New York Architecture Images-Lower East Side

Jacob Riis Houses


James MacKenzie, Sidney Strauss and Walker & Gilette.


East 6th to East 10th St., east of Ave. D.  




International Style I  




Apartment Building









Five residents reflect on 50 years of life in the New York City Housing Authority's Jacob Riis Houses. 

By Annia Ciezadlo

The 19 red-brick towers of the Jacob Riis Houses lining Avenue D look much as they did when they opened in 1949. Many families have come and gone in the 1,768 apartments, but 13 of the original families are still there.

Immediately after World War II, returning GIs and soaring construction costs created a housing shortage, and NYCHA gave preference to the veterans. When Jacob Riis Houses opened, the tenants reflected both the racial composition of the surrounding neighborhood--white ethnic immigrant families--and the more integrated makeup of the United States Army.

The buildings' site was once the home of some of the most infamous of the tenement communities that Jacob Riis himself documented, eventually inspiring the housing movement that spurred Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to create the New York City Housing Authority in 1934.

By 1938 NYCHA had 36,000 applications for 13,000 apartments. Tenants were selected according to a rigorous point system, requiring bank accounts, insurance and citizenship. Housing officials chose residents according to the race of the surrounding neighborhood. The policy continued until the civil rights movement forced NYCHA to establish an office to "assure a fully integrated tenant body" in 1958.

Although Alphabet City was one of the country's toughest neighborhoods during the 1970s and 1980s, five of these original tenants also remember a neighborhood of community gardens, jazz clubs, and families that looked out for each other's children.

Josephine Katchuk

They were taking veterans first, they had preference, so we got in right away. Quite a few Jewish people on this floor. They all moved away in drifts and drafts. There were a lot of Irish people living here, too. I was the only Italian and my husband was Russian. I imagine he was the only Russian.

Cynthia Williams

My husband was born in this apartment. I personally came here at the age of 4. I started out in the Lillian Wald Houses. I had to travel from 6th Street all the way to 9th Street to go to school. That's where I met my husband, I was about 10 then. But I didn't like him at that time. He became the resident cook of all the parties. Yeah, everybody called him the Duke of Barbecue. The community garden on 8th Street, he helped them build it up. That's where my husband spent most of his time, they'd play dominoes and checkers. That's where they'd chew the fat with the guys, they all end up there after work.

Robert Turner

You see that park with the bases and all? That wasn't like that. They only had a couple of swings out there, wasn't no grass or nothing. We signed a petition for them to make the East River Park look pretty, something for the kids to play ball. And they fixed the playground up and all, but it didn't change the neighborhood at all. If we coulda kept it funded, it wouldn't have been like that.

Mary Lawson

Nobody's lived in this apartment but me. I stayed right here. It was very nice, compared to what I had up in the Bronx, you know. When I first came down here, I thought I had come to the wrong place because I didn't see any black people in the office, you know. Only me. But I waited until they called me. I moved in, and there was mostly Jewish and Italian people. And we all got along beautifully. Course, they have moved now. Some of the people I've met, like my race, they moved down South and bought homes.

Barbara Dailey

My daughter's been to college; I made sure my son did too. Those are two things I'm proud of. My son, I got him out of here when he was 14 years old. And he lived in Maine and come home on Thanksgiving, Christmas, summers and things like that. I wanted him to have the best chance possible, 'cause most of the kids coming up here were getting killed, getting busted, in and out of all kinds of trouble. I got to the point I didn't want him to come home. I missed him, but at the same time--it was dangerous out here.

City Limits MONTHLY
Date: March 1999

Jacob Riis, the third of fifteen children, was born in Ribe, Denmark, on 3rd May, 1849. He worked as a carpenter in Copenhagen before emigrating to the United States in 1870. Unable to find work, 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 in 1873. The following year he was recruited 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, 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. 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.

Over the next twenty-five years Riis wrote and lectured on the problems of the poor. This included magic lantern shows and one observer noted that "his viewers moaned, shuddered, fainted and even talked to the photographs he projected, reacting to the slides not as images but as a virtual reality that transported the new York slum world directly into the lecture hall."

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).

Jacob Riis, whose autobiography,
The Making of An American, was published in 1901, died in Barrie, Massachusetts, on 26th May, 1914.

Jacob Riis, Children sleeping
in Mulberry Street

(1) Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (1890)

What is a tenement? The law defines it as a house "occupied by three or four more families, living independently and doing their cooking on the premises; or by more than two families on a floor, so living and cooking and having a common right in the halls, stairways, yards, etc."

The tenement is generally a brick building from four to six stories high on the street, frequently with a store on the first floor which, used for the sale of liquor, has a side opening for the benefit of the inmates and to evade the Sunday law; four families occupy each floor, and a set of rooms consists of one or two dark closets, used as bedrooms, with a living room twelve feet by ten. The staircase is too often a dark well in the centre of the house, and no direct through ventilation is possible, each family being separated from the other by partition.

(2) Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (1890)

On either side of the narrow entrance to Bandits' Roost is "the Bend". Abuse is the normal condition of "the Bend," murder is everyday crop, with the tenants not always the criminals. In this block between Bayard, Park, Mulberry, and Baxter Streets, "the Bend" proper, the late Tenement House Commission counted 155 deaths of children in a specimen year (1882). Their percentage of the total mortality in the block was 68.28, while for the whole city the proportion was only 46.20. In No. 59 next to Bandits' Roost, fourteen persons died that year, and eleven of them were children; in No. 61 eleven, and eight of them not yet five years old.

Jacob Riis, Bandits' Roost (1890)

(3) Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (1890)

Ever since the civil war New York has been receiving the overflow of coloured population from the Southern cities. In the last decade this migration has grown to such proportions that it is estimated that our Blacks have quite doubled in number since the Tenth Census. Whether the exchange has been of advantage to the Negro may well be questioned. Trades of which he had practical control in his Southern home are not open to him here. I know that it may be answered that there is no industrial proscription of colour; that it is a matter of choice. Perhaps so. At all events he does not choose them. How many coloured carpenters or masons has anyone seen at work in New York?

Cleanliness is the characteristic of the Negro in his new surroundings, as it was his virtue in the old. In this respect he is immensely the superior of the lowest of the whites, the Italians and the Polish Jews, below whom he has been classed in the past in the tenant scale. This was shown by an inquiry made last year by the Real Estate Record. It proved agents to be practically unanimous in the endorsement of the Negro as a clean, orderly, and profitable tenant.

Poverty, abuse, and injustice alike the Negro accepts with imperturbable cheerfulness. His philosophy is of the kind that has no room for repining. Whether he lives in an Eighth Ward barrack or in a tenement with a brown-stone front and pretensions to the tile of "flat," he looks at the sunny side of life and enjoys it. He loves fine clothes and good living a good deal more than he does a bank account.

(4) Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (1890)

The homes of the Hebrew quarter are its workshops also. You are made fully aware of it before you have travelled the length of a single block in any of these East End streets, by the whirr of a thousand sewing-machines, worked at high pressure from earliest dawn until mind and muscle give out together. Every member of the family, from the youngest to to the oldest, bears a hand, shut in the qualmy rooms, where meals are cooked and clothing washed and dried besides, the live-long day. It is not unusual to find a dozen persons - men, women and children - at work in a single room.

(5) Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (1890)

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children maintains five of these boys' lodging-houses, and one for girls, in the city. The Duane Street Lodging House alone has sheltered since its foundation in 1855 nearly a quarter of a million different boys. In all of the lodging-houses together, 12,153 boys and girls were sheltered and taught last year. Besides these, the Society has established and operates in the tenement districts twenty-one industrial schools, co-ordinate with the public schools in authority, for the children of the poor who cannot find room in the city's school-houses, or are too ragged to go there; two free reading-rooms, a dress-making and typewriting school and a laundry for the instruction of girls; a sick-children's mission in the city and two on the sea-shore, where poor mothers may take their babies; a cottage by the sea for crippled girls, and a brush factory for crippled boys in Forty-fourth Street.

The Italian school in Leonard Street, alone, had an average attendance of over six hundred pupils last year. The daily average attendance at all of them was 4,105, while 11,331 children were registered and taught. When the fact that there were among these 1,132 children of drunken parents, and 416 that had been found begging in the street, is contrasted with the showing of $1,337.21 deposited in the school savings banks by 1,745 pupils, something like an adequate idea is gained by the scope of the Society's work in the city.

Jacob Riis, Homeless Children (1890)