Thursday, December 27, 2007

Low Life!

As I have already written about here, there have been many great, and even more not so great writers that have made NYC their muse. There have been books that cover everything from the high Aristocracy of 19th century NY, the drug culture and hard living of the 50s and 60s poets, the unqualified love of Walt Whitman and even the subculture of living in the subway tunnels. I have read more about NYC than almost any other topic and there is only one book I would recommend to absolutely everyone:

Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York by Luc Sante. Sante is a Belgian immigrant, long denizen of the lower east side, writer, professor, photographer and the greatest social historian of the people of NY this side of Jacob Riis. He has gained recent acknowledgment for this last part since writing Low Life in 1991. His name reached international exposure after he was used by Martin Scorsese on the set of Gangs Of New York to add historically accurate details to the movie (if like many, you don't like this's not his fault, the historic details were dead on).

I read this book for the 1st time ten years ago and just recently completed my 5th reading of it. The first time I read it, I read it like a story and it read amazingly well. Sante claims that it is not an academic book. Well, i dare anyone to find an academic book of the same topic that holds as many well researched details and dead-on historic anecdotes. What this book does better than any non-fiction book I have ever read is treat the topic with a genuine love and respect. It is not a cold telling of history but a verbal painting of a time that has been an enigma in the History of America's Urban past.

The book covers Manhattan exclusively from 1840-1920. Sante outlines the neighborhoods and ethnicity of New Yorkers and how they evolved, devolved and morphed over that time. He spends a great amount of time telling the notorious stories of the Bowery, 5 Points and all the "Low Life" hot spots of the NY degenerate underground. He touches on all the personalities we know like Boss Tweed and P.T. Barnum but also on a host of unsavory characters that seem too cartoonish to be real.

Like other great books that have outlined the political landscape of NY (Power Broker, Gotham, etc.) Low Life doesn't pull punches on the abject corruption and free dealing that the policy makers used to build their empires. However, what this book does that all the others barely touch on is that the true power of NY always came from the masses and their habits. One of my long time favorite political slogans has always been "If the people lead, the leaders will follow". Well in NY for most of its history, the masses even while being pushed into the lowest slums this world has ever seen, had more effect on what the corrupt politician did than in almost any other city.

If you have ever lived in loved or visited Manhattan, Read this book. You will find Sante's stories relevant still and find his view of our history around every community garden, dive bar, and historic graveyard that you walk past every day.

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