LOW LIFE by Luc Sante


Lures and Snares of Old New York
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 A guided tour through Manhattan's demimonde of the last century, conducted with exquisite relish by East Village journalist Sante (Esquire, The Village Voice, etc.), who speaks with all the authority of an eyewitness. Between the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the passage of the Volstead Act in 1919, N.Y.C. grew from a minor port to an international metropolis. The cost of this development was immense: Real-estate speculation transformed whole tracts of open farmland into city blocks overnight; inadequate sewage and sanitation systems bred perennial epidemics; municipal government passed from the hands of patrician amateurs to those of ruthless demagogues; and the number of poor swelled far beyond the ability of the city to absorb and provide for them. Sante paints a portrait of extraordinary corruption and vitality, which entices almost to the degree it horrifies. ``This book can be seen as an attempt at a mythology of New York,'' he claims at the start, but it is a mythology of antiheroes in which no one comes off terribly well. We are presented, in four sections, with a look at the changing topography of the city (``Landscape''), the development of the various entertainments--in decreasing order of wholesomeness and legality--for which the city was famed (``Sporting Life''), the political and criminal forces that struggled to gain ascendancy during this period (``The Arm''), and--most hauntingly--the drifters, orphans, bohemians, and assorted lumpen masses who made up the ranks of the forgotten and despised (``The Invisible City''). The vignettes are priceless: the brothel managed by an ex- seminarian, complete with Bibles in every room and daily prayers at noon and midnight; the ``Doctor's Riot'' of 1788 (set off by rumors of grave-robbing in the medical schools), which ended in the massacre or forcible eviction of every physician in town. A rich delight. And for hapless New Yorkers who find themselves worn down by the present-day chaos of their city, Sante provides a strangely heartening reminder that nothing much has changed. (Nicely illustrated with rare photographs of the period- -some seen.)

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1991
ISBN: 0-374-19414-9
Page count: 326pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1991


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