Pictures I like: “Robbers’ Roost”, Jacob Riis, 1888


 My Story: Think I’ll just take this short cut… Uh oh. What’s this? That guy on the right has a gun in his pocket and I don’t think he’s glad to see me. And that other guy! Is that a shotgun? Maybe I can just back out of here… Holy! Look at those guys on the left! They’re everywhere! That fellow in the middle seems to be in charge. Maybe I can talk to him. He’s smiling. I think. Might be a feral grin. Maybe if I throw my wallet on the ground and run…

The Facts: Danish immigrant Jacob Riis started photographing the underbelly of New York in 1888. He set up shop across from the police station in the Five Points area of the city, known as the toughest area. In 1890 Riis published How The Other Half Lives which had the intent of showing that the poor were the victims, rather than the cause of bad living conditions.

Jacob Riis

The place depicted as “Robbers’ Roost” was at 59½ Mulberry Street. The building on the right was a “stale-beer dive” where drinkers could stay all night if they bought a few glasses. Stale beer was left outside legitimate taverns in barrels for pickup by brewery wagons. This stuff was stolen and various chemicals added to clarify it and make it foam. The resulting poisonous swill was sold for 2¢ a glass. The young ladies hanging out the window probably offered other services as well. In 1889 Riis accompanied a police raid on Mulberry Street stale-beer dives:

 A single stride took the sergeant into the middle of the room, and with a swinging blow of his club he knocked the faucet out of the keg and the half-filled can from the boss hag’s hand. As the contents of both splashed upon the floor, half a dozen of the group made a sudden dash, and with shoulders humped above their heads to shield their skulls against the dreaded locust broke for the door. They had not counted upon the policemen outside. There was a brief struggle, two or three heavy thumps, and the runaways were brought back to where their comrades crouched in dogged silence. (from How the Other Half Lives)

"Five Cents A Night" from How the Other Half Lives, 1890

By the mid-1890s there was a public outcry to clean up the Five Points and buildings were razed, parks constructed, and clean new edifices erected. More important, the original problem — the pool of waste water that ran off the city system and made the area uninhabitable to any human who could afford to live elsewhere — was cleaned up. Thus, crime was eliminated in New York City, banished with the unsightly slums, never to be seen again.