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Jacob Riis Triangle

Jacob Riis Triangle

This text is part of Parks’ Historical Signs Project and can be found posted within the park.

This tiny parkland is named in honor of Jacob August Riis (1849-1914), a crusading journalist, author, and photographer who lived in this neighborhood for several decades around the turn of the 20th century. Born in Denmark, Riis immigrated to New York in 1870 and worked odd jobs, sometimes sleeping in doorways when money was scarce. In 1877, the New York Tribune hired Riis as a police reporter, and he soon began documenting poverty even more dire than he had experienced, particularly in Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Five Points neighborhoods. Around 1887, Riis developed an interest in photography and took his camera on trips inside overcrowded tenements and seedy drinking holes. How the Other Half Lives, Riis’ book of essays and photographs detailing the lives of various immigrant groups in the Lower East Side, was released in 1890 and became a national sensation. Reformers, most notably then City Police Commissioner and soon to be the 26th President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), hailed Riis as a hero, and pushed for legislation aimed at improving living conditions in the slums.

Riis’ contributions to society were not limited to writing and photography. One of the reforms Riis suggested was the creation of small parks and playgrounds, particularly in congested areas of the city, a movement that improved the quality of life for countless New Yorkers. In 1904, Riis started a campaign to combat tuberculosis and helped to create the Christmas seal. Through the sale of these one-cent stamps Riis raised money for a children’s tuberculosis hospital.

Jacob Riis moved to Richmond Hill in 1886, and spent many of his most productive years living in his home at 84-41 120th Street. The hill referred to as Richmond Hill was created by the glacier that formed Long Island when it melted, leaving behind huge piles of stones and rocks it had dragged across the continent. The name was inspired either by a suburban town near London, England, or because of Edward Richmond, a landscape architect in the mid-1800s who designed much of the neighborhood. In 1868, a successful banker named Albon P. Man bought the Lefferts and Welling farms, and hired Richmond to lay out the community. Over the next decade, streets, schools, a church and a railroad were built, making the area one of the earliest residential communities on Long Island. Many of the Queen Anne Victorian homes of old Richmond Hill still stand in the area today.

On December 5, 1945, the City of New York acquired this parcel of land for $300 from the Kew Gardens Corporation. For years, the triangle was unofficially known as Babbage Triangle, so-called because of one of the streets that bounds the triangle. On May 8, 1990, the parkland was officially named Jacob Riis Triangle by a local law introduced by Council Member Arthur Katzman, at the request of Felix Cuervo and Robert P. Mangieri, respectively president and vice president of the Native New Yorker’s Historical Association. The dedication ceremony for Jacob Riis Triangle was held on September 15, 1990. The triangle’s beautiful trees, flowers, grass, and landscaping allow members of the community to escape and relax, and to remember a great community hero, reformer, and park lover, Jacob A. Riis.

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