Jacob Riis Documents Tenement Life


United States

Labor & Economy Media & Culture Race & Ethnicity

At the height of the Gilded Age, a period marked by extreme economic inequality, Danish immigrant and photojournalist Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives, an account of immigrant tenement life in the densely populated Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan. The book provided a detailed tour of poor immigrants’ living conditions for its middle and upper class readership. Riis’ book was monumental in crediting the plight of poverty to environmental conditions. Critics have noted, however, that his writing tended to divide the poor into “deserving” and “undeserving” camps and reproduced several popular racial/ethnic stereotypes of Jews, Irish, and Italians. Despite these limitations, Riis’ work is believed to have conveyed genuine sympathy for the poor he photographed. He became known as a social reformer and an advocate against slum housing.