Documenting "The Other Half": The Social Reform Photography of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine
Photography and Social ReformJacob RiisLewis HineSlideshows

Later Reform Efforts

The Reporter of Mulberry Bend

Photographs and Lantern-Slide Lectures

How the Other Half Lives

Later Reform Efforts

Analysis of Riis Photographs

The 1894 election of William L. Strong as New York mayor gave Jacob Riis and other reformers an opportunity to initiate programs that Tammany Hall politicians had ignored. Riis found an ally in Theodore Roosevelt, then president of the Board of Police Commissioners.

Tenements and Lodging Houses
Shortly after Roosevelt's election to the post, he cancelled the annual New York City police parade because of allegations of police corruption. He also forced Police Chief Thomas Byrnes and other corrupt police officers to resign. [21]

In 1895 Riis and Roosevelt made midnight inspections of police patrol areas. Riis showed Roosevelt the overall neighborhood squalor, particularly the police lodging houses and tenement workshops. In response, Roosevelt convinced the Board of Health to shut down 100 cigar-making workshops. In 1896 Roosevelt closed the police lodging houses. [22]

After Riis took public health officials on a tour of some of the tenements, the officials voted to require that landlords install proper lighting in their buildings. Riis was pleased when city officials tore down several tenements in 1896 and 1897.


Mulberry Bend
Became a Park

In 1896 Riis became secretary and general agent of the Council of Confederated Good-Government Clubs. He organized local clubs and assigned projects to each, such as evaluating the city's parks, public schools, and street cleaning efforts.

Mayor Strong selected Riis to serve as secretary of the Advisory Committee on Small Parks in 1897. Riis believed that city parks should be "for the rest and recreation of the poor," not "for the pomp and parade of the wealthy." [23] After much effort, Riis and other reformers convinced city officials to raze Mulberry Bend and replace it with a city park.

Jacob A. Riis Settlement
Like many reformers, Riis believed that city life was bad for children's health. He believed that children should not play in the streets or among the rubble left by the wrecking ball. He also believed that children should be able to breathe fresh air and live in sanitary housing. He remarked in an 1895 lecture:

"It is one of the greatest of offenses to take all the beauty out of a child's life. I live on Long Island, and when I go home now and hear the robins sing and see the buds swelling, I feel that the poor little ones who live in the city are cut off from those especial agencies that God has made to benefit them." [24]

Night School
Night School in the
Seventh Avenue Lodging House

In 1901 the King's Daughters honored Riis by renaming their settlement home the Jacob A. Riis Settlement. Riis enlisted the help of wealthy patrons to help pay off the Riis Settlement's debts. Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Helen Gould, and others made pledges. Riis donated one thousand dollars. By 1906 the renovated settlement included a carpentry shop, playrooms, a domestic science room, and a gymnasium. [25]

Sea Breeze Hospital
In 1905 Riis wrote articles requesting funds for the relocation and expansion of Sea Breeze Hospital, a clinic for poor children with tuburculosis. He asked President Roosevelt to make an appearance at the clinic to publicize the fund-raising campaign. The Carnegies and other philanthropists donated thousands of dollars for the project in 1906. Still, it took another eight years for Riis and his associates to convince municipal officials to designate land for the new hospital. The hospital, and an adjacent park, opened in January 1914.

Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2000-2003