Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York. Luc Sante.

Sante, Luc. Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1991. NF; 4/16.

Sante was part of the post-hippy bohemian crowd that hung out on the Bowery in the 1970s, associated with the club CBGB and performers like Patti Smith. His early passion appears to have been details of history, and he spent vast amounts of time in old archives, some of that time in pre-computer days when literature searches took place in dark musty stacks. He has since done a lot more writing and other artistic work and was recently interviewed in the Paris Review.

There’s a fair bit of critical attention focused on his work’s inhabiting the grey zone between fiction and nonfiction. This story covers the period of time roughly from 1850-1930, and evokes in a style almost reminiscent of a contemporary broadcaster’s exaggeration the bad old days in dirty old Manhattan, much of the southern half of which consisted during those years of quite real poverty with all its terrible consequences.

Prostitution, small-time organized crime, drugs, booze, graft, police brutality, gang violence, and lives that were definitely nasty, brutish, and short were everywhere. Civic government is presented by Sante as not just corrupt but openly so, based it is implied on an ethic that presumed that a moral hierarchy roughly parallels the financial one. Hobos and hookers were fundamentally filthy and dirty morally as well as physically and they belonged where they were and deserved all the abuse regularly visited on them.

That breathtakingly straightforward worldview extended to the civic administration at Tammany Hall, focused on enriching the people at the top and keeping everyone else either satisfied with lesser payoffs or huddling in fear of cops and gangs, according to Mr Sante.

I was interested in his brief essay on bohemianism, where he identifies its start with Edgar Allen Poe. The left, he implies, became home territory between slum lowlifes and rich entitled criminals, which arrangement persisted into the present. It was during Sante’s early adult years that the form of gentrification of the south end of Manhattan associated with the baby boom generation’s coming-of-age began, it now of course having so thoroughly run its course that you have to be almost as rich as a greedy NYC mayor of the 1890s to afford to live, let alone own property, there.

Although much older, old New York chronicler Joseph Mitchell served a similar rich documentary function to Luc Sante’s, although he painted a softer more charming picture of the city’s early middle-age. Here, one is left with the pretty startling impression that although we may now popularly bemoan inequality, administrative and institutional dishonesty, and advantage being taken of the unfortunate, things not only could be, but in the not-too-distant past very much were, much much worse. 7.9/7.5.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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