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Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York
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Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York

4.1  ·  Rating Details ·  1,786 Ratings  ·  156 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, 464 pages
Published November 24th 2003 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 1991)
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Feb 17, 2015 Kyle rated it really liked it
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
Jul 17, 2012 William1 rated it really liked it
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 really liked it
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
Dec 05, 2015 Gurldoggie rated it it was amazing
An alternative history of New York as told by that city's losers - gamblers, whores, drug addicts and cops. Rich in wonderfully told episodes of forgotten lore - the Doctor's riot of 1788, the brothels created specifically for police - this book is an absolute treasure trove of the long forgotten angry, creative, chaotic and mad people who created New York City. If anything the wealth of detail can get TOO overwhelming at times, but the stories are great and well researched, and pretty much all ...more
Nov 21, 2015 Richard rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: lovers of New York, history buffs
Recommended to Richard by: Derek Parsons, Sante's Evidence
I am a real fan of New York, but this was mentioned to me by a former student who was going to hear Sante talking about The Other Paris.

I certainly did enjoy the book which follows the movement of the city northward. I am only now getting south, away from the upper East Side and Midtown into the Financial area and around the new Whitney Museum. 23rd Street and south. As the title suggests, this focuses on the tenements, Five Corners, the Bowery in its heyday, etc. Starting with the island itself
Mar 04, 2009 Dan rated it really liked it
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
Jan 11, 2017 Fallopia rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
What? I haven't written a review of this masterpiece yet?

Luc Sante's Low Life depicts a grimy and unpleasant New York City, one the city's reputation still draws on.

Although I read this book over ten years ago—and went to a booksigning and have an autographed copy—vivid images of locations very close to where I live still beckon.

The Five Points—now the location of New York City's civic center—is generally known by now to have been New York's most notorious slum, with certain dives and bars arou
Oct 08, 2009 Caitlin rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2009
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
Feb 22, 2010 Jake rated it liked it
Shelves: history, sociology
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
Feb 06, 2012 Anmiryam rated it liked it
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
Nov 18, 2015 Georgie rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating insight into the darker side of New York City history.

Luc Sante takes a rather unusual perspective on New York's history in that he doesn't focus on the rich, famous or infamous residents of the city, or on the mostly legitimate and hardworking members of the working class. Instead he tells the story of the 'low life' of the city - little known small-time and big time crooks, scam artists, prostitutes and their clients, the homeless, drunks and drug addicts, the orphans that ran th
Aug 08, 2013 A rated it it was ok
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
Jul 02, 2008 Annie rated it really liked it
Shelves: us-history
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
Jan 05, 2013 Dan Henk rated it it was amazing
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
David Ward
May 08, 2016 David Ward rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, crime
Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York by Luc Sante (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 1991)(974.71) is a fascinating account of New York City 1840-1913 in Manhattan. The book includes overviews of crime, gangs, politics, gambling, liquor and drug sales, and was the basis of the movie "The Gangs of New York." My personal favorite discovery is the title of a song sung in the bars about 1910: "Teach Our Baby That I'm Dead" (p. 137). My rating: 7/10, finished 9/23/11.
Jul 04, 2011 Alicia rated it it was ok
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.
Peter Zalmayev
Mar 25, 2013 Peter Zalmayev rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2013
for NY-lovers out there - not to be missed
May 06, 2014 Kathleen rated it it was amazing
"Night is forgotten and endlessly repeated; it is glorious and it sits next door to death."
Filip Tufvesson
Oct 03, 2016 Filip Tufvesson rated it liked it
Thoroughly researched but a tedium of listings.
Apr 20, 2016 David rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
La historia de cómo se gestó la ciudad de Nueva York, desde comienzos del siglo XIX hasta la primera guerra mundial. Nueva York como epicentro de una democracia de la que copiamos todo, hasta sus renglones torcidos. Pero no es la historia de grandes nombres como Lincoln o Rockefeller que edificaron torres y sueños. Está contada escarbando en su basura. Basándose en lo que realmente es la base de una sociedad. Los que están abajo y no se mueven de ahí. Fijándose en el Bowery. Luc Sante tiene la c ...more
Kevin Hilke
Aug 17, 2014 Kevin Hilke rated it really liked it
Shelves: criticism, history
"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
Sep 15, 2016 Todd rated it did not like it
How could you make such fascinating history, with such fascinating stories this tedious to read?
Badly written. Badly edited.
Chapter cover different subjects, and rather than refer us to anothe spot in the book where one story fits better, he repeats the same stories over and over.
Oliver Bateman
Jun 13, 2016 Oliver Bateman rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
a lyrical love letter to old new york that relies perhaps a bit too heavily on a couple published sources (asbury's 1928 classic gangs of new york, most notably, but lots of "trap guides" of the late 1800s too) in the course of giving us a panoramic view of the dark underbelly of olde new york. this is totally forgivable, and sante himself admits he was just digging stuff out of the new york public library archives (which are pretty fantastic, btw; it's not like he grabbed a table near a dusty b ...more
Chilly SavageMelon
Jul 21, 2014 Chilly SavageMelon rated it really liked it
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
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
Sam Reed
Jan 02, 2016 Sam Reed rated it liked it
An entertaining, gutter-eye view history of NYC, full of great details (imagine combination saloon/brothel/dancehalls with names such as "McGurk's Suicide Hall", "The Hell Hole", "The Ruins", and "The Rat Pit" (which featured an actual rat pit in the center of the floor, where bets would be placed on how many rats a terrier could kill in a minute, or sometimes it was a man with steel-bottom boots)). Sante has a real knack for great details and anecdotes, which makes this book quite an entertaini ...more
Sep 01, 2011 Mbreaden rated it really liked it
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
Oct 12, 2009 Rob rated it really liked it
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
Jan 05, 2015 Robert rated it liked it
Shelves: history
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
Alex Morfesis
Feb 17, 2009 Alex Morfesis rated it it was amazing
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
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Luc Sante was born in Verviers Belgium and emigrated to the United States in the early 1960s. Since 1984, he has been a teacher and writer, and frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books. His publications include Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, The Factory of Facts and Folk Photography. He currently teaches creative writing and the history of photography at Bard College in Ne ...more
More about Luc Sante...

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“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.” 2 likes
“The speed of change was ruthless, but it was more a promise than a threat.” 1 likes
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