photo of Jacob A. Riis

Our History


This timeline highlights some of the important milestones in the 122-year history of the Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement House.

Rejected by his first love, Elisabeth Nielsen, a heartbroken Jacob A. Riis leaves Ribe, Denmark, for the United States, and begins a remarkable journey from poor immigrant to pioneering photojournalist and social reformer. Six years later, Riis returns to Ribe to propose marriage to Nielsen, a proposal she accepts.

Charles Scribner’s Sons publishes How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York, Riis’s groundbreaking expose of conditions in the city’s slums on the Lower East Side.

Jacob Riis helps the Circle of the King’s Daughters, an organization of Episcopal Church women who supported his earlier advocacy for the poor, secure temporary space in the basement of the Mariner’s Temple on the Lower East Side near the Bowery and Chinatown. Initially focused on helping the corps of doctors and nurses who inspected the slums every summer, the King’s Daughters soon begins offering additional services such as sewing classes, mothers’ clubs, health care, summer camp and a penny provident bank.

The King’s Daughters Settlement with Riis’s help acquires and relocates to 48 Henry Street, where it remains for the next 58 years.

At a celebration of the 25th wedding anniversary of Jacob and Elisabeth Riis, held at 48 Henry Street, Bishop Henry Codman Potter announces that the King’s Daughter’s Settlement would be renamed the Jacob A. Riis Neighborhood Settlement House.

A letter from Riis’s old friend Theodore Roosevelt and beginning “Dear Jake,” congratulates Riis Settlement on the opening of its gymnasium at 48 Henry Street.

Two years after the death of his first wife Elisabeth, Riis marries his secretary Mary Phillips, who would be an active member of the Riis Settlement board for the next 50 years.

Jacob A. Riis dies May 28 at his farm outside of Worcester, Massachusetts, at the age of 65.

During a span of nine years, a total of six different Riis Settlement sites are in operation at various times throughout the city: 48 Henry Street, Marcy Houses (Bedford-Stuyvesant), First A.M.E. Zion Church (Bedford-Stuyvesant), the Stephen Foster Houses (Harlem), the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn, and the Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City. Queensbridge is the only site whose future is not in doubt at this time.

Mary Riis, widow of Jacob Riis, attends a Barn Dance at Riis Settlement Queensbridge, and is pictured in a photo with Helene Nelson, who served as executive director for almost 40 years.

Riis Settlement Queensbridge hosts its first anniversary celebration as well as the 50th anniversary of United Neighborhood Houses of New York, the umbrella organization for all of New York City’s settlement houses. The event features ballet performances from Snow White and Aladdin and His Lamp. Admission is $1 for adults and 50 cents for kids.

The original Henry Street site is sold to Trinity Church, and Riis Settlement Queensbridge became the organization’s official headquarters.

Riis Settlement Queensbridge begins its long and ongoing partnership with the Fresh Air Fund.

All Riis Settlement activities are officially consolidated at the Queensbridge Site

Riis Settlement establishes various new programs including drug rehabilitation programs and African-American cultural projects. Also, two service programs, satellites of Steinway Child & Family Services and a branch of Big Brothers of New York City, open during the decade in space provided by Riis Settlement.

New York State Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz opens the first Consumer Protection and Complaint Center in New York City at Riis Settlement

A NY Newsday column on non-profits features Riis Settlement’s Robert Miner, who was on staff for 45 years. Miner retires as executive director the following year.

William T. Newlin becomes executive director of Riis Settlement

Riis Settlement opens the Queensbridge Riis Senior Center

Riis Settlement holds its first Spring Arts Festival, now an annual tradition, showcasing the talents of participants, particularly children and youth.

HRH Princess Benedikte of Denmark becomes patron of Riis Settlement, and makes the first of several visits to the organization

In response to the changing needs and demographics of western Queens, Riis Settlement establishes a formal Immigrant Services Program.

Six Riis Settlement teen participants head to Ribe and Copenhagen, Denmark, in the first year of the organization’s Danish Cultural Exchange Program. The following year, the Danish youth who hosted Riis participants come to New York.

Executive Director William T. Newlin is proclaimed a Knight of the Order of the Dannebrog by Her Majesty, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark

Riis Settlement receives the first of three consecutive Family Strengthening Awards from the United Neighborhood Centers of America.

Riis Academy- P.S. 166 opens.

Riis Settlement takes over operations of the Ravenswood Community Center in the nearby Ravenswood Houses, and opens Riis Academy- Ravenswood.

Riis Academy- Information Technology High School opens.

Riis Settlement launches its first-ever community garden in the Queensbridge Houses.

HRH Crown Princess Mary of Denmark visits Riis Settlement. The visit is covered by local and international press, including the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.


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