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New York Poor Living in Shacks for $1 a Month – Populiteracy


Jacob Riis was an early New York City photojournalist. He had immigrated with his family from Denmark in 1870. Like many immigrants, Riis suffered in poverty until he was able to secure work as a police and crime reporter for New York’s major newspapers.

His own experience and the proximity his job gave him to the city’s slums turned Riis into an activist fight to improve the lot of New York’s poor.

Riis became friends with Theodore Roosevelt when the latter was a New York City police commissioner. They frequently went on nighttime outings to see first hand the worst conditions of the city.

Riis was, in fact, the type of journalist that Roosevelt would later call a “muckraker.” The term came from a character in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress who raked filth on a nasty floor. TR did not condemn the work, but he complained that many muckrakers did nothing but expose corruption. They never tried to correct the problems they uncovered.

Riis did not fit that description. He used his camera to chronicle the lives of people in New York’s slums. The photos became prints for exhibits and “lantern” slides that accompanied Riis’ many lectures.

In 1890, Riis’ book How the Other Half Lives exposed wretched tenement conditions to people who would otherwise have never known of them.

In the photo above, New Yorkers on Jersey Street pose outside the shacks that they rent for $1 a month. The shacks are cobbled wooden structures attached to the backs of the brick tenement buildings. They are poorly constructed and in constant danger of collapsing.

Where planks seem about to separate, wire mesh holds them in place. Slanted rooftops are warped, sagging, and piled with litter. A snow shovel lays on the roof of the right shack. Was it actually for scraping snow off the roofs so they didn’t fall under the weight? Or did someone periodically scrape the trash off the surfaces?

The shack on the left, at least, has some heat, evidenced by the chimney sticking through the roof. Of course, it was just as likely to burn the place down.

The men, all hatted and bearded, pose as if they have nothing else to do. Which may be the case. It is daytime, indicating the men either work odd shifts or have no jobs.

The mother in the center holds her baby. One can imagine her endless days at the shack as she tries to make a home for her family.

She has a neighbor, at least, as shown by the blurred image of the woman at the far left. A young boy, also blurred, peaks into the photo.

The seven people in the photo form a sad community.

Riis’ progressive activism had huge impact. His photographs and stories led New York to destroy some of its worst tenements, regulate child labor, institute garbage collection, and install sewer systems.

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