3. Chinatown

1890 Lodgers in Crowded Bayard Street Tenement-Lower East Side-Jacob A. Riis-NYC“Five Cents a Spot” circa 1890. Photo by Jacob A. Riis, Museum of the City of New York Collection

In modern-day Chinatown, Jacob Riis photographed lodgers in tenement apartments like the above on Bayard Street near Mulberry Street. As Riis writes in How The Other Half Lives, “5 Cents a Spot” refers to the price paid for a place to stay, likely on the floor since the legal minimum charge was actually 7 cents a spot, which came with a bed. Riis uses the title of the photograph to denote the illegality of the the lodging house pictured.

The famous photograph shows Riis’ use of flash photography. Though the room was in near pitch darkness, “[Riis] barges in, says exhibit curator Bonnie Yochelson, “takes a picture with the flash, scares the living daylights out of the people – you can see it in their faces – the flash actually makes a burst of light and a boom – so it’s terrifying. Those were the first pictures.”

Riis also explored the opium dens of Chinatown, as seen in this image taken between 1877 and 1888:

“Chinatown, Smoking Opium in a Joint,” photo by Jacob A. Riis, Richard Hoe Lawrence, and Dr. Henry G. Piffard. Museum of the City of New York Collection