slumming.jpgCyrus and I are at work (among other things) on a long review essay, for the journal American Literary History, dealing with a number of books that can loosely be grouped as histories of slumming and nightlife in the city. The titles under review include this one, as mentioned previously on AHNY, and Chad Heap’s Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife 1885-1940, just out from Chicago.

Heap was featured yesterday in a post on the Times‘s City Room blog:

In 1884, a headline in The New York Times proclaimed: “A fashionable London mania reaches New-York. Slumming parties to be the rage this winter.”

It was one of the early indicators of what grew to be an
entertainment phenomenon that lasted decades: well-off white New
Yorkers exploring black, Chinese, gay or poor working-class
communities. Popular neighborhoods for this voyeuristic pastime
included Chinatown, Harlem and the Lowest East Side tenements, home to
the “Hebrews.”

Many were inspired by Jacob Riis to see how the other half lived, to
the point that people would go into tenements unannounced, knock on
doors and push their ways into the living spaces. “They masquerade as
charity workers,” said Chad Heap, an American studies professor at George Washington University, whose book “Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife 1885-1940? was released last month.

Slumming seemed particularly en vogue among the children of luminaries. In 1895, a United States senator’s son asked the police to accompany him
and his friends on a slumming party in Chinatown. And part of the
thrill was getting caught up in a police raid. In 1896, the son of the
commander of the Salvation Army was arrested with a disguise of wig and fake whiskers while also slumming in Chinatown.

Read the rest of the entry here.

I won’t give away too much of our take on these books — though we may post a few pieces from the cutting room floor as we go — but for now I just wanted to counter the idea that slumming was imported from London as late as the 1880s (which is the impression CR — and, indeed, the 1880s Times — gives, not necessarily one that Heap propagates). One of my favorite earlier slumming narratives turns up in 1843 in the diary of Richard Henry Dana, a writer and friend of Melville’s, and is collected, among other places, in Ken Jackson’s anthology Empire City. Dana begins with an innocent stroll down Broadway, but soon finds himself diverted to darker ways:

Passing down Broadway, the name of Anthony street, struck me, & I had a sudden desire to see that sink of iniquity & filth, the “Five Points.” Following Anthony street down, I came upon the neighborhood. It was about half past ten, & the night was cloudy. The buildings were ruinous for the most part, as well as I could judge, & the streets & sidewalks muddy & ill lighted. Several of [the] houses had wooden shutters well closed & in almost [each] such case I found by stopping & listening, that there were many voices in the rooms & sometimes the sound of music & dancing. . . .
    Passing out of Anthony street, at the corner of one next to it, a girl who was going into a small shop with a shawl drawn over her head stopped & spoke to me. She asked me where I was going. I stopped & answered that I was only walking about a little, to look round. She said “I am only doing the same,” & came down from the doorstep toward me. I hastened my pace & passed on. Turning round, I found she had followed me a few steps & then gone back to the shop.
    The night was not cold, & some women were sitting in the door-ways or standing on the sidewalks. From them I received many invitations to walk in & see them, just to sit down a minute, &c., followed usually by laughter & jeers when they saw me pass on without noticing them. At one door, removed from sight & in an obscure place, where no one seemed in sight, two women were sitting, one apparently old, probably the “mother” of the house, & the other rather young[.] . . . They invited me to walk in & just say a word to them. I had a strong inclination to see the interior of such a house as they must live in, & finding that the room was lighted & seeing no men there . . . I stopped in almost before I knew what I was doing.

Read the rest of his delightful entry here. Rest assured, gentle reader, he eventually makes it back to the comfortable glare of Broadway’s lights, but not without losing a little money.