|Jacob A. Riis: How the Other Half Lives |
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To publicize the social ills that would be described in his book How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York (1890) Jacob A. Riis gave lectures using lantern slides of his photographs and here is an account of one he gave on 25th January 1888 in New York:
THE SOCIETY OF AMATEUR PHOTOGRAPHERS OF NEW YORK.
The regular monthly lantern exhibition was given at the rooms of the Society. 123 West 30th Street, on Wednesday evening, January 25th, and was very largely attended.
The subject was, "The Other Half How it lives and dies in New York," and was explained in an informal way by Mr. Jacob A. Riis, who for ten years past has been the police reporter of the New York Press. The object of the exhibition was to picture to the audience the exact condition of the lowest phases of life as it at present exists in New York City. Many of the pictures were obtained by the aid of flash magnesium light.
The exhibition opened with a view of a well-known alley in Cherry Street, around which, it was said, 1,000 persons lived.
Other views included the "Bandit's Alley," near Mott and Hester Streets, where murderers and thieves congregate and enjoy life in what is known as the "stale beer dives."
"Bottle Alley," near Baxter Street, contained many children. A capital picture was that of an old tramp and thief in front of his broken-down shanty. About this Mr. Riis said he obtained the consent of the tramp to stand for ten cents, but he put his pipe in his pocket. So the tramp struck for higher pay, and on giving him five cents more he posed with his pipe as Mr. Riis desired. Another excellent picture illustrated how young boys first practice picking pockets.
The object of attack was a drunken man lying down in a stupor. The two boys were on each side overhauling the pockets with decided energy. They term the pickings their winnings, never call it stealing. At a place called "Hell's Kitchen," near Eleventh Avenue on Thirty-ninth Street, they experienced considerable difficulty, were attacked by some of the women with brickbats, which broke one of the plate-holders. The Italian rag-pickers' alley in South Fifth Avenue was shown; the women at work were suddenly dispersed by one word from the Italian proprietor before their pictures could be caught. An Italian tea-kettle was shown, somewhat large in size, stuffed with dirty linen. In the morning the kettle was used as boiler for boiling the clothes; at night it was employed for making tea.
A typical group of New York toughs called "The Growlers," was exhibited, hidden away under one of the dump docks on the East Side. They were factory hands, and got young boys to go after beer which they would drink in these places. A single picture of a young lad eight years old carrying a large pail of beer was quite effective. Other views of the back of tenement-houses showing the multiplicity of clothes-lines; of Baxter Street, crowded with humanity; of Mott and Pell Streets, showing Chinese life; the interior of a Chinese opium den, with the Chinamen laying off in their bunks under its influence: of the Chinese altar in the Joss-house, some of the latter being taken by aid of flash-light, were extremely interesting. Also pictures of the interior of the cheap lodging-houses, the Tombs, the Five Points House of Industry, the Catholic Protectory, with children playing around and Sister Irene in the foreground, who is said to have saved 13,003 children; also the exterior and interior of an uptown branch of the Boys' Lodging House of the Children's Aid Society, established through the beneficence of the late Mrs. Robert L. Stuart. All of the above were exceedingly interesting as showing the beneficent power which these institutions exert in this city.
Portraits of children side by side, of how they looked when taken from their hovels, and cruel and wretched parents, and after they were cleaned and cared for by Mr. E. Gerry's "Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children," illustrated more forcibly than any word picture the necessity and usefulness of that institution.
Several interesting portraits of noted thiefs and forgers, both male and female, taken from the Rogues' Gallery, were shown; Ex-Governor Moses, of South Carolina, had the handsomest looking face.
A fine picture, showing four or five detectives holding a refractory thief while he was having his photograph taken, was quite comical.
A good interior of a police office, showing the sergeant recording the facts, with the policeman standing near the rail, holding a foundling wrapped up in a black shawl, and messenger and others looking on, was quite effective and well lighted.
Several views of the Arabs in their hovels in Washington Street were exhibited. The women lay around on the floor without any bedding, and were completely embedded and begrimed with dirt. These were secured by aid of the flash-light. There were also two or three excellent interiors of the School for Blind Children.
The exhibition terminated with several excellent views of the New York Morgue, interior of Bellevue Hospital, exterior and interior of the Penitentiary on Blackwell's Island, of the Lunatic Asylum on Ward's Island, and of the burying ground on Hart's Island.
Mr. Riis related many interesting episodes and facts. It was hard to realize the enormity of the degradation and poverty constantly present in the great city. He remarked that four thousand children were barred out from the public schools, because there was not room enough to accommodate all who could attend.
At 10 o'clock the entertainment terminated.
- Λ For the books by Jacob A. Riis - Jacob A. Riis, 1890, How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons); Jacob A. Riis, 1892, The Children of the Poor, (London: Sampson Low, Marston, & Company).
For the socio-political context and biographical details on Jacob A. Riis - Alexander Alland Sr, 1993, Jacob A. Riis: Photographer and Citizen, (New York: Aperture); Janet B. Pascal, 2005, Jacob Riis: Reporter and Reformer, (Oxford University Press, USA); Bonnie Yochelson, & Daniel Czitrom, 2007, Rediscovering Jacob Riis: Exposure Journalism and Photography in Turn-of-the-Century New York, (New York: New Press)
- Λ For a lantern lecture by Jacob Riis - "The Society of Amateur Photographers of New York, Lantern Exhibition",The Photographic Times and American Photographer, vol. XVIII, February 3, 1888, no. 333, pp. 58-59.
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