'How the Other Half Lives': Photos capture New York slums in 1890

By Claudine Zap

It might be hard to imagine in the now-gentrified neighborhoods of lower Manhattan, but at the beginning of the 20th century, they were marked by slums teeming with newly arrived immigrants who lived in horrific conditions.

Danish photographer and social reformer Jacob Riis, an immigrant himself, became a New York Tribune reporter in 1877—and he made it his mission to make sure the world saw New York City though his eyes. His 1890 book, “How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York,” exposed in graphic terms the squalor of New York's East Side slum district. It is still considered “a landmark in the annals of social reform.”

Riis documented the conditions typical for immigrants using an early form of flash photography, which enabled him to literally shed light on extreme poverty. The book pushed tenement reform on to New York’s political agenda and prompted then-Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt to call him "the most useful citizen of New York."



NYC 1890's

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)

NYC 1890's

Three young street arabs huddle together for warmth in an areaway, Mulberry St, New York.   (Photo by Jacob A Riis/Getty Images)

NYC 1890's

A Jewish cobbler ready for Sabbath Eve in a coal cellar in New York, where he is living with his family. This photograph is one of a series taken of New York's slums, using the newly invented technique of flashlight photography. (Photo by Jacob A Riis/Getty Images)

NYC 1890's

Children of Mott Street Industrial School, New York, salute the Stars and Stripes, and repeat the Oath of Allegiance. This photograph is one of a series taken of New York's slums, using the newly invented technique of flashlight photography. (Photo by Jacob A Riis/Getty Images)

NYC 1890's

Italian immigrant families in New York on Jersey Street, living in shacks.   (Photo by Jacob A Riis/Getty Images)

NYC 1890's

The Mulberry Bend area in New York's Little Italy.   (Photo by Jacob A Riis/Getty Images)

NYC 1890's

Hester Street in New York's Lower East Side.   (Photo by Jacob A Riis/Getty Images)

NYC 1890's

circa 1900: Three girls jump rope while a group of children and adults form a semicircle around them on the rooftop playground of the Hebrew Institute, East Broadway and Jefferson Streets, Manhattan, New York City. (Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)

NYC 1890's

circa 1899: Carriages sit in the mud on either side of Willet Street between Stanton and Houston Street prior to the construction of 'Bone Alley Park,' New York City. (Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)

NYC 1890's

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)

NYC 1890's

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)

NYC 1890's

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)

NYC 1890's

1901: A man and a young girl peer into the courtyard of a tenement complex in 'Bottle Alley,' New York City. The photograph was used as evidence in a murder case. An 'X' is marked on the side of a staircase (R) to indicate the location where the murderer fired shots. (Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)

NYC 1890's

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)

NYC 1890's

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)

NYC 1890's

circa 1890:  A man sorts through trash in a makeshift home under the 47th Street dump, New York City.  (Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)

NYC 1890's

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)

NYC 1890's

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)

NYC 1890's

circa 1890:  Two young girls, both ragpickers, stand at a staircase in Baxter Alley, Little Italy, New York City. The alley was known as 'Ragpickers Row.'  (Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)

NYC 1890's

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)

NYC 1890's

circa 1890: Lodgers in a crowded and squalid tenement, which rented for five cents a spot, Bayard Street, New York City. Twelve men and women slept in a room not thirteen feet either. It was photographed by flashlight. (Photo by Jacob A. Riis/Museum of the City of New York/Getty Images)

NYC 1890's

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)

NYC 1890's

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)

NYC 1890's

Portrait of Jacob Riis, circa 1890s. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images).