“So, kiddies, how do you rob your victims?”

“Easy, mister. We just wait ’til they pass out then relieve them of their belongings like this…”

The pioneering newspaper reporter and social reformer Jacob A Riis photographs children as they demonstrate how they supplement their pocket money in the dog-eat-dog 1890s.

Riis publicized the crisis in poverty, housing, education, and crime in Manhattan at the turn of the 20th century, and the City Museum of New York celebrated his work back in October 2015 (when W42ST originally published this “Photo Finish”). Jacob A Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half was the first major retrospective of his work in the US since the City Museum’s seminal 1947 exhibition, The Battle with the Slum. It unites the museum’s archive of Riis’s images with his papers from the Library of Congress.

MCNY summarized his work: “Jacob Riis was a skilled and resourceful communicator: his success as an agent of reform derived not only from his passion and actions, but from his innovative use of the media of his time. Indeed, Riis is remembered today as much for his revolutionary photographs as for his writings. Ironically, he did not consider himself a photographer and did not see any intrinsic value in his images beyond their immediate use in illustrating his words. But the images made an indelible mark on his audiences. Jacob A Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half presents these unforgettable photographs in the context of Riis’s lectures and publications and exposes the methods by which a media-savvy journalist became a national force in social reform.”


This story originally appeared in the “Hell’s Kitchen Nights” issue of W42ST magazine in October 2015.