Jacob Riis is famous for having photographed the tenements in New York City. Real estate rules about rooms having windows, and indoor plumbing, and fire escapes, did not descend upon us from angels. The relative liveability of modern cities was won by Mr. Riis and other activists. Today is his feast day in the Anglican calendar.
In many countries, people still live in such tight, filthy conditions. Riis made people look at the poor. After looking, they were moved to make changes.
It is not because luxurious living conditions make people happy (though horrible ones do make them miserable). Rich people need poor people to remind them that we are all poor. That no matter who you are, materially speaking, you struggle against your own demons, and you will die and all the junk you have will get thrown out and parceled out.
In fact, you may be rich in family, spiritual fervor, talents, creativity. Any of those can be taken away. Any of them can go. The truth is that any richness can become poverty, and everyone is struggling with some kind of poverty all the time.
Looking at poverty is the important thing. Poverty of all types breeds humility, and humility is a great good. What troubles me most is not that people refuse to give to the poor, but that they refuse to look at them. Often I’ve heard people speak with disbelief about the treatment of the poor after Hurricane Katrina. It’s good that they were shocked, and felt compassion, but we have to look at how are poor people treated every day, not just when a major disaster hits. We have to look, and know, how the poor suffer, and ask ourselves, is it too much? Is it fixable? Or is that level of frustration for some the cost of letting the luckier or the harder working or the more ambitious take their turns in a free society?
In fact, it may be hardest to look and do nothing. We want to glance and act, feel guilty and move to distract ourselves. But looking is important. It is always the first right thing to do. Look and listen and consider. What does it mean that some people are born “rich” and others are born “poor”? What does it mean that some people are born physically and mentally sick? How much can we change about that, and when do we have to leave the ugliness be and just hold it tenderly and helplessly?
It’s sort of like when you have a friend who loses a loved one– you don’t “fix” that. You don’t always jump to action. You listen, and you are present. Sometimes that is the only thing you need to do. You have to look and listen first, to find out if there is more.
Riis is sometimes criticized for meddling– if people want to live dirt cheap, sometimes they are saving up for something better, and they want the choice to live bare bones. He is also rightfully criticized for nasty stuff he said about Jewish, Asian, and Italian folks. I do appreciate one thing he did well: he made people look.
So, look here: