Beautiful New York

A Celebration of the City

The Top 100 Greatest New Yorkers — #30

Jacob Riis (1849 – 1914)


During his time as a police reporter, Danish immigrant Jacob Riis saw firsthand the filth and degradation of New York’s poorest neighborhoods. Wondering how the wealthiest city in the wealthiest nation on earth could allow such squalor, he concluded that people on the avenue must be ignorant of the plight of those in the alleyway. Attempting to enlighten his fellow New Yorkers with photographs of the Five Points, Riis found the tenements so dark that no image could be recorded. Becoming one of the first photographers to regularly use flash, Riis created stark images of the desperation he sought to expose and aid. The resulting book, How the Other Half Lives, remains a crucial landmark in the history of muckraking journalism and social reform. Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt immediately offered his help to Riis and both men lived to see the City Beautiful Movement that replaced the Five Points. Ironically, today, we tend to use the phrase “How the other half lives” to describe the life of those far richer than ourselves.


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