Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York

Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York

by Luc Sante

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Luc Sante's 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 mansions, avenues, and robber barons, but the messy, turbulent, often murderous story of the city's slums; the teeming streets—scene of innumerable cons and crimes whose cramped and overcrowded housing is still a prominent feature of the cityscape.

Low Life voyages through Manhattan from four different directions. Part One examines the actual topography of Manhattan from 1840 to 1919; Part Two, the era's opportunities for vice and entertainment—theaters and saloons, opium and cocaine dens, gambling and prostitution; Part Three investigates the forces of law and order which did and didn't work to contain the illegalities; Part Four counterposes the city's tides of revolt and idealism against the city as it actually was.

Low Life provides an arresting and entertaining view of what New York was actually like in its salad days. But it's more than simpy a book about New York. It's one of the most provocative books about urban life ever written—an evocation of the mythology of the quintessential modern metropolis, which has much to say not only about New York's past but about the present and future of all cities.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374528997
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 11/24/2003
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 496
Sales rank: 183,580
Product dimensions: 5.35(w) x 8.28(h) x 1.34(d)

About the Author

Luc Sante was born in Verviers, Belgium, and now lives in New York City. He is the author of Evidence, The Factory of Facts, and Walker Evans, and his work has appeared in The New York Review of Books, The New Republic, and Harper's, among other publications. He teaches writing and the history of photography at Bard College.

Read an Excerpt

Low Life

Lures and Snares of Old New York

By Luc Sante

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 1991 Luc Sante
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-9563-8


The Body

LONG, NARROW MANHATTAN ISLAND SITS IN THE BAY, AMONG OTHER ISLANDS, OUTCROPPINGS, FLATLANDS, LIKE A SILHOUETTE OF A RIGHT whale navigating a rocky passage; on the area map, among blank-faced formations all like itself colored yellow for density of population, it lies like a smelt in a pan. From the air it looks prickled, spiny, a bed of nails, a forest of peaks, a mesa of terraced, carved, eroded formations run through with canyons. On a street map it is crosshatched and shaded as if to represent an organism unknown in nature: flat, marked by rigidly rectilinear striations in the center mass, given character at the top by twisted, laborious lines and gnarled spits of solid green and at the bottom by converging, warring zones of intermittently regular incision.

The layout of Manhattan's streets gives away their history. They look as if they had been established at first haphazardly, in fits and starts, and then later, as settlement moved northward, realized in one grand plan, all except the very uppermost part, where order was finally sacrificed to the dictates of topography. This is, in fact, more or less what happened. The Dutch village of the seventeenth century is preserved in the close and knotted scale of the streets at the island's lower tip, the English merchants' port that succeeded it in the names given those streets: Gold, Pine, Beaver, and Ann, William, Hanover. The breakup of the big family estates in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries has left both names — Rutgers, Delancey, Lispenard, Stuyvesant — and lumps of right-angled blocks that abruptly cut each other off at Division Street, at Grand, at Houston, recording the piecemeal pattern of development. The drill imposed by the grid plan, surveyed in 1807 by John Randel, Jr., and established in 1811 by a Board of Commissioners, begins at First Street on the East Side and moves gradually northwest until it goes island-wide at Fourteenth. Then it sweeps up the face, challenged only insignificantly, before it is finally hemmed in by the uptown cliffs, and numeration is defeated at the bottleneck of Fort George Hill, near 194th Street.

All cities begin as a point of activity, usually a harbor, and settlement concentrically grows around this point in increasingly wider rings. Manhattan is unique in its shape and circumstances and in its growth, which resembled (to add to an already crowded roster of metaphors) a thermometer. The speed of this growth — its rising temperature — is best conveyed by a well-known fact: when the present City Hall was built, between 1803 and 1812, its front and sides were made of marble, but its rear was thought to be so far north that no one would ever see it, so it was built of much cheaper red sandstone. Needless to say, this back face was already surrounded by buildings before it was finished. At some point in the early nineteenth century, popular conviction shifted, and the idea of the city passed from peaceable stasis to galloping development, so that by 1849, when the city barely existed above Fourteenth Street, Herman Melville could write satirically:

... The New York guidebooks are now vaunting of the magnitude of a town, where future inhabitants, multitudinous as the pebbles on the beach, and girdled in with high walls and towers, flanking endless avenues of opulence and taste, will regard all our Broadways and Bowerys as but the paltry nucleus to their Nineveh. From far up the Hudson, beyond Harlem River, where the young saplings are now growing, that will overarch their lordly mansions with broad boughs, centuries old; they may send forth explorers to penetrate into the obscure and smoky alleys of the Fifth Avenue and Fourteenth-street; and going farther south, may exhume the present Doric Custom-house; and quote it as proof that their high and mighty metropolis enjoyed a Hellenic antiquity.

The appearance of the city through much of its history has left little mark or analogue today — not until about a century ago did the place begin to take on some of the characteristics with which we familiarly associate it. Manhattan's identity as a natural site is particularly irretrievable — the fact that it once contained two substantial ponds, was crisscrossed by streams, possessed marshlands and flats, hills and valleys, was ringed by a coastline alternately rock-ribbed and swampish. The great work of excavating, leveling, and reclaiming has left the island in its southern portion almost flat, with only a few gentle rises in the avenues to mark any sort of topographical ancestry. Manhattan's largest body of water was the Collect Pond (a corruption of the Dutch "Kalchhook," or Lime Shell Point), which lay approximately within the bounds of the present-day streets Franklin, Worth, Lafayette, and Baxter. Once abundantly stocked, it was nearly fished out by the mid-eighteenth century, and began to fill with refuse. Drainage schemes were much discussed, but nothing was done until 1808, when depressed economic conditions provoked general unrest, and local authorities authorized funds for a public works project to subdue the population. A canal was built east and west (later to be filled in and eventually known as Canal Street), and the drained pond was paved over, its site swiftly becoming the city's first slum.

Canal Street was the city's northern limit through the 1820s, but by that time village clusters had sprung up at Greenwich and Chelsea, while isolated farms sparsely dotted the landscape well up toward the northern end. Washington Square was converted from a potter's field to the centerpiece of a fashionable enclave circa 1835; Union and Madison Squares and Gramercy Park were cleared and opened for development within the following decade. The advance guard of progress generally marched about ten blocks ahead of the actual surge of settlement, so that there was in each case a lag between the leveling of natural features and archaic structures and the beginning of planned construction. Although the great Croton Reservoir was built at Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street in 1842, and the short-lived Crystal Palace behind it in 1853, the surrounding area was far from settled even by the time of the Civil War. Maps of the period optimistically show the grid plan covering the island, even postulating Thirteenth and Fourteenth Avenues up in the future Fort Tryon and Inwood, and numbered streets up to 229, but the specks indicating buildings in the northern part of the city fail to respect the theoretical street lines in their scattered disposition.

Uptown, there were farms, some of them large and prosperous; small settlements at Bloomingdale, Yorkville, Manhattanville, Carmanville; and shantytowns. These were slap-up encampments (the Bohemia of the Poor, someone called them) inhabited by dirt-poor Irish squatters; for years the largest lay at Dutch Hill, at the far eastern end of Forty-second Street. Edgar Allan Poe described a typical dwelling in 1844:

It is, perhaps, nine feet by six, with a pigsty applied externally, by way both of portico and support. The whole fabric (which is of mud) has been erected in somewhat too obvious an imitation of the Tower of Pisa. A dozen rough planks, "pitched" together, form the roof. The door is a barrel on end. There is a garden, too, and this is encircled by a ditch at one point, a large stone at another, a bramble at a third.

The squatters were squeezed into the temporarily unused zone between the urban blocks and farmland, which made their situation precarious and their lives nomadic as the zone moved relentlessly northward. "Usually they remain while the quarrymen who are opening streets almost undermine their shanties, and then if the buildings are not blown away, they pull them down and pack them away like tents to another dwelling place," wrote the reformer Charles Loring Brace in 1872. It should be noted that in many cases the shanty dwellers and the quarrymen were one and the same people, hired at pittance wages to uproot themselves over and over again while they cleared the way for progress. The shantytowns spread through the late nineteenth century to all those dormant spots around and within the unrealized Central Park and well up into Harlem, the last of them not disappearing until the beginning of the present century, when they melded into the slums of Battle Row and San Juan Hill. Collectively, the uptown squatting areas were called the Goats by outsiders, who knew them mostly as eyesores and as a place of exile for insubordinate or merely indiscreet police officers, who were sentenced to endure the lack of perquisites and jollification in that wilderness.

Meanwhile, land prices were multiplying with astonishing speed. A forty-acre farm in the vicinity of Seventy-second Street and Fifth Avenue, bought for about $40,000 from the City Corporation in the 1820s, was assessed at $9 million in 1875, when it was still innocent of any building. Farsighted individuals were buying single or multiple lots here and there and erecting houses like slices of cake, windowless on the sides and covering the full width of the property, and usually drawn up just short of the street, leaving no room for a front yard. An 1861 engraving of Second Avenue and Forty-second Street shows such rowless row houses sprinkled along one side of the avenue, while across the way ramshackle frame houses are perched on eroding hillocks, high above the graded road. In an 1890 photograph of a block of West 133rd Street, clusters of three and four brownstones, complete with their own sidewalks, crop up at intervals along the frontage, leaving large blank spaces through which similarly irregular development can be glimpsed in the blocks beyond. After the mid-nineteenth century, the parts of Manhattan that lay ahead of the pick and shovel jumped directly from rural to urban without an intervening suburban stage, as the tempo of construction accelerated. By World War I there was virtually no farmland left, although the last farm, at Tenth Avenue and 214th Street, was not leveled until the 1940s, when it was replaced by subway yards.

Once streets had been laid in a section of the island, they often remained the only index of stability within the turmoil of change. Just as their names bore witness to the circumstances of their foundation, the streets themselves were the only common thread through a district's violent shifts of fortune, through building and rebuilding, prosperity and decline, reclamation and destruction. Cherry Street, for example, went from wealthy suburb to waterfront slum in less than thirty years. Fires were a common event, and some were cataclysmic, such as the Great Fire of the winter of 1835, which decimated a huge stretch of the commercial district around Wall Street. The constantly altering cityscape perforce encouraged a sense of foreshortened history. In 1836 an editor of the American Magazine of Useful Knowledge, probably the young Nathaniel Hawthorne, commented in a caption to a street view made before the Great Fire:

It is a singular truth that the mere shadowy image of a building ... is likely to have a longer term of existence than the piled brick and mortar of a building. Take a print like this ... and an edifice like the large one on the right hand corner, and the chances are that, a century hence, the print will be as good as ever, while the edifice ... will probably have been torn down to make room for modern improvements, or utterly destroyed by fire. Should posterity know where the proud structure stood, it will be indebted for its knowledge to the woodcut.

The early New Yorkers already knew that they were not building a Rome and that the thoroughfares themselves would be their monument.

Of all streets, the oldest was Broadway. Originally an Indian trail, subsequently known under the Dutch as De Heere Straat, or Main Street, and then forming the lower leg of the Boston Post Road, Broadway has remained consistently the chief of streets throughout New York's history. The chronicle of its paving roughly follows the progression of Manhattan's urbanization: up to Duane Street by 1818, to Canal Street by 1830, to Astor Place by 1837, and gradually up to Fifty-ninth by the time of the Civil War. Broadway leads in a straight line from the Battery some three miles up to Tenth Street, where it swerves left for reasons that remain obscure but are popularly attributed to the intransigence of Jacob Brevoort, who in the eighteenth century owned the property now occupied by Grace Church. Uptown, the old Bloomingdale Road, which ran up the west side to King's Bridge on the Harlem River, was gradually straightened and paved and in 1868 was opened as the Boulevard, which constituted a northward expansion of Broadway. By the early twentieth century it had been renamed Broadway, and so, too, had a chain of roads that led all the way to Yonkers, making Broadway, by popular legend, the longest street in the world.

For most of its history Broadway contained the bulk of retail shops, hotels, and theaters in the city, as well as a great number of major office buildings. Paradoxically, its importance as an artery and as a business district meant that it was never widened in proportion to the increasing volume of the traffic it supported. This traffic was such by the Civil War that police patrols were sent in to "unblock" the flow during business hours, and crossing between the "shilling" (east) and "dollar" (west) sides was so hazardous that in 1867 a hatter who had a shop on the corner of Fulton Street succeeded in persuading the Common Council to allocate funds for a pedestrian footbridge. Made of cast iron and known as Loew Bridge, it was pulled down less than a year later, after legal challenges by rival hatters nearby.

Broadway always was the first thoroughfare to benefit from innovations: the first sidewalk, built of brick, between Vesey and Murray Streets in the mid-1700s; the first numbered houses, starting in 1793; gas lighting in 1825; electric arc lights in 1882. As business activities increased, Broadway was the first avenue to divest itself of residences, bit by bit, eventually making itself wholly commercial up to Fifty-ninth Street. It did not, however, succeed in ridding itself of low life, which was substantial, though its dives, concert saloons, and gambling hells had a bit more tone than those on the side streets, and in spite of the periodic order to beat cops that they reroute open prostitution from its sidewalks. It was said in the 1880s that you could stand on the corner of Broadway and Houston Street and fire a shotgun in any direction without hitting an honest man. A story of the nineties had it that at Broadway and Forty-second someone yelled, "There's the man who stole my watch!" whereupon twelve men ran off.

Broadway's unorthodox diagonal thrust through midtown created open plazas otherwise unprovided for by the procrustean grid plan. Union Square resulted from its collision with Fourth Avenue, and then Madison Square came up at Fifth, Greeley and Herald Squares at Sixth, Times and Longacre Squares at Seventh, and Columbus Circle at Eighth. The squares downtown — Washington, Stuyvesant, and Gramercy in particular — were enclosed and protected in such a way that they became private parks for the tightly controlled residences that fronted on them, but Broadway's plazas were open and overrun, and naturally became places of amusement. The theatrical nexus — or one of them, at least — began inching along Broadway after the Revolution, had reached the area around Spring Street just before the Civil War, and thereafter clocked in at each of the squares, one after the other, at approximately ten-year intervals, halting at Times Square at about the same time that that square was so named, when the Times building was erected between 1902 and 1904. Although the appellation the Great White Way did not come until the twentieth century, it was noted much earlier that whatever stretch of Broadway happened to be hosting the greatest number of theaters was the most brilliantly lit area of the city.

Broadway had two shadow companions: starchy, upper-class Fifth Avenue on the one hand, and on the other the Bowery, the proverbial den of all vices. The dichotomy between Broadway and the Bowery began early, as their respective theatrical districts came to epitomize respectability in the case of the former and cheap flash in the latter, and as the years went on, these qualities expanded in the popular mind, so that the two avenues came, however inaccurately, to stand for moral poles. The scene is set, for example, in Charles Hoyt's hit song "The Bowery" (introduced quite irrelevantly into the 1891 musical play A Trip to Chinatown, set in San Francisco), giving the complaint of the rube:

Oh, the night that I struck New York,
I went out for a quiet walk;
Folks who are "on to" the city say,
Better by far that I took Broadway;
But I was out to enjoy the sights,
There was the Bow'ry ablaze with lights;
I had one of the devil's own nights!
I'll never go there anymore


The Bow'ry, the Bow'ry!
They say such things and they do strange
things on the Bow'ry!
The Bow'ry! I'll never go there anymore!


Excerpted from Low Life by Luc Sante. Copyright © 1991 Luc Sante. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
PART 1. Landscape,
PART 2. Sporting Life,
PART 3. The Arm,
PART 4. The Invisible City,
Photo Credits,
Praise for Low Life,
Also by Luc Sante,
About the Author,

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