To Obtain Fresh Air

Jacob Riis, Keep off the Grass, ca. 1888–98

Jacob Riis, Mullen’s Alley, February 12, 1888

Jacob Riis, Dens of Death, ca. 1888–98

Jacob Riis, Bone Alley Park Site, ca. 1888–98

Jacob Riis, Mulberry Bend Park, 1900

In the late nineteenth century the photography of Jacob Riis was instrumental in improving living conditions in New York City’s most impoverished areas. Areas such as Mulberry Bend and Bone Alley in the Lower East Side were overpopulated and rife with crime.

Mulberry Bend was near the dangerous Five Points area and the buildings were crowded together and unsafe: “The whole district is a maze of narrow, often unsuspected passage ways—necessarily, for there is scarce a lot that has not two, three, or four tenements upon it, swarming with unwholesome crowds.” The Bone Alley block had a population of about 1,000 people per acre, creating dangerous and disease-ridden conditions.

Concerned that the local children had only unsanitary urban locations in which to play, Riis was instrumental in the demolition of some of the most unsavory areas and their replacement with public parks and playgrounds. Tearing down the tenements in the Mulberry Bend area created what is now known as Columbus Park, while the Hamilton Fish Park and public swimming pool replaced the infamous Bone Alley.

In his final days, his body ravaged by disease, Riis said to a friend: “Now that I have to fight for almost every breath of air, I am more thankful than ever that I have been instrumental in helping the children of the tenements to obtain fresh air.”

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