Library Pick: Low Life by Luc Sante
The seediness that used to characterize New York neighborhoods like Hell's Kitchen and the East Village has diminished. However, in his meticulously researched book Low Life (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1991), writer Luc Sante says there is still ample evidence of what he calls "lost history," the stories of New Yorkers who lived on the bottom rungs of society.
Low Life tries to reconstruct this history, examining life on the margins from around 1840 to the end of World War I. The final product is full of gas-lit streets, suicide saloons, brothels, confidence men, gangsters, and political bosses.
As a result of a reputation gained from this book, Sante was hired as a "technical adviser" for Martin Scorsese's film, "The Gangs of New York." But Low Life is in no way a technical book, a work of academic history; there is no central argument. Rather, he strives to create a tableau of New York's nineteenth century underworld through anecdotal evidence and urban legends. He offers character portraits of gang members like Hell-Cat Maggie, who "filed her teeth to points and wore artificial brass fingernails," and describes brothels where patrons were routinely swindled out of large sums of money or simply robbed.
The book is divided into chapters devoted to a certain aspect of "low life," such as gambling, saloon culture, and theater. Much of Low Life, like the book from which Sante clearly took his inspiration, Herbert Asbury's 1927 Gangs of New York, is a tedious barrage of unfamiliar names.
But Sante often emerges with some important insights. He points out that youth gangs in their earliest incarnations were not criminal in nature: "As a social unit, the gang closely resembled such organizations as the fire company, the fraternal order, and the political club, and all these formations variously overlapped." In the context of early nineteenth century New York, the gang was simply another faction in an ongoing territorial struggle.
By definition, "lost history" is difficult to tell. Early New York's gangsters, sex workers, con men, and various scoundrels did not leave behind documentation of the same caliber as those in the higher echelons of society. In Low Life, Sante offers a colorful, sympathetic portrait of the people who shaped New York City -- or at least, the legends that guide it still.
See Also -- Bookshelf: Gangs Of New York
The movie "Gangs Of New York," directed by Martin Scorcese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day Lewis, has brought renewed attention to the city's long colorful history of criminal gangs, and especially to the Five Points, which historian Edwin Burrows calls "New York's most infamous neighborhood, singled out by generations of reformers and journalists as a hive of nightmarish squalor, violence, disease and crime."
Is Gangs of New York Historically Accurate?