Monday, August 25, 2008

Jacob Riis: anti-Semite, crusader, too

A fascinating person, whom I've known long as a crusader for the poor (and who has a beach named after him).

One detail jumps out at me from the review: the old monster of anti-semitism: He was not free of prejudice ("Money is their God," he wrote of the Jews, for instance), but his harsh stereotypes were often balanced by positive observations.

Amazingly, even this man could not get past the old prejudice.

The "other half" of which Riis wrote was actually in 1890 not half, but three-fourths of New York's population, 1.2 million people living in 37,000 tenements. The number of tenements and of their impoverished inhabitants had more than doubled since Riis's arrival in the city in 1870. (Mr. Buk-Swienty mistakenly reports that the doubling occurred over a single decade.) A staunch Christian, Riis was, as Mr. Buk-Swienty puts it, "a typical Victorian moralist." He distinguished between the deserving "honestly poor" and undeserving "paupers" and "tramps." And he recognized, as he himself wrote, the difficulties of giving money to the poor "without perpetuating the problem it is sought to solve, by attracting still greater swarms."

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