Riis, Jacob 1849-1914
(Jacob August Riis) American social reformer, journalist, autobiographer, and biographer.
Through such works as How the Other Half Lives (1890), journalist Riis exposed Americans to the miseries endured by New York City's slum residents. His was not the first writing on the living conditions of the urban underclass, but among that literature it was original in its use of the relatively new photographic medium to illuminate its text. Even more significant was the fact that Riis did not merely draw national attention to tenement conditions: he offered recommendations for their remedy. Principal among his solutions was housing reform, not just the making of laws to limit the number of people who could be crammed into a given living space, but also the destruction or renovation of old buildings. Individually, and as a leader in a larger social reform movement that included such pivotal figures as Jane Addams, Riis would have an enormous impact on urban life in America. During his time, he saw the passing of numerous zoning laws and initiatives such as New York state's Tenement House Law of 1901, as well as the demolishing of thousands of tenements and other run-down areas, and the building of new structures. In part because of Riis, a century later the cities of the United States would have more parks, more safe and well-lit buildings, and more space per person than they did in the late 1800s.
Riis was born the son of a schoolteacher in the town of Ribe, Denmark, about which he would later reminisce in The Old Town (1909). At the age of twenty-one, in 1870, he emigrated to the United States and spent the next seven years wandering the northeastern part of the country. He barely made a living during that time, and his career as such did not begin until 1877, when he obtained a job as a police reporter for the New York Tribune. In 1888, he took a position with the Evening Sun. Through his newspaper work, Riis became closely acquainted with New York's poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods. This became the impetus for his first and most famous book, How the Other Half Lives, a landmark in the history of slum reform. On the popularity of his book and his own growing reputation, Riis became a well-known lecturer and activist who called for childlabor reform, creation of school playgrounds, improvements in the city water supply, and new housing. His activities brought him into contact with the city police commissioner, Theodore Roosevelt, and the two became lifelong friends. Throughout the 1890s, Riis continued to publish books, conduct lectures, and engage in reform activities that included a...
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