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Queens Chronicle

Reformer Riis had strong Queens ties

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Posted: Thursday, November 11, 2010 12:00 am | Updated: 5:09 pm, Tue Jan 7, 2014.

Jacob Riis, a Danish immigrant and Queens resident, who became a crusading reformer for the poor in the late 1800s, is remembered in Queens with a park and settlement house.

Riis immigrated to New York in 1870, where he spent five years as an itinerant worker, drifting from place to place. “The slum is the measure of civilization,” said Riis, who later became a photographer and journalist, known for his 1890 best seller, “How the Other Half Lives.”

His book focused on the recurring problems of the working class and the poor, which he saw firsthand as a police reporter at the New York Tribune, where he worked from 1877 until 1890.

His role as an influential reformer led Riis to join the settlement movement, which sought to improve society by bringing rich and poor closer together. He founded the Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement House in the Lower East Side in 1899 to help immigrants with education, language and job skills.

Over a century later, the settlement house is still a community-based nonprofit organization, now primarily serving in Long Island City’s housing projects. It provides comprehensive services to youth, adults, seniors, families and immigrants.

Alison Millan, its director of Immigrant Services, said the settlement house caters to a diverse group of people and services, from new immigrants to third graders coming in for homework help.

The center’s locations include the Queensbridge and Ravenwoods houses, PS 166, IS 126 and Information Technology High School.

Jacob Riis Park in the Rockaways was designed in 1936 by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who “envisioned Riis Park as a Jones Beach for poor immigrants accessible by public transportation,” according to the National Park Service, which now runs it.

It was constructed on the site of one of the first U.S. naval air stations and features a restored art deco bathhouse. The beach is part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.

Tim McElhinney of Belle Harbor, said he and his family always enjoy going to Riis Park. “I have three boys, ages 8, 6 and 4,” McElhinney said. “The park is kid-friendly and it’s somewhat of a secret in New York, and it has parking.”

Riis is known for writing about the poor living conditions in Manhattan tenements, but he actually lived in Queens for more than 25 years, he and his wife settling in Richmond Hill in 1886. His wife died in 1905, and in 1912 Riis moved to Massachusetts.

His books were all written in a small studio behind his 120th Street home. Richmond Hill historian Carl Ballenas, in his research on Riis, discovered a passage in which the reformer tells why he picked the Queens community to live in:

“It was in the winter when all our children had the scarlet fever that one Sunday, when I was taking a long walk out on Long Island where I could do no one any harm, I came upon Richmond Hill, and thought it was the most beautiful spot I ever seen. I went home and told my wife that I had found the place where we were going to live, and that sick room was filled with the scent of spring flowers and of balsam and pine as the children listened and cheered with their feeble little voices. That very week I picked out the lots I wanted. There was a tangle of trees growing on them that are shading my study window now as I write. … So before the next winter’s snows we were snug in the house that has been ours ever since, with a ridge of wooded hills, the ‘backbone of Long Island’ between New York and us. The very lights of the city were shut out. So was the slum, and I could sleep.”

Although his house on 120th Street is long gone, a triangle is named after the reformer at 115th Street, near the Long Island Rail Road tracks. Riis died in 1914.

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