Jacob August Riis

Jacob August Riis (1849-1914), Danish-born American journalist and slum reformer, created new stan dards in civic responsibility regarding the poor and homeless in his reporting of New York City slum conditions.

Jacob Riis was born May 3, 1849, in Ribe, Denmark, one of 14 children. His father was a school-teacher. Young Riis early showed a sensitive disposition and a faith in people that would sustain him through difficult days. Trained in carpentry, he emigrated to New York in 1870. Riis never forgot the bitter experiences with poverty and ill-treatment that followed, but they did not mar his hopeful outlook. In 1874 he became editor of the South Brooklyn News and began developing his skills as a reporter. In 1877 he joined the New York Tribune and was assigned to the Police Department in the slums of the lower East Side.

Although Riis was in some respects sentimental in outlook, he was able to investigate and report conditions that made cynics of less hardy journalists. Riis turned his energy and keen eye for human-interest stories into a weapon for rousing New Yorkers to the evil state of their slums. His articles for the Tribune, the Sun (which he joined in 1890), and elsewhere probed every aspect of human circumstances: sanitary conditions, family life, the fate of women and children, and even treatment of dead victims of hunger and cold. Riis's articles and exposés turned light on dark tenements, vice centers, lax police administration, firetraps, and other areas of civic neglect. How the Other Half Lives (1890) brought him fame and introduced him to his lifelong friend and associate Theodore Roosevelt, who termed him the most useful citizen in New York.

Although Riis never saw beyond the conditions to the causes, those conditions were so in need of correction that his reports constituted major reform. Out of Mulberry Street (1898), The Battle with the Slum (1902), and Children of the Tenement (1903) continued to report investigations which resulted not only in cleansing the city of sore spots but made Riis influential as writer and lecturer in cities throughout the land. Thanks to his efforts, Mulberry Bend, notorious for its crime and decay, became a park; its Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood House is symbolic of his benign crusades in behalf of children.

Riis married his childhood sweetheart in 1876 and raised a family. She died in 1905, and 2 years later he married his young secretary. Riis's energy and earnest concern took him about the country and finally cost him his health, which rest cures could not renew. He died May 26, 1914, at his summer house in Barre, Mass.


Further Reading on Jacob August Riis

Riis's The Making of an American (1901; new ed. 1970) is a folk masterpiece. His childhood memoirs are in The Old Town (1909). A biography is Louise Ware, Jacob A. Riis: Police Reporter, Reformer, Useful Citizen (1938).

Additional Biography Sources

Meyer, Edith Patterson., "Not charity, but justice": the story of Jacob A. Riis, New York: Vanguard Press, 1974.

Jacob A. Riis: photographer & citizen, London: Gordon Fraser, 1975.

Ware, Louise, Jacob A. Riis, police reporter, reformer, useful citizen, Millwood, N.Y.: Kraus Reprint Co., 1975, 1938.