Jacob Riis’ Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement – “Five Cents a Spot”


During the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, the United States experienced a surge of immigration due to the rise of big business within American society. After the Civil War, bold and daring entrepreneurs, also referred to as Captains of Industry or Robber Barons, took the risks of developing gigantic industries[1]. These large operation businessmen gained power and profits within demanded industries, including oil refining, steel, sugar, consumer goods, meatpacking, textiles, and many others[2]. The big businesses sought for low-waged and low-skilled workers. Oftentimes, immigrants, women, other minority groups, and children took up work in factories, sweatshops, and mills[3]. The expansion of the labor market and the need for low-waged workers inspired many immigrants to leave their native countries and make the journey to America. Many immigrants dreamed of the better quality of life and wealth they heard American provides it citizens. Unfortunately, their high hopes did not come true. In most cases, when immigrants came to America, they experienced prejudice, discrimination, horrid living and work conditions, limited say in politics, and long and strenuous workdays for little pay[4].

Although many people either witnessed or experienced poor living and work conditions, few spoke up about them. Therefore, these conditions continued, and little change was done before evidence was exposed to the public. Jacob Riis, a journalist and documentary photographer, made it his mission to expose the poor quality of life many individuals, especially low-waged workers and immigrants, were experiencing in the slums[5]. Riis himself faced firsthand many of the conditions these individuals dealt with. At the age of 21, Riis immigrated to America[6]. He experienced the adjustment to a new country and prejudice or discrimination many immigrants underwent. For a few years, he held various jobs before being hired as a police reporter[7]. This position exposed Riis to the horrors of tenement buildings, including “that in some tenements the infant death rate was one in 10”[8]. The personal and professional exposure to New York City’s underprivileged communities encouraged Riis to stimulate change by exposing the terrible conditions found in these areas.

Furthermore, Riis focused his work on impoverished neighborhoods of New York City. In his book “How the Other Half Lives” published in 1890, the American public viewed Riis’ photography and read experiences of those living in poor conditions. Riis’ muckraking journalism, coined by Theodore Roosevelt, gave journalism a new role in politics and social life[9]. Due to Riis’ creative work and advocacy for those whose voices were not heard, living and working conditions improved over time for the working class.

Riis’ photojournalism piece Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement – “Five Cents a Spot” highlights the key issues he was advocating to change. In 1889, Riis published the image to show to the American public the cramped and dirty conditions many individuals lived in every day. Many low-waged workers and immigrants found housing in tenements, or “narrow residential buildings…[that] Often several hundred people would crowd into”[10]. These large housing facilities did not offer many resources to their residents. Typically, tenement buildings were remarkably overcrowded, lacked running water, had little to no electricity, and had poor lightening[11]. Visitors of The Big Flat tenements in Manhattan, New York reported “‘dampness and vegetable organisms’ on the walls…[and] dust and dirt covering the stairs ‘like a carpet’”[12]. Furthermore, there were garbage, rodents, and odors the lingered in the hallways[13]. Even knowing these terrible conditions, thousands of individuals moved into the housing structures due to their affordability. Due to the high demand for housing from the working class, “landlords had no incentive to make improvements” [14] to the tenement buildings.

As seen in the featured photograph, the residents put up with the poor conditions in order to have a space to stay. In his photography, Riis includes the residents of the small room and their belongings. In the image, there are at least six individuals in the frame living in a space fit for one or two residents. They appear to be sleeping on either a thin mattress or the floor. Also, the residents are surrounded by their belongings. On one side of the photograph seems to be pots, pans, appliances, and storage containers. There are bags and clothing hanging from the ceiling. The residents in the photograph appear to be uncomfortable, sleep deprived, dirty, and discontent with their living arrangement. Due to the way Riis choose to photograph the tenement room and its residents, the audience can see how cramped and low quality the living conditions for the working class were during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century.

[1]David Emory Shi, America: A Narrative History (Brief Eleventh Edition) (New York: W. W. Norton, 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 854-5.

[6] The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, “Jacob Riis” (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Jacob-Riis).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid., 854-5.

[10]Michael R. Montgomery, “Keeping the Tenants Down: Height Restrictions and Manhattan’s Tenement House System, 1885-1930.” The Cato Journal 22, Number 3 (2003): 496.

[11] Ibid., 498.

[12]Robert H. Bremner, “The Big Flat: History of a New York Tenement House.” The American Historical Review 64, Number 1 (1958): 59.

[13] Ibid., 59.

[14]James C. Mohr, The Radical Republicans and Reform in New York During Reconstruction (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1973), 141.

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