Life In The City Slums: Discussed by Jacob Riis 1901


Under the title "How the Other Half Lives," Jacob A Riis, formerly police reporter of the New York Sun, talked about life in the slums, at the First Presbyterian Church, last night. The lecture was held in the chapel, under the auspices of the men's Association, and it was rendered especially interesting by a series of unusual stereopticon views. Mr. Riis at present is a member of the Tenement House Commission, through whose good offices many needed reforms have been brought about, and on the speaker's platform he proved himself to be thoroughly conversant with his subject.

At the start, no doubt was left as to Mr.Riis' political beliefs, so far as New York City is concerned. He blamed the administration of Tammany for all the evils which exist in the tenement house districts, and made no apology for his broad conviction. All other aims, he said, vanish in municipal government, when personal advancement becomes the watchword of the party in power.

Mr. Riis' lecture, however, did not deal altogether with conditions as they exist today. He first showed pictures of the tenements, such as they were, which constituted the slums of fifty years ago. Realistic views were thrown on the screen which had been made from old scenes in the neighborhood of Five Points, at one time New York's most notorious center of poverty and crime. it was little to be wondered at, Mr. Riis said, after pointing to a row of ramshackle dens, that murder, in its various forms, frequently occurred in such squalid quarters.

It was natural that the lower type of man, who was forced by circumstances to inhabit a den of filth and squalor, should not feel any special compunction about sticking his neighbor with a knife.

Among the pictures of the old days, which Mr. Riis showed, was one of an old wooden church, then located in Mulberry street. Once a sanctuary, when the congregation moved uptown, the building was transformed into a tenement by the addition of several extra stories. Crowded as the dwellers in such a house of necessity had to be, it followed as a natural sequence that disease gained an unshakable foothold on every floor. In fact, the house came to be known, before the Board of health tore it down, as the "Den of Death." Everywhere about it, people were packed in suffocating closeness and those who lived in the dark hole of a cellar for men, women and children dwelt even there daily found their earthen floors wet and slimy through the influence of the tide in the East River.

Such was the condition of the tenements several decades ago in days when the Irish squatters, asking no owner's permission, thronged the rocks of Harlem and built whole settlements of shanties.

Coming down to current years and conditions, Mr. Riis chose and explained view after view of the present East Side. Some of them drew forth exclamations of surprise from the large audience, listening, by reason of the squalor and wretchedness which they vividly portrayed. Narrow alleys, just about wide enough, as Mr. Riis declared to accommodate a drunken men stretched at full length, crowded air shafts and dirty rooms.

The tenement house air shaft was made the target of Mr.. Riis most vigorous shots. he said that the assumption that pure air ever descended into a black hole far enough to be felt by the human beings who lived near the bottom was preposterous.

Instead of being a blessing, the air shaft, as it is now constituted, he said, was nothing short of a detriment. Intended to convey fresh, purifying currents and cheerful sunlight, the shaft chiefly served as an avenue for poisonous, stifling odors from floor to floor and merciless flames in case of fire.

Mr. Riis talked at length of the tenement house room, the narrow, badly ventilated interior, in which floor space was let to lodgers at so much a spot. He showed several specimens on the screen, photographs taken by flashlight, during the rounds of the sanitary police and in every picture the worn, hopeless faces of the aroused sleepers, huddled anywhere, without the formality of a bed, stood out with painful distinctness.

Then, in contrast, Mr. Riis displayed some other pictures portraits of tenement house children, who, despite their surroundings were of intelligent appearance. The fresh air fund, he said, did incalculable good among such children as these. Mr. Riis discoursed at length on the places where they are forced to live live and to illustrate and to impress upon the audience the congested condition of the east side tenement district, he showed a Birdseye photograph of an entire block. Over 2,000 persons, of whom 500 were babies, Mr. Riis said, lived within the boundaries of that one square. The space supposed to be devoted to back yards was seen to be filled in this case by extensive tenements, in order that the landlord might squeeze out from his property the very last dollar that it could learn.

The rear tenements shut out the sunlight and the air, but more important than these in the eyes of the owner, they gave additional rentable property. As for sanitation, Mr. Riis said, seldom was anything found among the Manhattan tenements which deserved the name. In the whole block which he showed on the screen. Mr. Riis declared there was but one bathtub.

Mr. Riis held up the Riverside flats of lower Brooklyn as being the best examples that he knew about what a tenement house should be. Although they paid the owner far less than the Manhattan agents ground out of their unfortunate tenants, he still obtained good returns on his money and gave in turn, for less rent than is exacted across the river, far superior accommodations, with the added blessings of light, air and a place for children to play and keep out of mischief.

"Where sunlight and the gospel go hand in hand," said Mr.. Riis, "the slums cannot exist."

Website: The History
Article Name: Life In The City Slums: Discussed by Jacob Riis 1901
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


 The Brooklyn Daily Eagle January 15, 1901
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