Tuesday, 24 February 2009


Since my blog "A REAL FRIEND TO THE POOR" 17th. February, I have deepened my research into the life, times and achievements of Jacob Riis and have no hesitation in proclaiming him a New York City Titan. What he almost single-heartedly brought about - radical improvements to the living standards of tens of thousands of poor, wretched souls - was way beyond that of anybody else's achievements.

The squalid conditions that prevailed in Manhattan centering on Lower East Side had been of concern to those with a moral sense of right and wrong long before Riis took up the call. As far back as 1842, Charles Dickens visited the Five Points area in Lower East Side, which was a legendary neighbourhood of filth and vice. Dickens quite used to the most unpleasant districts in London was appalled by what he experienced in NYC and wrote:-

"Ascend these pitch-dark stairs, heedful of a false footing on the trembling boards, and grope your way with me into this wolfish den, where neither ray of light nor breath of air, appears to come....." " Here too are lanes and alleys, paved with mud knee-deep, underground chambers, where they dance and game...........out of a number of ruined houses, open to the street, whence wide gaps in the walls, other ruins loom upon the eye, as though the world of vice and misery had nothing else to show: hideous tenements which take their name from robbery and murder: all that is loathsome, drooping and decayed is here."

He describes some of the residents thus:-

"....cowering down with long dishevelled hair.....gibbering.....vacant eye, fierce wild face, the gloomy picking of the hands and lips....the munching of the nails: there they were all, without disguise, in naked ugliness and horror."

Jacob Riis tirelessly sought to bring the poverty and vile living conditions to the widest possible audience, whether it be by journalism, books, lecture tours or perhaps his most powerful persuader, the black and white photograph pioneering the technique of flash powder. Some further examples of his brilliant portrayals of the plight of many New Yorkers:-

A typical Lower East Side tenement apartment comprising approx 250 sq ft, no running water, bath or toilet was home for this family of seven.

A ladies lodging house

A mens 5 cents-a-night lodging house

I make no apology for revisting this remarkable man other than I regret not accepting earlier his rightful place among the NEW YORK CITY TITANS.

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