Jacob Riis’ 19th Century Tenement House Photographs

Since the early days of New York’s Lower East Side tenement houses, working class people have shared beds, making such spaces a fundamental part of immigrant life. Initially documented in Jacob Riis’ now controversial late 19th Century photography, a “shift-bed” is an actual bed that is shared by people who are neither in the same family nor in a relationship. Simply put, it’s an economic necessity brought on by the challenges of urban existence. Such a bed can become a remarkable catalyst for storytelling as absolute strangers become de facto confidants.


Jacob Riis – Lodgers on Bayard Street

Early on in the production of Your Day is My Night, our intern Emily Ludolph trapsed around the Lower East Side where Riis had photographed, looking for the actual buildings that appeared in the photographs over one hundred years earlier. This initial research led to a greater understanding of the neighborhood’s history and the way these buildings continue to shape urban life in New York City. This connection led to our Tenement Talk at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in October of 2012.

Later, during our performances at University Settlement, we invited Emily Gallagher of the Tenement Museum to contribute to our post-show conversation. Emily brought up the more recent critiques of Riis’ photographs and essays, pointing to the veiled elitism and racism in his renowned book How the Other Half Lives and our attempt to reckon with this legacy.