09 August 2010

Tragic Tales: The Tenements and the Muckraker

By Karen Mercury

Jacob Riis emigrated to New York in 1870 from Denmark. Unable to find work, he was forced to spend the night in police station lodging houses. His experiences led to ground-breaking writing with the New York Evening Sun, establishing our version of "muckracking" journalism, busting things open before the public was even aware of them. "The poor were the victims rather than the makers of their fate."

Riis went into the slums of New York City at night. He was the first to use "flash powder" to light up the interiors of these dark dens. Teddy Roosevelt, the NYC Police Commissioner, read Riis's How the Other Half Lives, a monumental life's work, and shut down lodging houses. Thus although the conditions he reported were indeed tragic, Riis's commitment to social reform helped re-shape how politicians and the well-to-do viewed their responsibility toward the city's poorest citizens. He wrote:

It was the stir and bustle of the trade, together with the tremendous immigration that followed upon the year of 1812 that dislodged them. Large rooms were partitioned into several smaller ones, without regard to light or ventilation, the rate of rent being lower in proportion to space or height from the street; and they soon became filled from cellar to garret with a class of tenantry living from hand to mouth, loose in morals, improvident in habits, degraded, and squalid as beggary itself.

While reckless slovenliness, discontent, privation, and ignorance were left to work out their invariable results, until the entire premises reached the level of tenant-house dilapidation, containing, but sheltering not, the miserable hordes that crowded beneath mouldering, water-rotted roofs or burrowed among the rats of clammy cellars.

The proprietors frequently urged the filthy habits of the tenants as an excuse for the condition of their property, utterly losing sight of the fact that it was the tolerance of those habits which was the real evil, and that for this they themselves were alone responsible.