOPE VI mixed-income housing that so far looks to have very mixed results for the poor in cities and suburbs alike.

Jack E. Boucher, "View of the Riis clock (duplicate of HABS No. NY-6374-7) - Jacob Riis Park, Rockaway Point, Queens County, NY", 1990, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Jack E. Boucher, “View of the Riis clock (duplicate of HABS No. NY-6374-7) – Jacob Riis Park, Rockaway Point, Queens County, NY”, 1990, Historic American Buildings Survey Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

To say that history is complex would be an understatement; to observe that Jacob Riis was complex is far too obvious. As Bair noted, one can spend 10 minutes or two hours wondering through the new LoC exhibit and each time come away with a new insight about Riis, New York, and urban America. While no pictures are allowed, you can certainly tweet or Facebook your observations about the exhibit and Riis to the world. Indeed, one can imagine he would have wanted it that way.

[1] “A Message from the Slums,” Jacob Riis of New York Addresses the Congregational Club,” Hartford Courant, May 22, 1895, Jacob A. Riis papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[2] Jacob Riis, “The Gateway of All Nations,” Christian Herald, October 11, 1905, Jacob A. Riis Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.