‘How the Other Half Lives’: Photos capture New York slums in 1890

By Claudine Zap

It might be hard to imagine in the now-gentrified neighborhoods of lower Manhattan, but at the beginning of the 20th century, they were marked by slums teeming with newly arrived immigrants who lived in horrific conditions.

Danish photographer and social reformer Jacob Riis, an immigrant himself, became a New York Tribune reporter in 1877—and he made it his mission to make sure the world saw New York City though his eyes. His 1890 book, “How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York,” exposed in graphic terms the squalor of New York’s East Side slum district. It is still considered “a landmark in the annals of social reform.”

Riis documented the conditions typical for immigrants using an early form of flash photography, which enabled him to literally shed light on extreme poverty. The book pushed tenement reform on to New York’s political agenda and prompted then-Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt to call him “the most useful citizen of New York.”

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