Luc Sante, who was thirty-seven when Low Life was published, was born in Verviers, Belgium. After moving to New York toward the end of the 1960’s social revolution, he lived in a dilapidated Lower-East-Side tenement building for more than ten years while struggling to survive as a free-lance writer. During this period, he became curious about the city’s past and began to delve into it by reading books, examining old photographs, and visiting the many old landmarks that had miraculously managed to survive all the demolition and construction of the twentieth century. His story is confined to what he calls Manhattan’s “realms of attraction and concealment, the bazaars and the underworld: the Bowery, Satan’s Circus, Hell’s Hundred Acres, Hell’s Kitchen, the slums, the waterfront.” He stops short at 1919, the year of the Volstead Act and the Red Scare, evidently believing that subsequent events, including the influx of nonwhite minorities, would require a whole volume in themselves.
Sante divides his book into four sections. The first is entitled “The Landscape” and deals with the growth of Manhattan from a peaceful farming area into the maze of buildings dominated by fantastic skyscrapers that exists today. It is hard to realize that in the 1820’s land could be bought in the vicinity of Seventy-second Street and Fifth Avenue for as little as a thousand dollars an acre. Sante’s description of the gridiron layout and rapid development of the city is so detailed that it could be appreciated only by residents of New York; others may want to skip it and get on to the lures and snares that are promised in the book’s subtitle.
Part 2, entitled “Sporting Life,” deals with entertainment, saloon life, dope, gambling, and prostitution. The book’s subtitle, “Lures and Snares of Old New York,” is rather misleading, because there is nothing salacious or even titillating about any of its description. Like the grim old black-and-white photographs liberally distributed throughout the book, the prose conveys a feeling of almost unmitigated despair.
Prostitutes, then as now, were physically abused and financially exploited. Call houses were far more common in the nineteenth century. Although they offered their inmates protection from predatory males, the management customarily took the lion’s share of the earnings. Many prostitutes became addicted to drugs and alcohol, and the madams who ran the houses made it a practice to get their employees hooked. At one time it was estimated that one-fortieth of the total population of the city was engaged in prostitution. Syphilis and gonorrhea were rampant.
The entertainment of the period seems pathetic, a desperate attempt to escape, if only for a few hours, from the squalor, toil, and gnawing insecurity of lower-class life. The clang of the cash register drowned out the music and laughter; real gaiety and good fellowship were rare commodities. As in Victorian England, intoxication was a means of escape from the unbearable reality of daily existence.
Along with contemporary photographs, mostly obtained from various New York museums and the New York Historical Society, Sante includes a few still shots from Hollywood films to illustrate the difference between the reality of lower-class life and the romanticized and sanitized version that popular films such as The Bowery (1933) and Dead End (1937) implanted in the popular imagination. The old photographs of freezing men standing in lines to get a loaf of stale bread or a ticket handed out by an enterprising politician entitling the holder to a free bed in a flophouse bring to mind Theodore Dreiser’s harrowing chapters describing George Hurstwood’s moral deterioration and eventual suicide in Sister Carrie (1900). Real life for many poor people of the period was nearly as grueling and precarious as life in the German concentration camps during World War II.
The third section of Low Life is entitled “The Arm” and describes the forces of order, repression, and profit. The first chapter in this section deals with “Gangland” and discusses some of the famous New York gangs such as the Bowery Boys, the Dead Rabbits, the Plug Uglies, and the Swamp Angels, as well as some of the more prominent individuals of the period. Violence was just as rampant then as now, but the ethnic makeup was different: Blacks and Hispanics were small minorities and carried little weight until after World War II.
The second chapter in “The Arm” deals with the corrupt and ineffectual “Coppers” and the third chapter with “The Tiger,”...
(The entire section is 1899 words.)