Light In Dark Places

An immigrant from Denmark Jacob Riis became a Social Reformer in New York (1849-1914).

One of my first post in this blog was on Jacob Riis’s biography. He grew up in an overcrowded town Ribe in Denmark. He lost some of his siblings due to accidents and sicknesses, and this background helped him to see the injustices of the living conditions of the immigrants who came to New York at the same time as him. He nearly lost his life due to hunger and poverty in New York in the 1870s.

In Lower East Side of Manhattan the living conditions were unbearable for lots of immigrants and Jacob Riis, then a police reporter documented what he saw in his book “How The Other Half Lives”. He had hired somebody to take photos for him, but soon he learnt himself how to use a blitz powder to be able to light up the dark places.These photos can be seen at the City Museum of New York. In 2014, 100 years after his death in New York, he was celebrated by an exhibition on “Light in Dark Places” in Washington D.C., New York, Copenhagen and now at last in Ribe, his hometown in Denmark. The photos have been developed once more from his old negatives on his photo roll.

I was so pleased to be able to see the exhibition in Ribe not long ago. It was so unique to see it so close to where he lived as a child and an adolescent before he immigrated to the States in a time where so many other Scandinavians tried to escape poverty by immigration.

The Ribe Art Museum has let me use some of their lecture material and photos from their homepage (Google translated):

For many years, the United States has applauded Jacob A Riis for his photo-journalistic work, which in the late 19th/early 20th century helped shed light on, and improve the deplorable social conditions of thousands of people in the rapidly growing American metropolis of New York.

As a journalist, Riis wrote about life in the city’s slums and the outrageous consequences,  of increasing poverty for thousands of people who had immigrated to the United States. Filthy living standards, unemployment, crime and insanitary conditions were integral elements in the everyday lives of many immigrants, who quickly experienced the dark side of the ‘New World’ dream in the west. Furthermore, when in the late 1880s Riis started to photograph the slum neighborhoods of New York’s Lower East Side, suddenly real-life faces were added to the need and misery, which until then people could only read about in newspapers and magazines, hear about by word of mouth or attempt to imagine.

For me, the most touching picture is the one with “Little Katie”. Jacob Riis meets her and asks what she was doing, and she said:

“I scrubs”!

Katie was nine years old and took care of her younger siblings. Jacob Riis wrote that the look in her eyes convinced him that she meant it that she was doing a good job cleaning.

Jacob Riis I scrubbs

“I scrubs” Little Katie as Jacob Riis met her. The Jacob Riis photo belongs to Museum of the city of New York

She is a small and very serious “adult” like any child with a too big responsibility. As I see her, she is also gravely malnourished. Her cheeks and hands are swollen, and I believe she lacked all kind of vitamins and minerals.

In my opinion, her non-emotional facial expression shows the lack of love from parents. The consequence will follow her the rest of her life. Her broken English will also be a hindrance to a good future.

Riis asserted in his books, articles and speeches that the owners of the overcrowded and dark tenements in New York Lower East Side were the ones who caused the problems by taking high rents for hiring a tiny room.

From the exhibition in Ribe

Jacob Riis udstilling

Translation of the wall sheet. (Some of it strangely up-to-date).

“A light in Darkness.”

Riis didn’t trust the politicians of New York, especially not the Democrats, who kept their positions in the Government by cheating and giving benefits to their party members.

In 1894 a Republican candidate William L. Strong was chosen as the Mayor of New York City. He initiated lots of reforms of housing, education and sewerage. Strong appointed a young T. Roosevelt to become a police commissary. Roosevelt, who later became president, had read Riis’s book “How the Other Half Lives” and went to meet the author.

Riis and Roosevelt became close friends, and Riis convinced Roosevelt that the police hostels and some of the worst tenements ought to be closed down.

Riis managed help establish three small parks in the slum at Mulberry Bend and to have seven tenements demolished.  He wished to have torn down seventy of them.

Next time I go to Ribe, I would like to take the guided walk on Jacob Riis. We will be shown where he lived as a child and other buildings of interest from his childhood and youth. I plan to make a post on it so you can see the town.

If ever I get the chance to go to New York again I would like to see the museum where these photos are placed permanently.


  1. I have been to the Tenement Museum in NYC. The immigrants of that era lived a very hard scrabble life as can been seen from that picture. The poor child looks like an adult who has been worn down by life.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Jumped over from the Senior Salon
    Another fascinating post, Maria. Thank you. The photo of that poor little girl broke my heart.

    Unfortunately, although the courts in NYC tend to be tenant-friendly, the laws have many loopholes that favor slumlords and others who neglect *basic* building maintenance (set in place in exchange for campaign support years ago). That makes it difficult to bring cases to court. An entire “profession” has emerged in the last 20 or so years to help organize entire buildings of tenants to do what is necessary to prevail, avoiding illegal evictions in some cases. Personal experience, btw.

    Immigrant, black and hispanic communities and individuals, unfortunately, are still hit the hardest, and frequently are afraid to speak up lest they end up with no homes at all. Things have improved, but not enough. TRULY disgraceful with all the money in NYC.
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMORE dot com)
    ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”


      • Things aren’t quite as extreme in most cases, Maria – but even the apartments in the projects [govt. subsidized housing] in the poorest neighborhoods are truly dreadful. Even the schools, btw. Education advocates, big supporters of increased public school funding in opposition to the voucher system (where money is diverted to private schools), frequently post pictures you can barely believe – filth, vermin, broken windows and toilets – beyond disgraceful that they be allowed to exist in America today.

        Even when the poorest have access to slightly better conditions, kids who go to school hungry or malnourished can’t learn. Food programs are woefully underfunded and likely to have their budgets cut even further if our current president is allowed to proceed unopposed.

        Sadly, these in charge right now are uber-wealthy and seem determined to make things worse not better. They seem to lack empathy totally. Those of us who are not – and were not – supporters of this administration are extremely concerned but powerless, in the main, to do much about it – thus the protests and marches you read about these days.


  3. That grave little face, swollen and seriously lacking in nourishment either from food or love … that little face should serve as a poignant reminder that we are an ever shrinking globe and that tolerance and equality is never more needed than now. Irrespective of faith, of means, of colour of gender all people deserve a chance. This is an excellent and timely post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have one rule in life … I only EVER say what I mean. How I wish I could gather up all the neglected and just nurture them and feed them. You are indeed a very lovely spirit.


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