It All Started in a "Flash"

 jacob riis: how the other half lived

jacob riis: how the other half lived

If you were going to guess what began the historic New York State Tenement House Act of 1901 what would it be? This is the act that successfully eliminated the atrocious conditions many lived in during the late 1800s throughout cities. The conditions had often been written about but it's much easier to ignore words you read than it is to ignore an image you see. This notion is ultimately what led to the reform. A man name Jacob Riis was a police officer in New York during this time who had documented the horrible conditions he witnessed while patrolling tenements to check for overcrowding violations. Riis wasn't the first to write about the conditions he saw but he was the first to realize that the public opinion wouldn't change until they saw how truly bad it was. This is where the history gets really fascinating. One day he was reading the morning paper and saw a four line article about a concept called "Blitzkicht" which means "flash light" in German. Nearly three decades before Riis read about Blitzkicht, a man was attempting to photograph the inside of the Great Pyramid of Giza but didn't have enough light to do so. So he combined magnesium with an oxygen rich combustible element and boom, he created a flash. This was further perfected and mainstreamed by two German scientists who created a more stable flash using fine magnesium powder with potassium chlorite, called Blitzlicht. When Riis read about Blitzlicht he realized he could use this method to finally allow others to visualize the shocking conditions many tenements were living in at the time and thus start a social movement. The pictures shown are actual pictures Riis and his friends took exposing the living conditions. 

 Jacob Riis: How the other half lived

Jacob Riis: How the other half lived

The Tenement House Act, in a way then, was ignited by a crazy innovator determined to take a picture inside the King's Chamber of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The flash led to a chain-reaction, making visible the inhumane conditions which would ultimately signal the cry for urgent political action. The flash is what allowed Riis to be referred to as one of the original “Muckrakers."

 jacob riis: how the other half lived

jacob riis: how the other half lived

While reading Steven Johnson's book How We Got to Now and learning about Riis it is energizing to realize that action around new innovation is what helps spark movements. It's not one act, it's many acts linked together in a common bond. These links, which soon form the chain, could not be made possible without innovation and aspiration - driving progress and energizing a movement of people towards a common cause. These are the very same aspirations that lie at the foundation of Athletes C.A.R.E. Like Riis, who had unique exposure to these overcrowded tenements through his job as a police officer in New York, college athletes have a unique connection to the their campus communities and the youth who aspire to one day fill their shoes. Flash photography may no longer be the key to exposing the unfair living conditions of the inner-city, but it is organizations like Athletes C.A.R.E. who intend to spark their very own Blitzkicht, bringing to light the hardships of our modern communities, and taking necessary steps to alleviate the struggles of those who endure. 

 Jacob Riis: how the other half lived

Jacob Riis: how the other half lived

Bonus Fact: In the book How We Got to Now, Lafayette College Professor, Donald Miller, is also cited for his extensive and impressive work studying Chicago and his book, City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America.