How the Other Half Lives: Photographs of NYC’s Underbelly in the 1890s

Bandits' Roost, 59 1/2 Mulberry Street

Jacob A. Riis arrived in New York in 1870. As the economy slowed, the Danish American photographer found himself among the many other immigrants in the area whose daily life consisted of joblessness, hunger, homelessness, and thoughts of suicide. So when he finally found work as a police reporter in 1877, he made it his mission to reveal the crime and poverty of New York City’s East Side slum district to the world.

The resulting book, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, was published in 1890, and is still considered “a landmark in the annals of social reform.” Filled with pictures, sketches and graphic descriptions of the un-imaginable living conditions he found, the book forced the topic of tenement reform to the forefront of every New Yorker’s attention.

The photograph above is titled “Bandit’s Roost,” and shows 59½ Mulberry Street (Mulberry Bend) in New York City — an area that was considered the most crime-ridden and dangerous part of the entire city.

Riis pulled no punches. Indignant, pedantic, and at times racist (some believe he was simply playing on the biases of his target audience) his sometimes hard-to-swallow descriptions of the residents of the tenement district are paired with equally hard-to-swallow photography:

















Riis and photographers he worked with were among the first Americans to incorporate flash photography into their work. Many of their nighttime photos were captured by removing the lens cap (thus beginning the exposure), igniting a batch of flash powder, and then putting the lens cap back on the camera.

Said to be inspired by Dickens and his writing about London’s poor, Riis’ work had a profound effect on the lives of those he photographed. A photojournalist who had himself lived in these condition, his book was the agent of social change that New York needed at the time.

Not to say that Riis was a saint. He separated the impoverished into two categories: those deserving of assistance and everyone else. He also never outright called for any government intervention, even though it came anyway. What most people seem to agree on is that his photojournalistic work was based on a genuine, heartfelt sympathy for those people whose lives he documented and helped to improve.

If you’d like to read How the Other Half Lives yourself, you can find it in text and audio formats here and here, respectively. And if you’d like to see a large collection of Jacob Riis photography in one place, you can do so at the Museum Syndicate website here.

(via Boing Boing)

Image credits: Photographs by Jacob A. Riis

  • PeterF

    Thank you for introducing Riis, of whose work I was ignorantly unaware. A great post and timely antidote for crass wedding photos featuring dinosaurs etc.

  • PHZ

    Looks like the slums in India now

  • vale1005

    Wow! I was captived by each image. Trying to grasp the misery of the East-siders each one portrayed.

  • Sonny

    So there were poor people in the 1800’s too??? Wait, there’s a difference between now and then. These were ethnic people leaving something far worse to get here. Hmm, no, still true today. Wait. The people did not trash what they had and worked because welfare wasn’t established…………..OK, now we’re getting somewhere.

  • Mantis

    What the hell are you rambling about son?

  • chrissysails

    thank you for the article. riis’s book is very difficult to obtain. it needs to be published again!

  • Jackson Cheese

    I have no idea what you’re trying to say.

    Are you saying poor people are better off now because of welfare, or these people are better off because they didn’t have welfare?

  • redapple1234

    eh they’re all dead now anyway, so who cares?

  • heggmona

    As you may not be aware of, people from Europe (and later Asia) emigrated to North America. Some succeeded in getting a better life while some never got past the “big city” and its slums. Being stuck in the slum wasn’t a good thing. For some “odd reason” people less better off/poor will mostly always settle closer to populated areas.

    Riise wanted to show how people lived in these parts and prove that slums in a big city wasn’t healthy for anyone living in the area. Diseases flourished. And they still do in such cities.

    Your assumption that they all left something far worse is not quite correct, but will of course vary between countries. Many were young sons/daughters of farmers. Without their own land, but yet food on their table and fresh water.

  • maggiemae656

    The pictures remind me of 1960 elementary school descriptions of the living conditions in Russia as a result of communism………..