Calling All Housing Innovators

A work by Jacob Riis,How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York,” changed housing.

By revealing to Gilded Age upper- and then middle-class members of society of the 1880s the inhuman squalor of the tenement slums of lower New York City, Riis played a key part in changing political will, impacting reform, and awakening public fervor that resulted in the New York Tenement House Act of 1901. That legislation changed the minimum requirements of tenement housing to include reforms in the amount of light received by living quarters, increased fire safety regulations, more ventilation, restrictions on building height, and increased room space.

As impassioned as Riis–an immigrant who’d arrived in New York with $40 to his name from Denmark in 1870–was, words and his personal sketches of the horrible conditions people lived in in those slums were not enough to spark any action.

He needed pictures, but the problem was those places had no windows. No air. No light. So, it would be useless to try to capture the images by camera, because “the lenses and emulsions of the time were much too slow to capture images in dark alleys and tenement rooms.” Until, of course, he learned about flash.

“In early 1887, however, Riis was startled to read that “a way had been discovered to take pictures by flashlight. The darkest corner might be photographed that way.”[30] The German innovation, by Adolf Miethe and Johannes Gaedicke, flash powder was a mixture of magnesium with potassium chlorate and some antimony sulfide for added stability;[31] the powder was used in a pistol-like device that fired cartridges. This was the introduction of flash photography.”

“Pistol lamps were dangerous and looked threatening, and would soon be replaced by another method for which Riis lit magnesium powder on a frying pan.

Magnesium powder on a frying pan. And the pictures, as they say, were worth a thousand words. Those words and those pictures spurred action.

How the Other Half Lives also inspired reform on a national scale. The Department of Labor published The Housing of the Working People in 1895, which was the second major tenement study of the decade.

It took flash photography to tell a persuasive enough story to get public will behind changes to make housing safe, healthy, fair.

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