Exposing the Slums
Originally published in the Brooklyn Rail, March 2008
Of the many questions raised by Bonnie Yochelson and Daniel Czitrom’s Rediscovering Jacob Riis, the foremost may be why reconsider him at all? The original purveyor of the harsh truth of the camera eye, a mainstay in the annals of American photography, population health and housing reform histories, and the namesake of major public works throughout the five boroughs, surely Riis’ life and work is well-trodden ground. Yet the impulse to revisit this figure now may stretch beyond the subject matter, to wider shifts in global demographics.
For the first time in history, the majority of the world’s population lives in urban areas. Looking forward, the U.N.’s 2003 report The Challenge of Slums predicts that within thirty years, the steadily rising flow of migrants into squatter settlements and favelas — precariously blanketing floodplains and hillsides of the urban global south — will number two billion.
For Riis, the perils of urban life lay in the physical form. Specifically, the tenement building, that “Frankenstein of our city civilization”: a monstrous amalgamation of unregulated building practice, overcrowded rooms, and scant basic resources like light, sanitation, and fresh air. But in championing the destruction of these insalubrious spaces, Riis failed to adequately address a question that continues to puzzle policymakers and politicians today. That is, if the slum gets torn down, where will the people go?
Peppered with Dickensian shots of New York’s neediest such as Little Susie in Gotham Court and A Child of the Dump, Yochelson and Czitrom’s character study presents Riis as a deeply conflicted man: an advocate for the poor, yet an active antagonist to organized labor; a reformer who declared war on the physical structures of poverty, but not the economic ones that create it; a publicity-crazed predecessor to today’s social entrepreneur, who, even as he cashed in on consciousness-raising through lucrative book deals and lecture fees, positively affected policy decisions in the process; and most troubling, a Christian immigrant who divvied New York’s huddled masses along religious lines. In his writing, Riis dotes on German Protestants as paragons of hard work and discipline while reserving vitriol for Jews, “swarthy” Italian Catholics, and the Chinese whose moral turpitude (gambling, opium-smoking, white slavery) in his view was appropriately mirrored by the squalor of their surroundings.
Yochelson and Czitrom’s cultural history is a vivid mosaic of urban life in the years prior to Progressive Era reform. Lingering in the overcrowded firetraps, sweatshops and finally, the “common trench of the Poor Burying Ground,” where New York’s destitute “lie packed three stories deep, shoulder to shoulder, crowded in earth as they were in life to ‘save space,’” the stark scenery in Rediscovering Jacob Riis tracks how the other half lives as much as how they die: cramped, anonymous, and broke. It’s an image that implores readers to reconsider how poverty shapes our cities today.