April 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 2
I’ve recently moved up in the world, from the tenth floor to the seventeenth, and four blocks closer to the Hudson River, a slate gray slice of which I can just see from where I’m writing. Small birds flutter around a feeder outside the window, and last week a red-tailed hawk swooped past it, talons bared, rocketing after a frantically dodging dove.
But this is still New York. The evening sound of police sirens is fainter up here than it was from my old apartment, but it is rarely absent for very long. Since some seven and a half million people from everywhere live jammed together in this city—more than live in Alaska, Arkansas, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, and the District of Columbia combined—this is hardly surprising. According to the FBI’s 1991 figures for the number of violent crimes per thousand citizens, New York comes in a relatively pacific thirtieth among American cities. But there is still a lot of violent crime here—678,855 reported incidents in 1991 alone, including 2,154 murders—such relentless mayhem, in fact, that the local evening news shows now need ninety minutes just to get it all in.
The urban historian Richard C. Wade argued in these pages some years ago that, on the whole, the American city is better today, “cleaner, less crowded, safer and more livable, than its turn-of-thecentury counterpart.” The knowledge that things were once worse provides only academic comfort when they’re still pretty bad. But Evidence , a recent book of fifty-five police photos made between 1914 and 1918, discovered, selected, and annotated by the Belgianborn writer Luc Santé (Farrar Straus and Giroux, hardcover $40, paperback $16), provides the most vivid possible testimony that Wade was right. I know of no single volume that better evokes just how rough New York once was.
In 1991 Sante published Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (Farrar Straus and Giroux, $24.95), an elegantly written account of Manhattan’s seamiest side from 1840 to 1919. It is full of rich and unexpected lore:
The notorious Whyo gang employed a hit man, Piker Ryan, who was said to have carried with him at all times a printed menu of the services he was happy to perform: “Punching … $2; Both eyes blacked … $4;… Leg or arm broke … $19;… Doing the big job … $100 and up.”
When an 1896 law forbade the serving of drinks on Sundays—except in hotels, with meals—creative bar owners gained at least limited access to some extra rooms by placing on each table a “sandwich”—often a brick between two slices of increasingly moldy bread —then declaring themselves hoteliers.
And John McGurk, proprietor of the most ghastly of all the ghastly dives on the Bowery, liked to bill his establishment as McGurk’s Suicide Hall, because so many desperate prostitutes had killed themselves there (at least six in 1899 alone).
If Sante’s first book had a flaw, it seemed to me, it was that he sometimes seemed more amused than he should have been by the misery and squalor he found wherever he burrowed beneath the city’s shiny surface. Nothing about the photographs in Evidence is funny. Sante found the collection from which he chose them while researching his first book. They are all that survive of a once-vast trove that heedless workmen, emptying the old police headquarters on Centre Street in the early 1980s, dumped into the East River.
These pictures of corpses in situ are not for the squeamish. But starkly lit by magnesium flash, they provide any reader with the stomach for them an unforgettable glimpse of New York at its worst.
Sante managed to discover the stories behind a few of the pictures by sleuthing through old newspapers: the beat-up shoes protruding from the sewer pipe into which their owner has been stuffed apparently belong to a Mafia informer.
A fully clothed man lying on a Brooklyn-tenement bed next to a dead woman wrapped in bedclothes turns out to have been her lover; at 1:30 A.M. on a warm spring night in 1915 he climbed through her window, discovered her husband (who normally worked nights) in her bed, fired a shot at him as he fled in terror, then, perhaps in panic, killed the woman and himself.
A Brooklyn mother and three children, huddled together beneath a single quilt, all died when the mother turned on the gas after getting the news that her husband had drowned.
And, the only living subject in the collection, an enormously dignified eighty-year-old man, seated stoically in a chair at police headquarters, blood on his cheek, eyes closed, was a veteran of Garibaldi’s wars who became enraged when three neighborhood boys jeered at his old man’s walk and pelted him with snowballs. He complained to the father of one of the boys and, for daring to criticize him, got slashed with a knife. The old man stalked home, still bleeding, got the ancient weapon he had carried through the Italian campaigns, came back out, and blew off the unrepentant parent’s head. Police found him waiting for them in the cellar.
But most of the subjects of these photographs remain anonymous, their meager surroundings offering up clues that will now never lead anywhere.
A young man identified only as Roshinsky, for example, lies faceup next to his bed. Pennants on his wall may chronicle some of the places he managed to see in his truncated life: Catalina Island; Tyler Hill, Pennsylvania; Niagara Falls. A pair of telegrapher’s headphones lies next to him. Was he wearing them, too intent upon his dots and dashes to hear anything else, when death arrived?
Two well-dressed, nameless men—one white, one black—lie together at the bottom of an elevator shaft. What were they doing together in that segregated time? Were they the victims of some ghastly accident, or did someone dump them there?
Did the Italian families, wearing nightclothes and peering down from their windows above an olive oil and macaroni shop in Brooklyn or Manhattan, know the well-dressed shooting victim sprawled on the sidewalk next to his straw hat? And if they did, did they dare tell the police who he was or who might have wanted him out of the way?
Each image in Evidence both compels and disquiets. “They are tombs like the pyramids,” Sante writes of the photographs he found, “outfitting the corpse with the effects of its life. Each, as well, might be the last photograph, the full stop toward which all photography inexorably draws, the pinned specimen of an extinguished race, the monument to the Unknown Human. As we look at them the clocks have all stopped, the air is going out of the world, the great glass bell is descending on the circumference. There is no place for us outside the frame, nothing to breathe, nowhere to stand. We cannot be the viewer of such a scene. We must have forgotten: We are the subject.”
The late A. J. Liebling was also fascinated by New York’s underside, but as an unabashed Manhattan chauvinist—he once claimed never to have traveled farther west than Buffalo and, having seen it, saw no need ever to venture so far again —he passed up the city’s very lowest depths in favor of chronicling the merely raffish for The New Yorker .
Anyone who missed Liebling the first time around can get acquainted with him now, thanks to North Point Press, which has recently reprinted several of his collections in paperback— The Telephone Booth Indian , Between Meals , The Honest Rainmaker , Back Where I Came From —as well as a collection of previously unpublished boxing pieces, A Neutral Corner .
Every one of them is worth reading, both as brilliant journalism and as an informal portrait of New York during the Depression, a “materially miserable” time, Liebling wrote, when “few had time to feel guilty and certainly nobody had reason to feel smug.”
What Liebling liked most about New York was just what alarms some visitors: its mostly cheerful anarchy. “I like to think,” he wrote, “of all the city microcosms so nicely synchronized though unaware of one another: the worlds of the weightlifters, yodelers, tugboat captains and sideshow barkers, of the book dutchers, sparring partners, song pluggers, sporting girls and religious painters, of the dealers in rhesus monkeys and the bishops of churches that they establish themselves under the religious corporations law.”
Liebling made himself welcome in all those worlds and more, and he listened almost as well as he wrote. Who else would have noted the complaint of a stripper when she learned that a new law required that her costumes henceforth be opaque: “What is the use of opaque clothing? You can see right through it.” Or taken down word for word Sam Langford’s explanation of how he had knocked out an opponent: “I put my haid oat and when he hit at it, I took it away. Then I put my haid oat again. And then he hit at me, I took it away. Then I put my haid out again. But when he hit at it, I stayed right there. Naturally, he hit right past me. I belted him oat.”
He specialized in writing about Times Square, then merely seedy, not dangerous, and did it without any of Damon Runyon’s false sentimentality or Walter Winchell’s nastiness, especially delighting in the subtle shades of honor he found there among thieves: “There is a fellow known as Paddy the Booster, who sells neckties he steals from haberdashers, and another known as Mac the Phony Booster, who sells neckties which he pretends to have stolen but are really shoddy ties he has bought very cheaply. Naturally, Paddy looks down on Mac, whom he considers a racketeer.”
Liebling once asked the boxing trainer Whitey Bimstein, just back from a brief out-of-town vacation, how he’d liked the country.
“It’s a nice spot,” Bimstein answered.
That’s about how I feel, too, after a dozen years in New York and despite the sirens and crime statistics and the knowledge that there are still New Yorkers for whom nothing at all has changed since Luc Sante’s troubling photographs were taken.