the other half


Hovering on the margins between high-school history-textbook glory and the ever-expanding empire of American amnesia, Jacob Riis still tantalizes us with his evocative do-gooder example. The Danish-born Riis (1849-1914) immigrated in 1870 to America, leading a hand-to-mouth existence in the first few years and sometimes sleeping on the streets, before finding himself as a journalist.

As a police reporter for the New York Tribune, he learned the seedy side of urban life, exposing the pollution of the city’s water supply and championing small parks and playgrounds. He wrote a campaign biography of Theodore Roosevelt, who called him “the best American I ever knew.” Indeed, Riis’ 1901 autobiography, “The Making of an American,” was a bestseller, an exemplar of immigrants entering the melting pot and becoming useful citizens. But he is best known today as a pioneering muckraker for his hair-raising account of tenement poverty, “How the Other Half Lives”(1890), and the stunning photographs he took to illustrate those overcrowded conditions. He is also credited with inspiring the passage of legislation banning the suffocating “dumbbell” air-shaft design and promoting livable housing for the poor.

more from the LA Times here.