Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives Now At MCNY

jacob-riis-museum-city-new-york-tommy-bootblackWe're in the thick of the holiday season here in New York City, when our thoughts and activities all seem to revolve around friends, loved ones, family, baked goods, glittery parties, chocolate, maybe some presents, and, one hopes, the lives and struggles of those less fortunate. Homeless families, hungry children, the working poor unable to pay rent… by the city's own definition of poverty, almost 50% of New Yorkers are barely getting by, or worse. None of this is breaking news of course, but what's eye-opening (and disheartening) is that it's been a solid 125 years since we've known this to be true, thanks to Jacob A. Riis's pioneering piece of photojournalism, How the Other Half Lives. For the first time in decades, the Museum of the City of New York is diving deep into its collection of Riis's photography for a retrospective, and they've paired the work with dozens of a rare ancillary items from the man's professional life.  


Jacob A. Riis' Revealing New York’s Other Half at The Museum of the City of New York

Riis's revolutionary idea was to bring a camera, with brand-new flash technology, into New York City's most notorious slums, record whatever he found, and then–here's the part that no one had ever done–show the rest of world what life was like for "the other half". The work sold a ton of newspapers for the Herald Tribune and Evening Sun, it made Riis rich and famous (his touring slideshows were extremely popular), and actually brought about social and political change, improving the housing and other resources of the city's impoverished classes. The photos on display at MCNY have lost none of their power over the past century-plus, and the museum does a great job of placing each shot within its physical place in the city. You've walked along these streets, stood in these very spots, seen the glassy luxury condos spring up where people once paid two cents for a drink and a place where they could pass out in (relative) peace.


What To Expect From Jacob Riis at MCNY

The photos are amazing in both their intimacy and immediacy, though I wish there had been many more on display, and that they were larger (bring reading glasses, if applicable!). There's a very abridged version of one of Riis's slideshows playing somewhat awkwardly on the back wall of the gallery, and you should definitely sit and watch this, both because the images are so much larger and because it's interesting to hear all of Christian moralizing that went into the photographer's commentary. There are two complementary exhibitions at MCNY right now that are also well worth your time: Affordable New York, a fascinating look at private- and government-subsidized "public housing"  from 1867 to the present day; and Activist New York (below), which explores how people have spurred on political, economic and/or social change (on issues ranging from historic preservation to gay rights to religious freedom) by taking it to the streets.    


More Information on The Museum of the City of New York

The Museum of the City of New York is located at 1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street, and is open everyday from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. The Riis show is open through March 20, Affordable Housing through February 7, and Activist New York is ongoing. 


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