Images of “The Other Half”

Homeless boys sleeping.

There is an explosion and a flash of light.  A revolver has fired against the black midnight of New York’s lower east side.  But there is no crime: the cartridges’ destination is a frying pan, and their purpose to is ignite enough light for a clumsy camera to take a picture.  In the late 1880s, a reporter for the Tribune and the Associated Press bureau is trying to document scenes he’s frequented during the course of his job.

Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914) was a pioneer in the field of photojournalism.  An immigrant from Denmark, he published these early images in a book, How the Other Half Lives, in 1890.  Recently named by the Library of Congress to “The Books That Shaped America,” it displayed the lives of the poor living in tenement houses, and the homeless, in the nation’s largest city.  Riis at first hired a photographer, but it wasn’t long before he bought a new camera that could be portaged throughout the city, and taught himself how to use it.  He caught his clothes on fire more than once, and had to smother a blaze his equipment started in a home where several blind people were sleeping.

An Italian woman sorts rags in a cellar.
His book helped reformers get their point across.  It was so successful at making the middle and upper class aware of the situation that the government soon provided sewers, plumbing and trash collection for the area around Mulberry Street known as “The Bend.”  Better apartments at lower rents replaced the old ones.  Squalid police lodging houses were permanently shut down.

Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt called Riis “New York’s most useful citizen.”   Offered several upper level government jobs, he declined, to continue what he considered more important, sharing the plight of the poor.  “He has been my brother since I met him,” TR said.




 “Hunting River Thieves”

One hundred and twenty-five years ago, How the Other Half Lives presented the photographs in a form which was overdrawn by notable artists.  These were in stark contrast to the pictures printed today in halftones, which break them into a series of dots.

The timeless photos have beauty in spite of the despicable circumstances that prompted them.  The beauty of a child, of a soul, of a bridge over a river at night.  The beauty of hope that some American citizens would get a better chance, made possible by the dedication of Jacob Riis.

Some of the information in this post comes from the preface by Charles A Madison for How the Other Half Lives (New York: Dover, 1971)  

Photo of Jacob Riis

Richmond Hill Historical Society photo

By the by, the 2012 “Books That Shaped America” exhibit may still be browsed online at  What others do you suppose made the list?  Guess before you look.

Birds of Israel


Gulls flapped around our boat as the sun glanced off the Sea of Galilee.  I looked up, and webbed feet were creating an unusual shadow picture on the vessel’s translucent roof.



We were just beginning a two-week pilgrimage in the nation of Israel to learn more about the life of Christ.  From our guide we heard of the history of the people who live here – and toured excavation after excavation of ancient sites.



Songs from a blackbird – close to caves where David hid from King Saul.

Since in my book I wrote about the Roosevelt family’s sojourn to Europe and the Middle East in 1872 and had never been there myself, I was eager to compare my accounts with theirs.  “What I did awe for was to think that on the very hill which the church covers was the place where Jesus was crucified,” fourteen year-old Theodore wrote in his diary.  We too saw the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, as well as the Garden of Gethsemane, the Wailing Wall, the Jordan River, the Dead Sea, and the city of Bethlehem, where in 1872, Theodore Sr. had to talk the locals into leading them on a tour because there had been fighting in the area.  Things don’t change much in the Holy Land.


Would I see some of the same birds he saw 143 years ago?  “Teedie” reported collecting the skins of a finch, bulbul, quail and warbler.  These did not present themselves in the places I was, but I did see a few (the area is still a migration flyway and very popular with birders).

'On top of Masada.'

At the base of Masada, a high stone fortress where a Jewish rebels staved off the Roman army circa 70 A.D., there were friendly blackbirds who would fly to your hand for a crumb of bread.  High above, striped grey pigeons looked over the desert.

'Amazing view from inside the temple gates.  This is the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim shrine that was built in 688 AD over the site of the Jewish temple.  First covered in lead, it was replaced with aluminum in 1965 and then gold in 1993.'



A symbol of peace, this white dove rested in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem as hundreds of people prayed below.  Shalom.

Central Park Today


In the early 1900s immigrants were moving to the neighborhoods by Central Park.  By its seventieth anniversary in 1928, the parks department had installed the first children’s playground, and, during the Depression, Mayor LaGuardia used federal funds to add twenty more.  Workers made roads more accommodating to car traffic, built new boathouses, and laid out permanent softball fields.

Rock and roll concerts were added the park’s attractions in the 1950s.  Budget cuts in the 70s led to “barren dustbowls” where meadows had been, and broken benches, lights, and playground equipment.  Stories of jogger attacks and crimes prevailed in the news.

Enter Betsy Barlow Rogers as its administrator in 1979.  She began a hands-on partnership between the private and public sectors: funds were raised, neglected landscapes and buildings fixed, and, best of all, respect for the park restored.  “It’s important to see the way the park is used; you’ve got to touch it, feel it,” she said.  By 1993 $100,000,000 had been donated.  The Luce Foundation gave $1,300,000 for education projects, which extended opportunities for children far past the original milk station of the 18oos.  There is now zero tolerance for garbage and graffiti in the park — for maintenance, it has been divided into 49 geographic zones, each one headed by a gardener who oversees grounds, technology, and volunteers.





DSCN1957                                                                     author photos

On a sunny afternoon last October, before reading about its history, I spent some time in Central Park.  I didn’t know much about the deterioration or restoration, only that it’s a land between the skyscrapers where New Yorkers and their guests enjoy open spaces.  I sat on the velvet of a carriage seat looking out over green grass and waterscapes, and felt as privileged as those who planned it ever did.

^     ^     ^

For more information, visit and  Rogers has authored several books, including “Rebuilding Central Park, A Management and Restoration Plan” (1987)

Park for the People

In 1873 when the Roosevelt family moved into a new home in uptown Manhattan, it was two blocks away from Central Park.  This satisfied the head of the household’s insistence on fresh air and physical exercise while they were away from the summer seashore.


150 Years of Central Park

Sketch of Central Park soon after it opened.  ( 

The rapid growth of New York City in the Nineteenth Century and accompanying dirt from animals and industry made people realize they needed a place to go where the air was pleasant and nature was visible.  Besides, certain society members desired to match the public parks of Europe they’d seen on grand tours.  The state legislature debated it for three years but in 1857 appointed a commission which held a contest for the best design.  Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux won, and subsequently began supervising thousands of workers who would move 2,500,000 cubic yards of dirt and stones.  Swamps between 59th and 106th Streets  had to be drained, while the law of eminent domain forced 1,600 persons in shantytowns and rented houses to find somewhere else to live.



According to Lilly Fellow Priscilla Donkle, an Indiana high school math teacher who studied the geometry of Frederic Law Oldmsted’s landscape designs, until Olmsted began the project he had never done this type of work.  He was in fact a noted political author.  He believed that all people should have access to green spaces in the city, so his park afforded many open areas for people to enjoy.  The Central Park design included native plantings and natural settings that became a trademark in all of his later work.  This was Olmsted’s first, but he went on to literally create the profession of landscape architecture in this country.  He designed the Boston Emerald Necklace park system, the United States Capitol grounds, the Biltmore grounds, and many others of note in the United States.
^    ^    ^
Central Park opened for ice skating in December of 1858, the year Theodore Roosevelt was born, but was not officially completed until 1873 when his family took up residence in their grand home.  The park covered 840 acres at a cost of $10,000,000.  Manmade buildings stood amid  270,00 trees and shrubs anchored by their nature-made roots.  Thirty-six bridges connected carriage roads and walking paths.  Since at the beginning it was a fair distance from neighborhoods of the “middling” class, it served mostly as a playground for the wealthy.  Thousands of fashionably-dressed New Yorkers attended outdoor concerts there on Saturday afternoons.
^    ^    ^
Less elite families started to visit regularly on foot or on streetcars.  Park keepers in grey uniforms enforced the rules, because Olmsted believed the public should be trained in the use of, and restrained in the abuse of, the area.  Children played croquet on the lawn, while a fenced-in menagerie of animals, including deer, bald eagles, cockatoos, raccoons and monkeys formed the beginnings of a zoo.  Soon the city subsidized the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art nearby.  Entrepreneurs entered the scene with refreshment stands and a carousel turned by a horse and mule.
^    ^    ^
Eventually the massive park would fall into disrepair, and the people for whom it was built had to step up in a major way.
^     ^     ^
Additional sources:,