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Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  2,267 ratings  ·  198 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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Average rating 4.11  · 
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 ·  2,267 ratings  ·  198 reviews

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Mar 03, 2008 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
Apr 28, 2012 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. ...more
Feb 02, 2012 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
Bob Schnell
Books about the bad old days of New York City are my comfort food reading. Luc Sante's "Low Life" is another good addition to my collection. I like the way he presents the city of old in topical chapters such as "Gangland", "Saloon Culture" and "Bohemia." The best is at the end when the author speaks of his youthful life in the city in the 1970s and 80s. His description of walking empty downtown streets at night, envisioning how it must have looked 100 years earlier, hit home with me. So much of ...more
Nov 16, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: crime
I put off reading this because I have read many similar books like Gangs of New York and Five Points. This was the best of the three. The first book read like a Walter Winchell sensationalist dispatch, whereas the latter was somewhat academic in tone.

Sante lived in New York city during the gritty years when an entire apartment could be rented for $100 per month. The 1970s pioneers did not question why a bathtub and a steam iron were standard kitchen appliances. However, a lot of materials from t
Mar 28, 2007 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
Stephen J.
Dec 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Low Life is a biography of NYC from the early 19th century until the teens of the twentieth.

Luc Sante breaks New York down into individual chapters that display the foundations and structure of what made the city what it is today. Housing, Gangland, Cops, Homelessness, Religion, Theatre, Gentrification, Gambling, immigration, Politics, Drugs, Finance, to name a few of the topics delved into.

This is a really well written social study and biography of one of the worlds most important cities.

Dec 29, 2008 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
Sep 18, 2009 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 sense of t
Feb 12, 2010 rated it liked it
Shelves: sociology, history
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
Apr 29, 2013 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
Scarlett O.H.
This book is one of the best about old New York I have read. It helps that the writer and I share a lot of interests. Who could resist a book with such a title as: Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York? I especially enjoyed the authors afterword where he took time to describe New York in the seventies, as it was when he lived there as a young man.
Kevin Connor
Jul 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
It took me forever to finish this-recommended by Nicole Cliffe on Twitter, which means it's been a while since I've been off Twitter for a while. It's pretty workmanlike in its style, which is appealing for nonfiction. I enjoy reading this kind of very specific history ...more
Sep 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, non-fiction
I realise I begin a lot of my reviews of books that I rate highly with some version of "despite the length of time it took me to read this book..." because life and other books that need to be returned to the library promptly become hurdles. It is true for this book as well. But when I actually got a chance to sit down with it, a hundred pages flew by like nothing, because it is that engrossing. Of course because of the subject matter, but Sante organised hundreds of years of detailed history so ...more
Jun 17, 2008 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
Adam Glantz
Sep 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Watching New York's past being erased during the real estate speculation craze of the Reagan era, Luc Sante looks back to an earlier period further below the surface, and its seamier side very much in particular. There are a number of idiosyncrasies here...repetition, long lists of names, abstruse terms without definitions, an unhelpful lack of maps...but the result is a lot of fun, showing that the putatively dangerous New York of the 1970s had its analog in the Bowery and Lower East Side of ye ...more
Dan Henk
Dec 31, 2011 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
Dec 05, 2015 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
Oct 25, 2017 rated it really liked it
So much New York City history I didn't know, about its seedy side and a lot of it about the thousands of ways you could die in it. It's amazing anyone survived. Riots and fires and gang wars and doctored alcohol and race riots and robberies and tons of poor people warehoused in truly horrible buildings and conditions. People who thought the 1970s was a rough time in NYC have no idea. Also, so many very colorfully named people.

My edition has an afterword by the author written about a decade afte
Jul 04, 2011 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. ...more
David Ward
Sep 23, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: crime, non-fiction
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. ...more
Peter Zalmayev
Feb 13, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2013
for NY-lovers out there - not to be missed
Mar 30, 2014 rated it it was amazing
"Night is forgotten and endlessly repeated; it is glorious and it sits next door to death." ...more
Eveline Chao
God bless the mysterious neighbor who left this in the lobby of my apartment building. (And all the other neighbors who have turned the lobby into a book-swap area!)
Aug 07, 2020 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nyc, finished-2020
Such a disappointment! I was really looking forward to reading this book. It's ticks all the right boxes in terms of my interests - urban history, nyc, crime - yet it fell flat for me. What happened?

First, I must give Sante the credit he deserves for his amazing, meticulous research. Wow. He left no stone unturned. It must have been a lot of fun, doing all that fact-finding. So what's my problem if I think he includes so much worthwhile information?

In short, Sante has no idea how to take his vol
May 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
"The night is the corridor of history, not the history of famous people or great events, but that of the marginal, the ignored, the suppressed, the unacknowledged; the history of vice, of error, of confusion, of fear, of want; the history of intoxication, of vainglory, of delusion, of dissipation, of delirium. It strips off the city's veneer of progress and modernity and civilization and reveals the wilderness. In New York City it is an acculturated wilderness that contains all the accumulated c ...more
JM Scarpati
May 06, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Required reading for all those who aspire to drink in New York City bars...

There's a reason this is a classic and why it remains so popular 30 years after it's publication. Mr. Sante captures in this book a glossed over history of one of the greatest cities civilization has ever conceived. And he does it not only with research and facts and data, but instead with the eyes and ears of an artist.

"Low Life" is, much like the city of its subject matter, organized chaos. Mr. Sante loops and circles
Sep 01, 2018 rated it liked it
Sante states in the preface that "this is by no means a work of academic history." Bro, you could've fooled me. The sheer amount of historical information, colorful details, and primary sources packed into this book is at the scholarly level. This book is an absolute treasure trove for people interested in a historically accurate and interesting account of the lower classes, vice, and criminal underworld of 19th century New York.

It's not perfect though. The organization is odd and results in som
Susan Williams
Feb 27, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Absolutely Brilliant!!!

Exquisitely wrought story of the Five Points area of NYC particularly emphasizing the late 19th-early 20th century. Crooks, gangs, orphans, ladies of the night, poverty, fires, riots, cops on the take, politicos just as corrupt, low theater and other bits of dregs of history are exquisitely brought to life by the author who lived in the area in the late seventies and came to love it, rotten tenements, heroin addicts and all. Beautifully researched and organically organized
Rowland Hill
Oct 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition

Everything you ever wanted to know about New York but were afraid to ask. With this book you can plunge into the life of late nineteenth century New York. Not the one of recorded history but that of the underside, the unrecorded or obscure that you’re unlikely to find elsewhere without intense investigation. At times a little too much like a laundry list of names but with so many gems that it should not be missed. I certainly can never see my favorite city in the same light after reading thi
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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, and The Factory of Facts and Folk Photography. He currently teaches creative writing and the history of photography at Bard College i ...more

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