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The spiritual roots of the greatest reporter of America

Happy Birthday to Jacob Riis, born May 3, 1849

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Jacob Riis' flash photograph captured a Madonna-like dignity of a poor woman living in a totally dark cellar in 1880s' Lower East Side.

 

In October 1872, Jacob Riis thought he had reached the nadir of his two year struggle in New York City as a new immigrant from Denmark. He was without a friend, cent in his pocket, or home. These were “nights of hopeless misery” and being “utterly alone in the city, with the winter approaching.”

Riis wandered over to the Hudson River and wondered if his life could go on. Facing the river with loneliness and hopelessness, he asked himself, “What if…? Would they [family and friends back in Denmark] miss me much?” As he was working up to a decision to throw himself into the waters, a little black and tan dog, as cold and lonely as Riis himself, pressed up against the man for warmth. Riis felt as if the dog was God’s hand holding him back from the brink. “And the love of the faithful little beast thawed the icicles in my heart.”

 

Young Jacob Riis. Illustration by Tony Carnes/A Journey through NYC religions based on an image from a 1900 advertisement.

 

Jacob Riis went on to become the most famous reporter in early 20th century America. His journalism led the way to abolishing unlivable tenement housing and police force corruption and brutality. His photographs and writing caused the enforcement or creation of housing codes requiring fire escapes, windows, toilets and running water. His expose of the likely transmission of cholera through the city's water supply led to today's clean drinking water. Riis' reporting also led to playgrounds for public schools and decent housing for the homeless. He summed up his difficult life and work in the classic book about New York City's poor immigrants How the Other Half Lives. Riis traced his success as a reporter to a profound spiritual renewal.

Back in 1872, Riis felt that God had reached out to him through the camaraderie of that scrawny black and tan dog. Now determined to survive, Riis went back to the slum neighborhood to seek shelter at police headquarters. It was a rough place that he fell into. The homeless were stacked tight on cold hard wood floors without bedding and at night fell to thieving and fighting.

When Riis complained that someone had stolen from him, the desk sergeant dragged Riis and threw him out on the steps. The poor dog who was waiting for Riis sprang to his new master’s defense, taking a bite at the policeman’s ankle. The sergeant picked up the small dog by his back legs and beat his brains out on the steps of police headquarters.

 

Riis stayed in this police lodging room at Church Street Station

 

It was a horrible moment but one that Riis remembers as another act of God in helping him on his way to standing up for the poor. He wrote, “The outrage of that night became, in the providence of God, the means of putting an end to one of the foulest abuses that ever disgraced a Christian city [the treatment of the homeless], and a mainspring of the battle with the slum as far as my share in it is concerned. My dog did not die un-avenged.”

 

Illustration of Riis' dog in his Autobiography

 

Full of anger and empty in the stomach, Riis left the city, riding on trains and working at a variety of odd jobs.  But within a year and a half Riis was back in the city. He cast around for some way to make it. He tried many things without success.

Then, he wondered if he could do reporting, drawing upon his experience as a child working with his Dad to put out a small rural weekly in Denmark. Despite a heavy Danish accent, he was able to sign on as a neighborhood reporter for a Long Island weekly. Maybe, he should have been suspicious that he got the job too easily. After doing the work, he didn’t get paid.

Trying his hand at bookselling door to door, his efforts to sell sets of Shakespeare’s plays to miserably poor immigrants also didn’t work very well. He ended up homeless and broke again.

Plopping down on the steps of the Cooper Institute, which later became Cooper Union College, he contemplated the misery of life in the big city.

Miraculously, a former teacher saw him on the steps and asked what Riis was doing. After Riis confided his failure at bookselling, the man asked, “Now, how would you like to be a reporter, if you have got nothing better to do?” The low estimation of reporters didn’t discourage Riis. He was already at the bottom, going a little lower wasn’t going to make much difference. Besides, he had hoped that he could do journalism someday.

So, Riis was overjoyed, perhaps surprising his old teacher. But as far as Riis was concerned, this was another intervention of God into his life. Riis wrote, “What had happened stirred me profoundly…I saw a hand held out to save me from wreck[age] just when it seemed inevitable; and I knew it for His hand, to whose will I was at last beginning to bow in humility…”

Riis was a pretty feisty, strong-willed person and hadn’t much wanted to ask God or anybody else for help. He had even torn up a list of Danish contacts in New York so that he wouldn’t be tempted to sponge off them for help. He thought that turning to God was even more of a weak-willed way of making a go in life.

Yet, now, Riis began to see that reliance on God could create a humbler, more compassionate and even stronger person. He stumbled over to a nearby church and, faint from hunger, leaned against its stone walls.

 

Grace Church, Greenwich Village, Manhattan, 1897

 

“In the shadow of Grace Church I bowed my head against the granite wall of the gray tower,” Riis wrote,  “and prayed for the strength to do the work which I had so long and arduously sought and which had now come to me…” Later, Riis recalls this as the moment that he received his vocational call from God. Only later did he experience a personal call of salvation, though the movement from one to the other was psychologically connected.

After some humbling experiences on the job, Riis came to realize that he wasn’t very honest, agreeable, or living up to journalistic ideals.

After a short stint in a news service in Manhattan, Riis worked for a Brooklyn weekly, becoming editor after two weeks. Although the paper was a politically partisan paper designed to survive for only one election cycle, Riis was able to convince the owners to give him credit to take over ownership. However, he had some conflicts with the political sponsors of the paper. He wanted to report objectively, and they wanted him to attack their opponents in any way possible. He wanted to fight corruption, but he had a no-show political job as a court translator. The friction seemed to have moved Riis to look inward for a deeper faith.

The newly born newspaper “magnate” was walking down the street from his office in downtown Brooklyn when he was attracted by the hymn singing at a Methodist revival meeting. He went into the service, sat down and felt himself the object of the Spirit of God. “In a Methodist revival—it was in the Old 18th Street Church—I had fallen under the spell of the preacher’s fiery eloquence,” Riis wrote. “Brother Simmons was of the old circuit-riders’ stock…and he brought me to the altar quickly…”

 

Eighteenth Street Methodist Church, Brooklyn, 1880s. Church archives.

 

There was an impulse among some religionists of the time that faith and the world does not mix. So, Riis fell into this habit of mind. He recalled, “In fact with the heat of the convert, I decided on the spot to throw up my editorial work and take up preaching.” At the same time many churches were railing against Sunday papers as a sacrilege.

 

Perhaps the only surviving portrait of Reverend Ichabod Simmons, who converted Jacob Riis at a revival meeting in 18th Street Methodist Church, Brooklyn, New York. Found in Connecticut. Archival restoration by A Journey through NYC religions

 

Fortunately, the pastor believed Riis should follow his vocational calling as a journalist. Riis says that Rev. Ichabod Simmons told him, “’No, No Jacob… not that. We have preachers enough. What the world needs is consecrated pens.’”

Riis took Simmon’s advice as his life’s theme. “Then and there I consecrated mine. I wish I could honestly say that it always came up to the high ideal set then. I can say though...that scarce a day has passed since that I have not thought of the charge then laid upon it and upon me.”

 

Jacob Riis. Photo restoration by A Journey through NYC religions

To find the photos and illustrations used in this article, Journey searched all of the archives on Jacob Riis, church storage rooms and archives, private collections, and newspaper records, large and small.

 

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