Inside the squalid tenements of 1890s New York City

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Inside squalid poor areas of 1880s-1890s New York City
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Inside the squalid tenements of 1890s New York City
1887: A group of men loitering in an alley known as 'Bandits' Roost', situated off Mulberry Street in New York City. (Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)
circa 1890: A young girl, holding a baby, sits in a doorway next to a garbage can, New York City. (Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)
Members of the 'Short Tail' gang, which terrorized New York city's east side, gather under the pier at the foot of Jackson Street, later Corlears Hook Park, located at the lower east corner of Manhattan, 1887. (Photo by Jacob Riis/Archive Farms/Getty Images)
1887: An Italian immigrant rag-picker sits with her baby in a small run-down tenement room on Jersey Street, New York City. (Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)
circa 1890: A Bohemian family of four makes cigars at home in their tenement. Working from six in the morning till nine at night, they earn $3.75 for a thousand cigars, and can turn out together three thousand cigars a week. (Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)
circa 1890: An Italian immigrant man smokes a pipe in his makeshift home under the Rivington Street Dump, New York City. (Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)
circa 1890: View of a back-lot house on Bleecker Street between Mercer and Greene Streets, adjacent to an excavation site, New York City. (Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)
circa 1890: Men and women make neckties inside a tenement on Division Street, Little Italy, New York City. (Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)
circa 1890: Portrait of a disheveled shoeshine boy named Tommy, holding a shoeshine kit on a sidewalk, New York City. (Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)
circa 1895: Two young boys laugh and steal items from a vendor's pushcart as two men talk in the foreground, on Hester Street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, New York City. (Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)
January 1896: Crowd stands in front of the frozen facade of a burned building on Crosby Street at Jersey Street, New York City. (Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)
circa 1897: Mrs Benoit, a Native American widow, sews and beads while smoking a pipe in her Hudson Street apartment, New York City. (Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)
circa 1890: Children play with barrels in an alley between tenement buildings in Gotham Court, 38 Cherry Street, New York City. (Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)
December 1895: A Native American, Mountain Eagle and his family make handicrafts while one son plays violin in their tenement at 6 Beach Street in New York City. (Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)
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In the last decades of the 19th century, lower Manhattan was a densely packed collection of slums. With waves of immigrants entering the city and land at a premium, landlords bought up buildings and subdivided them into ever smaller partitions, housing dozens of people together in squalid, dark, unventilated rooms. Buildings often covered 90% of a standard 25-by-100-foot lot, with windows and ventilation only at the front and back.

The Tenement House Acts of 1867 and 1879 attempted to impose standards of safety, ventilation and health on dwellings, which eventually led to the adaptation of a "dumbbell" design, where a narrow central shaft provided light and ventilation to the interiors of tenements.

Jacob A. Riis, a Danish-born immigrant who had spent periods of his life in utter destitution, was working as a police reporter in lower Manhattan, and wanted to find a way to better represent the squalor and abject poverty of the people and environments he encountered.

In 1887, he learned about the recent invention of a magnesium powder-based flash photography technique which could illuminate the dim tenement interiors in which he worked. He added photography to his journalistic repertoire, and combined his documentary images with essays on the conditions of the urban poor.

Though his audience was initially limited to lecture presentations at churches, in 1889 he managed to publish an 18-page article with his photos in Scribner's Magazine. The following year, he expanded that into a book entitled How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York.

The book was well-received, offering a view into urban poverty that had been previously ignored. Theodore Roosevelt became a personal friend and admirer of Riis and supporter of his causes of slum reform and renewal. The book remains a highly influential early work in the history of socially concerned photojournalism.

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