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Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  2,129 ratings  ·  184 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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 ·  2,129 ratings  ·  184 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 70s to the late 90s 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 1980s, when money and developers came
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.
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
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
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
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
Sep 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, history
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 13, 2012 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 agoand went to a booksigning and have an autographed copyvivid images of locations very close to where I live still beckon.

The Five Pointsnow the location of New York City's civic centeris generally known by now to have been New York's most notorious slum, with certain dives and bars around
Feb 12, 2010 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 ...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
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 ...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 ...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
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 ...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
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.
David Ward
Sep 23, 2011 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.
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!)
Mar 30, 2014 rated it it was amazing
"Night is forgotten and endlessly repeated; it is glorious and it sits next door to death."
Peter Zalmayev
Feb 13, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2013
for NY-lovers out there - not to be missed
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 ...more
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
Catherine Siemann
Aug 23, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Rereading an old favorite. It's still evocative, still rich with information, and still covers an angle that's often neglected. Two decades of gentrification later, and many of the echoes that Sante could still see at the time he was writing have gone, especially from the Lower East Side. Subsequent research suggests that some of facts aren't quite accurate -- I'm still recovering from the heartbreak of learning that the Dead Rabbits may not have been real. But very much worth the read.
Kirsten T
Apr 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Five stars as a fun and readable book (which is how this was written), but three or four stars as a history. Because it's divided topically the chronology is confusing, and the citations are minimal so this would be difficult to use as a source. Reading it inspired me to re-watch Gangs of New York, which is a terrible movie, and I really should dock it a star for that too but I won't.
Oct 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The language and detail in this book are the best of journalistic rigor and artistic virtuosity. Sante writes as if he were there and saw it all himself, lived through it, the dirt, the dark, the daring and darlings that made me see NYC for the first time as a gem, albeit dusty and faulty, of a city.
Hilton King
Mar 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
People of my generation are always down on transcends and millennials. But if we lived in the times described in this book we would have all been massacred.

Great book. And if you don't think you'll like it, if you're from New York and in your late 40's early 50's at least read the afterward which describes the city in the time we were born into it.
Jacquelynn Inyama
I used this book for research for my novel "Flowers in the Promised Land". I had plenty of information on the antebellum south, but was challenged for information about pre-civil war New York. This book provided me a wealth of information.
Dec 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I have become a huge fan of Luc Sante's writing style. He seems to bring everything to life very vividly. It was interested to see this hidden history of where I reside. My favorite chapter had to be learning about the feud between Broadway & Bowery.
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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 ...more

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