Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York” as Want to Read:
Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York

4.11 of 5 stars 4.11  ·  rating details  ·  1,442 ratings  ·  135 reviews
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 ...more
Paperback, 460 pages
Published November 24th 2003 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1991)
more details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about Low Life, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about Low Life

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
filter  |  sort: default (?)  |  rating details
In order to fully appreciate this book, you need to understand the context in which it was written: Luc Sante – who lived in New York City for many years, from the early 70’s to the late 90’s – experienced the New York of legend: fires, crime, blackouts, junkies, empty lots, derelict buildings. But he was also able to see and explore the mostly untouched artifacts from the previous century – the remnants of barrooms and theatres and tenement housing.

Then, in the 1980’s, when money and developers
This is a fascinating tour of New York's Bowery which in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a hotbed of gambling, prostitution, and nefarious cons working every conceivable angle on the city's unsuspecting and credulous. It is a breathtaking and enormously entertaining catalog of roguery, well written and researched, that left this reader filled with admiration. Highly recommended.
Mar 28, 2007 Sam rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: NYC Junkies who want to meet the ghosts.
This has really enlivened my experience in NYC. Highly anecdotal and well-researched account of the street gangs, urchins, gamblers, actors, criminals and small-time entrepreneurs of Old New York. You meet the cast of characters who used to move amongst these very streets.

While Sante's view is unromantic, his stories show that pre-bureaucracy city allowed for moments of cultural thriving unseen today. Imagine audiences caring enough about theater to throw rotten produce at acts they didn't like
Mar 04, 2009 Dan rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: yes
Recommended to Dan by: NY times article
I enjoyed this book thoroughly. The book is about New York in the years 1850-1920 from the perspective of the poor, the corrupt, the criminal, the slum dwellers, the theater goers, the rioters and the bohemians (among others). After a slow start in which he covers the physical characteristics of NY as it expanded from Danish village to a city of tenements, he begins to the tell the ridiculously unlawful history of a young NY growing into the huge metropolis we know now. Its amazing to hear about ...more
An interesting anecdotal look at the underbelly of New York City during the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. It succeeds in conveying the flavor of the squalor and the brutality of the city's past, but Sante's history falls victim to it's colorful details. The structure of the book, with each element of the underworld -- saloons, prostitution, gangs -- getting its own chapter, necessarily leads to a surfeit of repetition and disconnected repeat appearances by prominent players. List of names ...more
I am a huge fan of historical writing, especially social history. I care about the broader political context that informs most history, but I also really want to know about the little things, too - what people ate, what they were wearing, what they did for fun, how they lived day-to-day. This book will give a sense of all of that (plus the politics) & more.

Luc Sante was an advisor on the movie, The Gangs of New York, & if you keep the way that movie looked in your head you might get a se
An exhaustively researched and exceedingly well written history of "the darker side of life" in New York City circa mid-1800's through about 1920, this should be on the book shelf of any SERIOUS New York City history buff and anyone else interested in the history of crime and vice in urban culture in America.

From the book's back cover:
"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, a
Luc Sante tells the story of the rabble in New York City roughly between 1840 and 1920, and it is an unflinching tale replete with sex and violence and crooked politics. He revels in these factors almost as much as the supposedly disgusted upright citizens who visit the featured low haunts so as to properly admonish against them. However, his tract does not smack of hypocrisy as the others did. He revels in every aspect of the human drama that played itself out on the Bowery and in the Tenderloi ...more
Dan Henk
Luc was brought in as a consultant on the Scorsese film "Gangs of New York", and you can certainly see why. Eye opening and shocking, Luc does a far better job of conveying the horrible conditions immigrants suffered under than more famous works like "The Jungle". Unlike a string of preachy, "socialism is the magic answer to everything" early and middle century diatribes put as "period novels", Luc dishes out the heartless facts. He also happens to make them more sad and compelling in the proces ...more
Off The Shelf
Suzanne Donahue reviewed Low Life on

Whores, Cops, and Orphans: New York City When It Was Fun by Suzanne Donahue

When I first moved to New York City I lived on the Lower East Side. It was the early ‘80’s when the city was starting to change but was still down at the heels. My neighborhood was a land of rundown tenement buildings, the kind with broken front stoops, yellow-walled cracked-tile halls, tiny rooms with barred windows, the tub in the kitchen and sometimes, the bathroom
Low Life is a history of New York City's underbelly - the gambling, corrupt cops, tenements, prostitutes, etc. While a wonderful premise for a book, the execution rarely rises above the level of a catalog. Each chapter is basically a list (Smelly Joe did X on Houston, rival gang leader did Y on Broadway), making for horribly tedious reading. The one chapter I did like was about the draft riots. If you're interested in New York history, I'd recommend the PBS documentary ("New York") instead.
A decent overview of the history of New York's underworld, poverty and vices in the mid-nineteenth to early-twentieth centuries.

Although the subject matter would seem quite interesting, I thought the author approached it in a bit of a dry manner at times. For example, making a list of names of famous gangster in the Lower East Side without telling us anything about these people is useless for the reader. Perhaps it serves as documentation, but the reader of the book will likely not need nor rem
Davide di Cagno-Hagen
This text is fantastic. The writing is academic without being pedantic, it's colorful but lacks hyperbole. It's amazing reading about New York City in the late 19th century, with buildings and places meticulously referenced by street-corners and addresses, and being able to take a walk to that area to see what's left, or what it has become. Especially today, this book is important as the city faces a whole slew of changes, for good and worse. The text tries (and perhaps just my interpretation) i ...more
"Night is forgotten and endlessly repeated; it is glorious and it sits next door to death."
Kevin Hilke
"The children of privilege who were moving into tastefully done up flats and were about to start calling themselves New Yorkers, even Lower East Siders, and who might continue to live there without strife—they might go decades without once having spent a winter wearing an overcoat and hat, sitting in front of an open oven, or having to move pots and pans and furniture hurriedly by subway in the middle of the night, or having confronted a burglar at the foot of their bed, or having bottles thrown ...more
Chilly SavageMelon
A great focus on lesser appreciated aspects of NYC life between the Civil and 1st World Wars. An absolute must for anyone who has enjoyed Ashbury's 'Gangs of New York'. While that author comes off as attempting to be scholarly and is as a result dry, Sante brings the authenticity and obvious love of a bohemian dweller in the city during it's more recent squalor of the later 70's/early 80's. He gets most personal on these points in the afterword, but throughout these experiences color his choice ...more
Sante's "Low Life" is a direct descendant of Asbury's "Gangs of New York", and like its predecessor, it does a good job telling the story of New York's underbelly during the 19th and early 20th Century. Sante is better than Asbury in many ways– he extends his exploration far beyond crime, delving into subjects as diverse as gambling, geography, politics, drinking, theater, and immigration. But like Asbury, he can get a little listy, and sometimes piles on too many anecdotes or names, and that ma ...more
This book is stuffed with odd little anecdotes, some only one or two sentences long, about the lower class of Manhattan during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The descriptions are so ceaseless and the tone very distant from the subjects so that you feel as though Sante is using pointillism from a bird's eye view. I'll probably hop around the book because not all the nitty-gritty descriptions interest me, but, oh boy, there are some hilarious, hilarious passages. Example:

"This hostelry later b
Aug 08, 2013 A rated it 2 of 5 stars
Shelves: read-2013
Meh. This book is a lot of lists of names and places and snippets of song lyrics, and that's about it. Even the pictures are lame. Whole is definitely much less than the sum of the preposterously-overresearched and poorly-edited parts here. And whatever you do, do NOT read the pretentious and completely clueless Afterword added in 2003.

Of course, if you want to really get a sense of this fascinating, too little known, yet very formative period in New York City's history, you probably already kn
Luc Sante's Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York takes a look at an edgier and less wholesome side of the Big Apple long before it became the city it is today. The book covers a breathe of topics, and is well-written for the most part. The book itself is broken up into four parts: "Landscape", "The Sporting Life", "The Arm" and "The Invisible City". We go back to a time where vice and sin became institutions in New York.

My main problem with the book is that towards the end, it largely beco
An exhaustively researched portrait of the New York of the nineteenth and early twentieth century which ignores the rise of the boosters and big business and concentrates on the city's vast underbelly. The "anything goes" atmosphere of the period is striking as the young nation began to find its feet, although New York was, as now, more of an international city state than an intrinsically American city.

This is the period depicted in the Scorsese film "Gangs of New York" and just as that film is
Alex Morfesis
The best nonfiction, whether it's about antiquity or the present, informs today. I don't look at the same NYC as I did before I read Sante's book. I am now haunted by an endless procession of the city's nameless ghosts: tenement dwellers, con men, gangsters, prostitutes, Bowery boys, rioters, drunks, politicos, anarchists, mayhem men and the rest.

Which leads me to the question: How did the city become so tame in comparison to its past? Will another history be written about how this lawless, diso
This book made me geek out so intensely I went for a walk in Lower Manhattan just to try and imagine what it must have been like in the late 19th century.

The most poignant for me was learning how below the Verrazano Bridge there is an artificial ledge that was built from the wreckage of condemned tenement apartment buildings. The rubble is full of various organisms that are particularly attractive to fish, so, as Sante writes, "The most hostile environment proves the most fecund: having nurture
An account of crime-ridden NYC in the eighteen and early nineteen hundreds; some chapters, gambling and gangs, I skipped and others, on prostitution and entertainment, weren’t long enough. Some horrifying things happened in this city back in the day, to where the NYPD seem pale in comparison to some of the ruling forces in the city way back when. One fact I especially liked is that 5th Av is built exactly halfway in the island of Manhattan, equidistant from the two rivers surrounding it; when th ...more
After a summer of not reading much I devoured this book in two weeks. It is a densely written history (1850 - 1920) of the experiences of the the very poorest in New York with a focus on individuals who had contact with the state through activity that was criminalized or individuals whom were called out by the moral crusaders of each period.

Sante presents a mix of historical fact with anecdotes as well as balancing an overall picture with stories of individuals.

It is interesting in a "the more
Xander Ring
After reading Low Life I was reminded why no crime in America should ever be thought of as shocking or new. It has all been done before. This book is a great catalog and history of the underbelly of New York. Luc Sante chronicles the murders, drinking, corruption and whoring with a dry wit. The descriptions of some of the characters are priceless. An example:

"Sadie the Goat, a former East Side barfly best known for having had an ear chewed off in a fight by the formidable Gallus Mag, of the Hole
Read all the five star reviews about this book before deciding to read it. Luc Sante definately has a way with words and has an excellent vocabulary. Some of the chapters and sections were extremely hard to get through. Boring and tiresome and drawn out.
I read this book for the US History thesis paper. It is about life in NYC from the 1840s to 1919. I think that is very interesting because it portrays the city in a way that many people don't perceive as. Many people think that NYC is great and glamorous, but there are parts where things aren't as fancy and as beautiful. NYC was very different back then because the economy wasn't as great especially after 2 World Wars. There was prostitution, gambling, drugs and drinking. Those still exist today ...more
Jon Boorstin
A vivid re-imagining of the underside of Old New York. Sante makes it real, but he also makes it exotic, and seductive. While you're holding your nose, and counting your blessings, you still want to live there.
New York City circa 1860-1900, when even the Victorian era bourgeois were knife and gun wielding gang members con men and crooks, but LowLife focuses particularly on the lower rungs of society in americas first major metropolis. Sante goes into great detail on the origins of many if NYCs defacto geographic and cultural landscapes. The Bowery Boys and their dive bars, New York as vice capital, Broadway theatres, and the paved over past of rickety tenements and neighborhood gangs. pre-automobile, ...more
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 99 100 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »
  • A Pickpocket's Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth-Century New York
  • Five Points: The Nineteenth-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections and Became the World's Most Notorious Slum
  • Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898
  • The Gangs of New York
  • The Historical Atlas of New York City: A Visual Celebration of Nearly 400 Years of New York City's History
  • New York
  • Waterfront: A Walk Around Manhattan
  • Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City
  • The Epic of New York City: A Narrative History
  • How the Other Half Lives
  • Forgotten New York: Views of a Lost Metropolis
  • A Walker in the City
  • Appetite City: A Culinary History of New York
  • Conquering Gotham: A Gilded Age Epic: The Construction of Penn Station and Its Tunnels
  • Up in the Old Hotel
  • The Murder of Helen Jewett: The Life and Death of a Prostitute in Nineteenth-Century New York
  • Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century
  • Here Is New York
Kill All Your Darlings: Pieces 1990-2005 Evidence The Factory of Facts Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard, 1905-1930 Walker Evans

Share This Book

“Night is the permanent revolution, that of the globe. Every sundown the streets change, becoming sinister or libidinous, or, for that matter, longer or narrower or unexpectedly twisted. The familiar rebels against those who presume to know it. The map is altered and time is telescoped. Daylight restores things to their normal condition, or is that really their normal condition? The map of the city wrinkles and unfolds, wrinkles and unfolds.” 0 likes
“The speed of change was ruthless, but it was more a promise than a threat.” 0 likes
More quotes…