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  • Flowers and ThugsThe Slum Photos of Jacob Riis
  • Kristine Somerville

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Jacob Riis, Organized Charity. Children’s Aid Society, ca. 1890, Jacob A. Riis Collection, MCNY,

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During the winter of 1888, New York police reporter Jacob Riis’s children had scarlet fever, and from Christmas until Easter they seemed to waste away in their sickbeds. On an early spring day, Riis saw a small green shoot pushing through the snow in his yard. He replanted it in a flower pot and placed it on the windowsill of the children’s room, and weeks later it bloomed into a bright yellow dandelion. Delighted, they roused from their torpor and tended the weed. “It beat all the doctor’s medicine,” Riis recalled. His children thought that the slum kids he often talked of needed flowers too. The Riis family gathered blooms from the meadow near their house in genteel Richmond Hill, and he brought the bouquets to his Mulberry Street office on Newspaper Row amid New York City’s rickety frame tenements.

Children, barefoot and dirt-covered, more used to “dodging a helpful hand thinking that it was a blow,” approached Riis suspiciously, but when they saw that he meant well, “they went wild over the posies,” grabbing them from his arms. Most had never seen daisies and buttercups and violets before. Overwhelmed, Riis sat in the gutter and wept. The next day he wrote a letter to the editor of the Tribune, recounting the experience. He asked, “If we cannot give them fields, why not flowers?” He was certain that an armful of daisies would keep the peace better than a policeman’s club. People responded to his letter by bringing him bags, barrels and boxes of flowers to distribute.

Though he knew his story had the sentimental quality of something by Charles Dickens, Riis liked to recount his “flower project” because it embodied many of his core beliefs: small efforts can put a human face on poverty; and loving thy neighbor is worthless if not translated into action.

His flower campaign was not new—the Children’s Aid Society had built greenhouses around the city to connect urban children with nature—yet his views on welfare reform were. Newspaper “slumming stories,” as they were called, depicted poverty as shameful and a sign of laziness, using words such as “sinful,” “degenerate,” “wicked” and “dangerous” to characterize the poor. Riis did not believe that the slum dwellers were a breed apart or that poverty was their fault. They were a product of their circumstances. If children of the poor were raised in a healthy environment, they would thrive. He asked, “You do not expect a rose to grow out of a swamp?”

Owing to high levels of immigration and an overcrowded environment, Manhattan was particularly cruel to its young. With no welfare [End Page 100] structure or safety net, children were routinely abandoned on the streets. Some formed small gangs that engaged in petty crimes, playing among the opium dens, bars, lodging houses and slaughterhouses. The luckier ones found periodic employment as newspaper boys, flower sellers, porters, domestic servants and errand boys or worked in factories or sweat-shops. According to the 1880 Education Act, they were required to attend school until the age of eleven, but family survival came before education, and truancy was common.

Being a newspaperman, Riis understood the value of the press as a weapon against poverty, and he set out to help wealthy and middle-class New Yorkers visualize the lives of the poor. He put the tenement district at the center of his reporting but grew frustrated with the failure of his stories to effect change. “I wrote about it, but it seemed to make no impression.”

Riis discovered a revolutionary weapon—photography. The recent invention of flash powder used to create artificial light made it possible to take pictures at night or indoors. With it he could illuminate the dark alleys and poorly lit garrets, bringing to light places that many could not imagine.

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Jacob Riis, ca. 1904, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs...


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