The Battle of the Slums Revisited

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View of Mulberry Bend published by Jacob Riis in How the Other Half Lives, 1890. Columbus Park now occupies the left side of the street.

The Battle of the Slums Revisited, is how this 1950 edition of the Cooper Union Forum might be titled. Fifty years after Jacob Riis's famous speech on the subject at the Great Hall, his son, Roger William Riis, addresses the same issue, tenement conditions and the need for affordable housing. Alas, the younger Riis is not the firebrand his father was.  In measured if not stultifying tones, the reporter and roving editor for Reader's Digest presents an array of both historical and modern-day "dragons" standing in the way of housing reform. The historical ones include greed, indifference, race discrimination, etc. He paints a sad if familiar picture of turn-of-century tenements. The practical test police used to see if a hallway was ill-lit was if you saw a baby playing in the hallway there was sufficiently illumination; if you stepped on the baby first, there was not. As early as 1889 statistical evidence showed poor blacks were being charged higher rents than poor whites. Turning to the current situation, Riis lists six new dragons, although some seem to have survived the intervening fifty years quite comfortably, greed and race discrimination among them. The cost of land has now become a factor, however, and "the microscopic minds of bankers."

Riis's argument is two-fold: he sings the virtues of public housing, comparing them to well-run businesses that, contrary to public opinion, bring more money to the government than they cost to maintain. At the same time he argues strenuously against the equally common misconception that housing for the working poor is unprofitable and therefore of no interest to the private sector. In particular, he argues that the presence of blacks does not economically depress a neighborhood. Rather, when a neighborhood is already on the downslide, slumlords increasingly rent to blacks. Marshaling a numbing array of statistics, Riis attempts to show that today's bankers and entrenched real estate interests make a tidy profit on the poor, mainly by charging disproportionate rents and providing almost no services in return. His description of absentee landlords and the myriad of shell corporations employed to protect owners is depressingly familiar.

The question and answer period that follows is an interesting glimpse of mid-century political rhetoric. The meeting seems "packed" with socialists and communists who, one after the other, rise and give obviously prepared soapbox speeches against private ownership of property and free enterprise. Riis refuses to take the bait, however, defending the current system, once again making newly-built public housing sound like Shangri-La, and putting his faith in General Thomas Farrell, at that time head of the New York City Housing Authority. The recording breaks off in the middle of the Q&A.

Riis had no way of knowing that he did his research during the short-lived Golden Age of public housing. Following the end of World War II, the housing market was flooded by returning veterans and, soon after, their young families. This pressure led to the construction of vast developments of publically-owned units. Then, at some point in the mid-fifties, for reasons that are still hotly debated, a mass exodus of these same families either caused or was precipitated by a change in the population of public housing. The slow decline began in which the poor and minorities were in effect "warehoused" in increasingly substandard and badly-maintained dwellings. While Riis's indignation at the way the poor are housed remains as fresh-sounding today as it did then, his championing of the government as landlord now sounds more than a little suspect.

Jacob Riis (1849-1914) came to America as a penniless immigrant from Denmark. His reaction to the poverty he found here turned him into one of the first and most prominent social activists. Rather than simply plead for charity to be delivered from on high, he forcefully stated his case that the poor deserved basic elements of human comfort such as clean air, sufficient light, and drinkable water. He seized upon technological improvements in photography as a way to further his aims. As Jimmy Stamp, writing for smithsonian.com noted:

The recent invention of flash photography made it possible to document the dark, over-crowded tenements, grim saloons and dangerous slums. Riis’s pioneering use of flash photography brought to light even the darkest parts of the city. Used in articles, books, and lectures, his striking compositions became powerful tools for social reform.

Jacob Riis strikes one today as a curiously "modern" figure, with his "slum tours" for the concerned well-to-do, and his expert playing of the media. Disturbingly, one could argue that not much has changed in the city he is most associated with. As NPR commentator Robert Siegel puts it:

Poverty struck Riis as abnormal — even for the various immigrant groups whom he regarded as exotic. When he lived in New York City, about 40 percent of the population was foreign-born. It's just about the same share today.

Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

WNYC archives id: 150177
Municipal archives id: LT1349