By Peter Kupfer
SAN FRANCISCO, 16 JANUARY 2009 - As the son of
an African immigrant prepares to assume the highest office in
the land, Tom Buk-Swienty's portrait of muckraking journalist
and reformer Jacob Riis is both instructive and inspiring.
Through his ground-breaking articles, lectures, books and -
most famously - photographs, Riis exposed the abysmal living
conditions suffered by tens of thousands of immigrants in New
York in the early 1900s and played a pivotal role in efforts to
reform the city's obsolete housing and health codes.
Riis knew all too well the harsh realities of immigrant life. A
native of Denmark, he came to the United States in 1870, at the
age of 21, to escape a disastrous love affair and quickly fell
upon hard times. At his lowest ebb, he was no better off than
the "unwashed poor" he would later write about - a vagabond who
slept in alleyways and begged for food at the back doors of
restaurants. Only a chance encounter with a businessman saved
him from the ignominious fate of many other immigrants - a
short, hard life followed by an anonymous burial in the
potter's field on Hart Island.
Given Riis' made-for-Hollywood story (a story that,
surprisingly, Hollywood has yet to make), it would have been
tempting to romanticize his life. Fortunately, Buk-Swienty, a
Danish historian and journalist, resists that temptation. While
Riis is presented in a largely positive light, the author does
not shy away from revealing his warts.
We learn, for example, that Riis was not above embellishing
news stories - a not uncommon practice among journalists of the
day (indeed, the intense competition between newspapers in
turn-of-the-century New York gave rise to the term yellow
journalism). A newspaper article Riis wrote about Coney Island
during one of the worst blizzards in New York history described
how a cat and a dog survived the storm by sailing out to sea on
a wooden plank. In fact, Buk-Swienty points out, Riis never
made it to Coney Island that day (the ferries were out of
service) and the story was based on second-hand accounts.
"Either Riis' subjects had exaggerated and he had not
challenged their hyperbole, or he had given rein to his own
imagination," the author observes.
Nor was Riis likely to win the Mr. Congeniality award. "His
personal mannerisms could be off-putting. He spoke loudly and
animatedly when he was excited, and he could be curt and
arrogant when displeased," Buk-Swienty says. Ironically,
although Riis was an ardent advocate for immigrant families, he
was not very attentive to his own family. "He put his heart and
soul into his work, often at the expense of his family life,"
the author notes. "Despite his public outrage over the fact
that the children in the slums were denied schooling, he did
not participate actively in his own children's education."
Worse still, Riis' views of immigrant groups could be
narrow-minded and even racist. Of Jews, he wrote: "Money is
their God. Life itself is of little value compared with even
the leanest bank account." Italians are described as "swarthy"
and "hot-headed," Germans as "heavy-witted," and blacks as
lacking "moral accountability." As for the Chinese, Riis
opined, "There is nothing strong about him except his passions
In Riis' defense, Buk-Swienty points out that he was a product
of his time, a period when the ruling class in New York
believed that people who were not Protestant, Anglo-Saxon and
from northern Europe existed on a lower rung of civilization.
"Riis was a typical Victorian moralist who would never have
dreamed of questioning the superiority of Christian values and
who saw himself as superior to people of color," the author
The Other Half (W. W. Norton, 448 pages) is more than
a compelling portrait of a pioneering journalist, it is an
illuminating social history of New York during a turbulent
period in the city's history. New York around the turn of the
20th century was truly a tale of two cities. Immense wealth and
abject poverty existed side by side, but rarely did the two
worlds intersect. While the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, J.P.
Morgans and other robber barons were throwing lavish
parties in their opulent mansions uptown, more than half the
city's population lived in crowded, crime- and disease-ridden
It was Riis, more than any other journalist, who exposed this
netherworld and helped persuade city officials to clean it up.
Using a vivid, lively writing style reminiscent of Dickens, he
took his readers on sometimes harrowing tours of the slums.
Here's his account of a police raid on a "stale beer" dive:
"[We] groped [our] way in single file through the narrow rift
between slimy walls to the tenements in the rear â€¦ A room
perhaps a dozen feet square, with walls and ceiling that might
once have been clean - assuredly the floor had not in the
memory of man, if indeed there was other floor than
hard-trodden mud - but were now covered with a brown crust
that, touched with the end of a club, came off in shuddering
showers of crawling bugs, revealing the blacker filth beneath.
Grouped about a beer keg that was propped on the wreck of a
broken chair, a foul and ragged host of men and women, on
boxes, benches, and stools. ... In the center of the group a
sallow, wrinkled hag, evidently the ruler of the feast, dealt
out the hideous stuff."
Although Riis was primarily a print journalist, he is perhaps
best known for his powerful photographs of tenement life.
Indeed, he is widely regarded as the first photojournalist. He
was the first reporter to use flash photography to capture
images of the dark, squalid precincts of the poor. It was these
images, even more than his writings and lectures, that helped
persuade authorities to adopt new housing legislation.
Ironically, Buk-Swienty point out, many of these now-classic
images were probably taken by other members of his entourage.
The Other Half starts slowly. The first 50 pages or
so, describing Riis' early years in Denmark and his romantic
obsession with the young woman he eventually marries, are
rather dull and clichÃ©d. It is only after he arrives in New
York that the book comes to life. It's well worth the wait.
The Other Half: The Life of Jacob Riis and the World of
By Tom Buk-Swienty
Annette Buk-Swienty (Translator)
Hardcover: 448 pages
W. W. Norton (August 2008)
Peter Kupfer is a former editor on the National /
Foreign desk at The San Francisco Chronicle. His freelance
articles on the arts, travel and technology have appeared in
The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, Asian Art News and
other publications. He last wrote on Dying Darfur: Sudan
Genocide for Culturekiosque.com
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