By the city government’s own broader definition of poverty, nearly one of every two New Yorkers is still struggling to get by today, fully 125 years after Jacob Riis seared the Gilded Age public conscience with crude photographs of the Lower East Side tenements that revealed “How the Other Half Lives.”
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In the 21st century, the biblical prophecy about the permanence of the poor is not belied by the proliferation of $500-a-night hotels in the Bowery and $5 million apartments. Nor is it nullified because most New Yorkers who pay more than 30 percent of their income on rent might also own an air-conditioner or other creature comforts, or because the 60,000 or so people identified as “homeless” are legally guaranteed some form of shelter.
Inequality in “two cities” is not new. But few crusaders have rallied the public to its implications. While video of Eric Garner gasping “I can’t breathe” as police officers restrained him on Staten Island last year can still shock, viewers today have been largely numbed to the power of imagery.
The technology of photography was still novel when Jacob Riis invoked it to make the poor of his generation visible. People actually paid to view their plight.
His lantern slide shows (delivered with a Danish- accented high-pitched voice) and illustrated articles and books harnessed the nascent potential of grainy flash photography. His evangelical zeal defined the agenda of public officials, including Theodore Roosevelt, the former police commissioner, who was fortuitously catapulted into the presidency just as Riis’s own immigrant success story, “The Making of an American,” was being published.