Low life, lures and snares of old New York by Luc Sante

Summary as presented on the book

Low life is a portrait of America’s greatest city, the riotous and anarchic breeding ground of modernity. This is not the familiar saga of mentions, avenues, and robber barons, but the messy, turbulent story of the city’s slums and teaming streets, scenes of innumerable cons and crimes, whose cramped and overcrowded housing is still a prominent feature of the cityscape. (and breathe)


Summary if I had written it

A very disjointed account of the life in the slums of Manhattan from the city’s birth to the first World War.



Over the Christmas holidays, I had read « The Other Paris » from the same author (review to follow), so the disjointed structure of the book wasn’t such a surprise, but it was still difficult to get into it, even more so than for The Other Paris. Probably because Paris is my town whereas New York is just a city I visited twice.

Low life explores the slum life of New York through 18 thematic chapters (e.g « Home »; « Streets »; « Saloon culture »). They are very unequal in their quality which makes reading rather difficult.

The picture painted of New York is that of a very violent city where daily life is not just harsh but cruel. It is a story that is not normally told when you study the history of the United States. It does not shy from showing what daily life was for the « poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free». It makes for a very grim reading, which I have to say surprised me. The level of misery is the same as that described in the Paris of the time, but Paris is less violent and more joyous. There also seem to be more hope in Paris than in New York, which I wouldn’t have expected. After all, it’s the « New World ». Another striking feature of the New York described in the book is how little place there is for women there. New York is very much a man’s world.

Overall, I think it is a very interesting book on a little known topic. I wish it had been easier to read. I also wish it had covered the Prohibition era, as I would think it had a very big impact on the life in the slums of New York. Nevertheless, if you’re into history and sociology, it’s really worth the trouble.

ISBN: 978-0-374-52899-7


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