There is a tiny park in Lower Manhattan, on Mulberry Street, in Chinatown, where a small sign hangs on a fence dedicated to the memory of a man named Jacob Riis. Who was Jacob Riis? For a time in the late 1800's, he was a homeless man who lived in New York, who had been chased away, by the cops, out of every place he could find to sleep, accept a certain grave in a forgotten corner of a local cemetery. And his only friend was a stray dog who used to sleep on the same grave at night. His only food at the time was the scraps left on peoples' plates that were thrown out in the back alley behind Delmonico's restaurant. He was an immigrant from Denmark, who had come to America to seek his fortune, because the family of the woman he loved would not allow her to marry him, because he did not make enough money. But in this land that he had heard was the land of opportunity, all he found was destitution. Many times he thought seriously about suicide, especially after a cop beat his dog to death. But each time he decided to go on living, just a little longer, just in case something good might happen down the road.
One day he started walking. He didn't know where he was going or even why he was walking. He found himself walking south along an old Indian trail. On this trail he met other homeless people and migrant workers too. The trail's old name in the Lenape languge had long been forgotten, but in his time it was called the Tramp's Highway. After many days of walking he found himself in Philadelphia. In Philly he found some friends who gave him enough money to get back to New York, get some new clothes, and get by for a little while. So he went back to New York, and in time, he landed a job as a freelance journalist.
He decided not to write about the top headlines, or stories of politics, or celebrity scandals, or anything like that. Instead he wrote about life in the slums. But no one payed much attention. So he learned to draw, and drew illustrations of the things he saw there. But still no one payed much attention. So he learned photography. But the light was no good in the tenements and back alleys. Then there was a breakthrough. The invention of flash. So Jacob started sneaking into the bars, with his camera, late at night. He started going into the tenements and sweatshops. He photographed people living under bridges. He photographed homeless children living in trash filled alleys. While he was at it he wrote about all that he saw in the slums of the Lower East Side, where he himself had been homeless. Then one day his photos and words were published in a book, that became an instant best seller. It has been translated into many languages, and reprinted many times throught the generations. But before all that happened, he gave it a name that grabbed the attention of America. With the title he coined a new phrase. He called the book "How The Other Half Lives." And with that book, he invented a new atrform. Today we call it photojournalism.
One day Jacob recieved a letter from New York's police commissioner. It said,"I read your book and I want to help." It was signed Theodore Roosevelt. As time went on, his work inspired many great charities in the city, and around the world. He helped get some of the first child labor laws, building codes, health codes, and housing codes passed.
Eventually he was able to go back to Denmark and marry that woman he left behind. They bought a house in Brooklyn. And one day, Jacob Riis's two doughters brought flowers to him that they had picked in a field for him to give to the poor. This gave him an idea. He put an add in the paper asking people to donate flowers to give to the people of New York's slums. Soon flowers were coming in to his office from all over the city, then from all over the country. For quite a while he had enough flowers coming in to be able to give flowers to every single person who lived on what was then the most violent city block in all of America, every single day. On that city block there were more murders and more suicides than on any city block in the country. It was a small, slightly curved block on Mulberry Street in what is today Chinatown. Durring the entire time of his flower project, there was not one murder, not one suicide and almost no violent crime at all on that block. Eventually he was able to get the city to provide the people who lived on that block better housing in other parts of the city. He was also able to get them better work. Then the entire block was torn down, and a tiny park was built in it's place.
Later on, as we all know, Theodore Roosevelt became president of the United States, and sometimes when things got tough at the White House, he would call on Jacob Riis and ask for advice. I, myself have met some of the greatest photographers of our time over the years. Some have done work for National Geographic, Time, Life, Newsweek and that sort of thing, and whenever I meet one of them I always ask them one question. "Who inspired you most to go into photography?" They almost always mention two names, Ansel Adams, and Jacob Riis.
So if you ever feel like giving up, don't, remember there is a tiny park in Lower Manhattan, on Mulberry Street, in Chinatown, where old Chinese men play chess and majong, and where multi-ethnic groups of children play baseball on a concrete baseball diamond, where there is a small sign that hangs on a fence dedicated to the memory of Jacob Riis, the homeless man who changed the world. Who knows if you might not become the next Jacob Riis? Who knows if you might not go on to change the world?