Purchase a physical copy of Jacob Riis’s Camera here: https://www.amazon.com/Jacob-Riiss-Camera-Bringing-Tenement/dp/1629798665/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=jacob+riis%27s+camera&qid=1603498679&sr=8-1
-[George the Puppet] Hello, I’m George and I’m here to say: welcome to our fun show for the day. Fun 4 The Disabled is here to present Children’s Books That Heal, a cool new event. Today’s book is called “Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children” by Alexis O’Neill, illustrations by Gary Kelley. This book is a biography of Jacob Riis who was a photojournalist and social reformer during the Tenement Housing Crisis of New York City. And now, here’s Vanessa to introduce our reader for today.
-[Vanessa] Thanks, George! Today, actor Michael Herzovi will be reading the book “Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children” by Alexis O’Neill with illustrations by Gary Kelley. In the late 1800s, New York City faced massive poverty and overcrowding with the Tenement Housing Crisis. This book reveals the impact that Jacob’s photos had in bringing awareness of the immense poverty and living conditions. These photos ultimately led people to take action. This can be applied to our own lives as it is important to raise awareness and help those around us. Now let’s give it up for today’s actor, Michael Herzovi.
-[Michael] “Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children” by Alexis O’Neill, illustrated by Gary Kelley. The book opens with two quotes from Jacob Riis: “I hate darkness and dirt anywhere, and naturally want to let in the light… I love to mend and make crooked things straight.” “The power of fact is the mightiest lever of this or of any day.”
Twelve-year-old Jacob hated Rag Hall. The rest of Ribe, Denmark, was filled with trim homes, sweet grass meadows, and fresh wind blowing from the sea. But Rag Hall was a rat-infested, ramshackle dwelling. As soon as he earned extra money, Jacob donated it to the poor in Rag Hall to help tidy things up. Fifteen-year-old Jacob had a mind of his own. Although his schoolmaster father expected him to become a teacher, Jacob went to Copenhagen and became a carpenter. Twenty-one-year-old Jacob was determined and persistent. When the rich mill owner’s daughter, Elisabeth, turned down his marriage proposal, Jacob sailed to America to earn his fortune and ask her again. [Boat horn blaring] But when Jacob arrived in New York in 1870, he discovered that jobs for immigrants were hard to find, hard to keep.
Undaunted, Jacob scrambled to earn a living– carpenter, coal miner, mule driver, muskrat hunter, field hand, salesman, and more. He took lessons to learn how to operate a telegraph machine, but he ran out of money before he finished the course. Often penniless, Jacob slept in abandoned barns, fields and cemeteries, and in homeless shelters that were so filthy and disease-ridden, he vowed to put an end to them someday.
One winter evening, Jacob sank down on some steps, weak with hunger, destitute, homesick for Denmark, lovesick over Elisabeth, and utterly alone. As luck would have it, the principal at his telegraph school walked by. Jacob explained his plight. The principal knew Jacob to be a bright young fellow, so he gave Jacob a note recommending him for the reporter’s job at the New York News Association.
To Jacob, reporting was a noble calling. Back in Denmark, Jacob had helped his father edit a newspaper. He admired how reporters made people’s lives better through their stories. Before long, Jacob landed a job at the South Brooklyn News. He saw pushcart vendors being robbed, children laboring in sweatshops, homeless boys begging on the streets. Day after day, Jacob learned the business– first as a reporter, then as editor, and finally as owner of the newspaper. And through all of this, his love for Elisabeth burned.
At last, Elisabeth agreed to marry him. Jacob sold the newspaper to pay for his voyage to Denmark for the wedding, and he and Elisabeth moved to New York. When their first son was about to be born, Jacob knew he needed to earn enough to support his growing family. Jacob landed a job as a police reporter, chasing down crime stories for the New York Tribune for the princely sum of twenty-five dollars a week. And his life began to change.
Jacob’s office sat a few blocks from Mulberry Bend, New York City’s worst slum, and right across from police headquarters. He often worked until two or even four o’clock in the morning. Then he would put on his hat, adjust his spectacles, and walk the whole foul length of Mulberry Street, through Bandit’s Roost, Bottle Alley, Baxter Street Alley, Ragpicker’s Row, across Five Points, and down to Fulton Ferry on his way home to Brooklyn.
What Jacob saw in those neighborhoods gripped his heart. Tenement buildings obscuring the skies, apartments jammed with immigrants: Slavs, Italians, Jews, Irish, Chinese, families toiling in stifling sweatshops, the stench of mold and kerosene choking the air, privies overflowing in courtyards, children without green places to play. Jacob wrote vivid articles about life in the tenements. Yet his words failed to ignite change. The appalling conditions did not improve. If only Jacob could show others what he saw in the slums– rooms packed with people, rooms dark both day and night. How could he shine light into those places? Then one day, Jacob found the answer… Blitzlicht, a special flash powder! When photographers ignited the powder, dark places lit up brightly. Perfect!
To get accurate, truthful images, he would photograph the tenants. And he needed to capture them at night, when the rooms were crowded. He asked two amateur photographer friends to help him. One midnight, the men hauled heavy equipment up pitch-dark, narrow tenement staircases. They flung doors open and fired. Boom! Click! Blinding light! Smoke everywhere! Next room. Boom! Click! Terrified tenants bolted through the windows. They dashed down fire escapes. He captured them– on camera.
When his friends tired of the late-night hours, Jacob bought a small four-by-five inch wooden box camera. He practiced taking pictures. He practiced using flash powder. Twice, he set fire to his dwellings. Once, he even set fire to himself. But he didn’t give up. When Jacob reported illegal, extreme overcrowding… fifteen adults and a week-old baby sleeping in a room meant for four people– and there wasn’t even a bed! … the Board of Health ignored him. Furious, he carried images– still dripping from the dark room– to the board. Look! See them! The board paid attention. That’s the solution! Words and photographs together. This was the way to show people the truth.
For his ground-breaking presentation, Jacob projected life-size photographs with a stereopticon as he delivered a passionate, story-rich lecture about the children and families in the tenements. This tour of the slums opened the eyes of church groups, missions, and charity groups to the plight of the city’s poor who lived in squalor. In 1890, Jacob’s words and photographs were published in a book, “How the Other Half Lives”. The book grabbed readers’ hearts. His book also grabbed the attention of the newly appointed president of the Police Board, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt left a card on Jacob’s desk that said, “I have read your book, and I have come to help.”
In Roosevelt, Jacob found a kindred spirit. At night, they walked the streets of Mulberry Bend together. Both expressed outrage at the conditions they saw. Both were incensed at the treatment of the poor. Both burned to provide safe shelters for the homeless; eradicate unhealthy, unlivable slums; create clean, green parks and school playgrounds for the city’s children. Jacob inspired Roosevelt. Roosevelt promised to use his power to make changes. And he did.
Ten years later– filthy homeless shelters? Gone. Bandit’s Roost? Gone. Bottle Alley, Baxter Street Alley, Ragpicker’s Row? Gone, gone, gone. In place of these slums, Mulberry Bend Park opened. A place for children and families. A place flooded with sunlight, feathered with soft green grass, bubbling with children playing. In the end, Jacob Riis, who delved into social issues at the age of twelve, spent his life bringing light into dark places. He did it with his camera, with his words, with his tenacity, and with his belief in doing what was right. But mostly, he did it with his heart. And because of him, the lives of tenement children and their families changed for the better.
-[Vanessa] Wow. Thank you, Michael Herzovi, for that wonderful reading. Kids, did you enjoy that book? I know I sure did. And I learned a lot, too! Jacob Riis was a hero and fought for social justice while many families faced poverty and horrible living conditions. With his camera and resilience, Jacob shed light on the situation and brought about change. I hope this story inspires you to bring about change in your own community and to help those around you. The first step in being a part of the fight for greater social justice is to know the problems around you. Parents and friends, I hope you can continue to read books and the news to learn about how you can help your community and make a difference. If you have any thoughts to share, please put them in the comment section below. Thank you once again, Michael Herzovi, for reading “Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children” by Alexis O’Neill with illustrations by Gary Kelley. If you enjoyed this video, please subscribe to our newsletter and check out more of our Fun 4 The Disabled Presents: Children’s Books That Heal series. Take it away, George! Bye bye!
-[George the Puppet] Thanks for watching “Jacob Riis’s Camera: Bringing Light to Tenement Children” by Alexis O’Neill, illustrations by Gary Kelley. Now look, heroes come in many shapes and sizes, and Jacob Riis capturing his view was priceless. With the skill of photography, he illuminated social issues and took a stand, and made us all change, will continue. This is why it’s important for us to use our own skills, use our talents and harness our will. So we can make change and build trust to help those around us. So let’s take it sky high, and yo, thanks for stopping by.