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Luc Sante, 1998
As the 21st Century looms ever closer, one of the most relevant reads these days has to be Luc Sante's Low Life, which chronicles the almost unknown lower depths of turn-of-the-(last) century New York City. Its descriptions of child prostitution houses, suicide parlors, drug gangs, and vices that one might believe to be a strictly recent phenomenon, is an eye-opener even for today's seen-it-all urbanite.

Author/critic/professor Sante has also compiled Evidence, a book of anonymous police forensic photographs from the same era, which makes for a potent visual companion to Low Life. His most recent book, The Factory of Facts, is both a meditation on personal history and a memoir of the culture shock he experienced as a child transplanted from Belgium to New Jersey in the late '50s.

When we wanted to travel back to the netherworld of old New York with Luc Sante, Billy Miller, the editor of Straight To Hell (also known as the Manhattan Review of Unnatural Acts), seemed like the right person for the job.

BILLY: There are so many parallels between the turn of the last century and this one, except today people seem to have the idea that the future is going to be just like now — only worse.
LUC: I think that may be a realistic view of the problem. Essentially, I wrote Low Life as a kind of farewell to the Lower East Side. I had lived there for fourteen years altogether and nowadays I don't even really like to go there and walk around. It's so completely different from the way it was, especially in the '70s when I moved there. At the time, it was half empty. Buildings were burning from landlord arson. Every evening you'd look east and there would be huge fires.
BILLY: Now they're getting $1200 a month and up for a one bedroom apartment.
LUC: There were very few people there because the immigrants had been driven out and then the hippies went away, partly because the neighborhood got very violent in the early '70s as a result of amphetamines. I mean, there were gun battles in the street. So by the time we showed up, it was up for grabs. You could get an apartment for a hundred bucks. It had this feeling of being a very small town, and you sort of got to know everyone. Nobody had any money. Everything was a scavenger economy. I started writing Low Life when the big real estate push came in about '83. It started with the galleries, and suddenly everything was being transformed. The whole flavor of the place was lost. In a way, the book has an autobiographical component which is completely sunk into it, very hard to find. I was interested among other things in - well, one way to put it is that I was having my doubts that the past was indeed the time of family values ...
BILLY: Thank you.
LUC: ... if "virtues" reigned in the past. And I was curious about how much the lives of the people who'd lived in the neighborhood in the century before resembled the lives of my friends and myself. You know, how all the things we saw around us — drugs, crime, prostitution — whether that had always been a factor in the neighborhood.
BILLY: And it seems like it was?
LUC: It was, indeed.
BILLY: From that era we hear mostly about the famous Victorian morals — it's as if nobody even sneezed.
LUC: Right. But you know, Victorian values were a thin whitewash placed over the rather more bitter reality. Victorian values certainly reigned among the middle classes, which in those days were far less numerous and comparatively more prosperous too.
BILLY: I was surprised to read about how there were ads in the popular press for masseurs and abortionists and things like that, not unlike today, although the coding is different. A lot of the terms we use now weren't even known or invented in those days. So if you want to look up say, homosexuality, there's no such word. It didn't even exist.
LUC: That's right. It's an invention of the late 19th century.
BILLY: What kind of things did you look for, that were sort of red flags?
LUC: Oh boy, well in terms of homosexuality, that wasn't even coded in personal ads, that was something that happened by eye contact in certain bars, period. If you're talking about the use of printed words, you'd have to go to England to find anything equivalent. But yeah, by the 1880s there were gay bars on the Bowery.
BILLY: There was a place I read about called Paresis Hall that Caleb Carr mentions in his book The Alienist.
LUC: Yeah. Notice the name, Paresis — that's a word you don't hear anymore.
BILLY: What does that mean?
LUC: It was a disease. I'm not sure what it corresponds to today. Some kind of central nervous system manifestation that people believed was the outcome of certain types of sexual activity.
BILLY: It's funny they would name a place like that.
Well, think about the equivalent, in a way it's like getting a kind of glamour out of its opposite. It was a way to keep out everybody but the initiated.
BILLY: Oh, like the Toilet in the '70s. It's interesting that people then had that odd sense of humor that we almost don't give them credit for. We tend to think of them as being so na•ve.
LUC: Right. Everybody thinks their ancestors were dull.
BILLY: The book also exposes how drugs were in fact introduced first to the middle class.
LUC: Oh yeah, everybody forgets about how women of a certain class really didn't have anything to do all day because they had servants and so on. They became "neurasthenic," as the term was in those days, and they would go to their doctor for prescribed laudanum or something like that, and they just basically became junkies. It was perfectly legal, and it was cheap, so they could just stay that way forever.
The lower classes got to it a different way. First of all, you have to consider the economics of it. I mean anybody could go to a drugstore and get laudanum and it wasn't very expensive, but the lower classes didn't go to drug stores. They couldn't afford anything. What made the difference was opium, which of course was imposed upon the Chinese population by the British East India Company.
BILLY: And it was introduced here by the Chinese.
LUC: Exactly. It was taken up by a certain kind of class that would probably correspond to what we think of as bohemians now, which is actors, dancers, swindlers, card players, racetrack touts. They discovered the opium dens. Big time gamblers would make a score and they'd disappear into the opium dens. Word gets around. It starts to get glamorous. People start doing it. This was a certain kind of Bohemia, the kind of people who were really outside of class. They had money sporadically, they lived extralegally, they didn't follow moral strictures.
There was upper class tourism into Chinatown and there were fake opium dens that were staged for the entertainment of these people. They were people who went into them to get their jollies and not only take opium but be in the surroundings. And then those bohemians started getting into cocaine around the turn of the century — also perfectly legal at the time. None of these things became illegal until the Harrison Act was passed in 1914.
BILLY: And what about marijuana?
LUC: That was just beyond the pale. Nobody did that. It was something that people did in the country, usually black people. It just grew wild. I mean, it's a weed, it grows everywhere. The funny thing is, you don't see it anymore, and if you do, there are DEA helicopters circling around. It's no joke. But in those days, you could find it in every ditch. Those who were looking for it knew how to find it.
BILLY: I've heard that its banning had something to do with Hearst, because hemp was a rival to his papermaking business. They made it illegal to try to stop it from replacing paper from wood pulp. It had something to do with Hearst newspapers.
LUC: Well that's possible. But I know that making cannabis illegal as a drug was really the work of one man, this guy named Harry Anslinger. Nobody really cared much in the '30s whether cannabis was legal or not. Anslinger had this crusade going and he allied himself with Hoover and got it pushed through.
BILLY: The bohemia of the Bowery and Greenwich Village — did these scenes overlap?
LUC: There was a kind of nebulous relationship between them at various times. The center of Bohemia in, say, the 1870s, which is about when the idea of Bohemia can be said to have really started in New York City, was around Bleecker Street and the part of Broadway around Houston Street. It was a combination of things: a bunch of saloons, several prostitution districts, and various theaters and the people who worked in them. They overlapped to a certain degree.
Of the people who hung out in the saloons, many of them were writers, many worked for newspapers, some came from wealthy families. But there was always this attraction of artists to a certain level of low entertainment venues and certain kinds of semi-crime avenues. You also had a lot of people who went to Harvard and their families owned half of Beacon Hill but they really wanted to live in a cold water flat and wear threadbare clothes. The lower classes basically just wanted a paycheck — the same as today — but there would be families with a Billy or a Susie who would want to run away and join the circus, so to speak.
BILLY: Not much different than now.
LUC: In the early days, a movie theater would be like the equivalent of a slum video rental place. It would usually be in a storefront and it cost a penny to get in. Let's not forget that there was just as much popular entertainment at the turn of the century as there is today. Its distinction was that it wasn't the mass media.
A lot of the people who worked in entertainment were effectively lower class, they made very little money, they lived in slums. But you had this whole stratum of the population involved in vaudeville, and they'd endlessly be touring around — sort of the equivalent of what rock bands do today. There were proportionately probably just as many people involved with popular entertainment as there are now, but there were only a few stars. Comics pages of the newspaper started around then, and the early movies which were disreputable.
BILLY: Sex and violence from the beginning. It's funny how some of these names got handed down. Like, I've heard of "Jojo the Dog Face Boy" since I was a kid but I never connected it to anything. And there's many more I knew about without knowing where they came from, or that they were actual living people.
LUC: They were extraordinarily popular. The thing is, nobody was instituting a department of Jojo the Dog Face Boy Studies at the local university in the Semiotics department. Actually, when I started doing this research I was amazed at how much I already had picked up from seeing a lot of old movies, especially from watching Warner Brothers cartoons when I was a kid. There's a vast body of reference to all that stuff in Bugs Bunny cartoons and so on.
BILLY: Are you familiar with the work of a contemporary art duo by the names of McDermott and McGough?
LUC: Yeah, sure.
BILLY: They have this idea that historical time is just a human construct, and that you can literally time travel. Did you feel like that when you were doing this research — look out the window and expect see a horse and buggy going by?
LUC: Oh totally, when I was in the middle of this research I definitely had one foot in there. You know, walking around late at night, even in the late '80s when it wasn't as crowded as it is today. Ludlow Street wasn't the hippest street in town. In fact, it was kind of dangerous and semi-dead. You could go to places like that and really feel like you were in the 19th century. I had these corners, these places that would give me a chill walking through. I was always half-way hallucinating my story. I guess when I was writing the book I felt less like a researcher than like a novelist or a poet because I wasn't so much dealing with these materials as I was recreating something in front of my own eyes.
BILLY: You can see more reminders of the 19th century than any other century in New York. The whole town is like a ghost of it.
LUC: Well yeah, it's astonishing how much of New York City was built in a very short time. In Manhattan, it's always been things coming down and new things going up endlessly because the island is so circumscribed in terms of space.
BILLY: But it's still mainly 19th century. You look around and all the major public works were done at that time. They really have done nothing since then that compares to the Brooklyn Bridge and all these things. There was a real belief in what was to come.
LUC: That was the big push. That's when manpower was at its cheapest and materials were at their cheapest, and lots and lots of stuff got built. The amazing thing is that so many tenements still stand. There were so many slums in Manhattan because you had a very large working class. And this large working class was paid a pittance, so you could build enormous things for next to nothing, because you had all these employees who were paid nickels a day. Some of them in fact were craftsmen of a kind that you don't even find any more. Today when a landmark building starts falling into ruin and they have to fix the terra cotta, they have to bring people in from Italy because no one knows how to do that type of work anymore.
BILLY: They don't put that much effort in the details because they don't have as much faith in the future anymore.
LUC: No they don't, and with good reason, I think. I mean, I'm not a theorist in that way, but there was this faith in progress that held up all the way through to World War I, that every day and every way we were getting a little bit better. Up to that point everybody really believed that technology was going to solve problems. There was a belief that progress in the arts was linked with progress in the human sciences, that modernist literature was a revolutionary act. It really seemed that way and it covered every class and every shade of opinion. The left wing believed this just as much as the right wing. In 1916, Socialism got a majority of the vote in the American heartland. I mean, basically, all those people who are now the Christian right, their ancestors were voting Socialist eighty years ago. All peoples everywhere were going to link arms and sing. And then the war really shocked everybody. It was this colossal massacre. Suddenly, everybody realized that we were all savages. And then came World War II and Naziism.
I think there's been this progressive mass disillusionment over the course of the century. The idea of progress rings pretty hollow now. Sure, we can continue to miniaturize functions more and more, but finally none of these things solve anything. You're building a better mouse trap, but you're still not going to catch all the mice forever.
BILLY: Do you feel that what's happening to Times Square is analogous to what happened to the Bowery at the turn of the last century?
LUC: In a way, yeah, although the Bowery didn't get cleaned up so much as it was allowed to decline altogether. It became Skid Row and then it went into just nothingness. The theaters started to disappear around the turn of the century, partly because a lot of them became Yiddish theaters, and so the English speaking population went over to Broadway or up to Times Square. Then first the War and later the Volstead Act, which was prohibition, put the final nails in the coffin. There were vaudeville theaters still going on in the Bowery until sometime in the '30s. As recently as ten years ago there were a few bars left and a bunch of bums around. Nowadays there are still some hapless post-traumatic stress victims and people like that around the one mission that survives.
I have a friend who lives on the Bowery who got a flyer from some local residents association complaining about the mission and about the people who hang around there and asking for a push on the part of all the local residents to get them out. My friend's been living on the Bowery for twenty years so she was appalled by this. But that's the way it is. It's probably going to turn into a kind of junior SoHo at some point or other.
BILLY: I'm wondering, when you're doing your research, if you've had the experience that I've had of going through these old books and they're literally crumbling in your hands. Did you feel like you were seeing things that were going to be lost?
LUC: Oh definitely. There's one period especially, I think it's the 1890s, where everything was printed on very high-acid-content stock, and the pages are dark brown. They're not going to last much longer. It's a disaster. Certain libraries with very large endowments are doing things like dipping books into plastic, but it's an incredibly expensive process so they can't save everything. So with this kind of semi-popular or riffraff pop literature, that's just going to disintegrate.
BILLY: I live in Jersey City, and the main library, which was built in 1880-something, has a collection going back to that period. A couple years ago I was looking through some Police Gazettes and things like that, and each page that I turned would crumble in my hand. They recently dumped the whole lot because they weren't able to keep them properly. They had no money to put it on microfilm, and so it's just gone forever.
LUC: In the early to mid-'70s most libraries in the city were dumping their things. I was at Columbia then and they dumped their entire newspaper collections. They did succeed in microfilming everything, but it was still a shock to see these huge bound volumes just sitting out there. It's a phenomenon persistent into the much more recent past. There are even movies made in the 1970s that no longer exist, and when you look at the history of the computer, there are entire model ranges going into the 1980s of which not a single example still survives.
BILLY: You see computer dinosaurs at the Salvation Army these days. But I wonder if new technologies will lead to things being able to be saved.
LUC: No, because people are still going to have the same idea: you clean up your room and you think, oh, who cares about this junk, and you dump it. Just think of all the junk mail you get. Junk mail everybody dumps, nobody saves. Who has a record of the early days of junk mail? I mean, not that it's necessarily of enduring interest to everyone, but it does carry the flavor of its time in a way more potently than, say, a work of literature which is intended to last forever.
A lot has already been lost because there's a funny kind of principal involved with stuff like this — the stuff that nobody thinks is of value at the time gets dumped and that usually becomes the rarest even though it's humble at its inception. And conversely, things that everybody thinks should be saved and will be valuable, usually they're white elephants. A hundred years from now nobody cares.

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