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017 Riis and White differences

Foundations of America

QU201 Prof. Scott Leone

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Home Ragtime Articles of Interest 017 Riis and White differences

017 Riis and White differences

“Housing for the poor was Riis’s story.  But he had a vision of the dismantling of Europe, the uncluttering of ancient lands, the birth of a new aesthetic in European art and architecture.  He himself was a Dane,” (17).  Jacob Riis was a tireless newspaper reporter and reformer, while Stanford White was a successfully rich architect who had the design of the first Madison Square Garden on his record.  At this point in time these two men were very different.

Jacob Riis was the third child of fifteen and was born in Ribe, Denmark on May 3rd 1849. He worked as a carpenter in Copenhagen before immigrating to the United States in 1870.  It was very hard for Riis to find work and, he was often forced to spend the night in police station lodging houses.

Riis did a variety of menial jobs before finding work with a news bureau in New York City in 1873. The following year he was taken in by the South Brooklyn News. In 1877 Riis became a police reporter for the New York Tribune. Aware of what it was like to live in poverty and observing the poverty in New York City, Riis was determined to use this opportunity to employ his journalistic skills to communicate this to the public. He constantly argued that the "poor were the victims rather than the makers of their fate".

In 1888 Riis was employed as a photo-journalist by the New York Evening Sun. Riis was among the first photographers to use flash powder, which enabled him to photograph interiors and exteriors of the slums at night.  This allowed him to venture into the slums of the houses the poor lived in and document the conditions through picture.  He also became associated with what later became known as muckraking journalism.

In December 1889 an account of city life, illustrated by photographs, appeared in Scribner's Magazine. This created a great deal of interest and the following year, a full-length version,
How the Other Half Lives, was published. The book was seen by Theodore Roosevelt, the New York Police Commissioner, and he had the city police lodging houses that were featured in the book closed down.

Riis also wrote over a dozen books including Children of the Poor (1892), Out of Mulberry Street (1898), The Battle With the Slum (1902) and Children of the Tenement (1903).

Stanford White is one to be described as the most prominent architect of the Gilded Age.  This was a time of pomp and peace and prosperity. Never before were the gaps between the rich and poor so sharply divided as they were in those years. Without personal income tax to hit the immense fortunes in America's industries, millionaires flourished and paraded their wealth for the entire world to see, and this is including Stanford White.  He was born right into the wealth on November 9th, 1853.  He was a talented and creative draftsman who in 1880 joined what came to be known as the most prominent architectural firm in the country.  His career consisted of riches and designing lavish homes for the Astor’s and Vanderbilt’s, and designing known structures such as Madison Square Garden.  His parties always hit the front page of the tabloids, and he was a lavish entertainer with a penchant for young, beautiful women.  Stanford White had the life until he was murdered by Harry K. Thaw for having an affair with his wife, Evelyn Nesbit.

With such different views and upbringings, Jacob Riis and Stanford White were unlikely to be able to work together.  In Ragtime, Riis as a reporter went into the slums of where the poor immigrants lived and documented with pictures.  He found out that “many people believed that filth and starvation and disease were what the immigrant got for his moral degeneracy,” (17).  But Riis believed that a great start in helping these immigrants would be air shafts to bring in light and air, and ultimately bring better health.  Riis decides one day he will interview Stanford White, the well-known architect, to see if he has ever designed housing for the poor and his thoughts on air shafts.  But on arriving to the docks where White is, Riis finds him unloading marble fountains and silk wall panels.  Riis saw White would never think of designing housing for the poor, for they were two different men with two very different points of view.

The introduction to Jacob Riis’, How the Other Half Lives, states this:  "Long ago it was said that 'one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.' That was true then. It did not know because it did not care. The half that was on top cared little for the struggles, and less for the fate, of those who were underneath, so long as it was able to hold them there and keep its own seat." [18]. This quote by Riis I feel is directly geared towards the Stanford Whites of then.  The rich were rich and happy, and the poor were living in filth but out of the way of the wealthy.  So, therefore, the wealthy did not care about the conditions the poor were living in.  The interaction between Riis and White shows this in a small aspect.





Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow

Last Updated on Tuesday, 13 September 2011 14:27  


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