Slumming in Gilded Age New York

Slumming parties to be the rage this winter.

New York Times, 1884

In the 1880s, the gilded shine of Fifth Avenue’s spectacular mansions contrasted sharply with the squalid living conditions of the New York poor, easily described as “slums.” Such was the difference between these two worlds that visiting the impoverished neighborhoods by the wealthy developed into a form of tourism called “slumming.” The well-do-to would go into tenements to gawk at the lives of the poor as if visiting a theater. One didn’t have to board a ship and travel for weeks to China when New York’s Chinatown, with its opium dens, exotic restaurants, and scary, vicious gangs, was just a carriage ride away. The activity felt dangerous enough to provide a bit of an adrenalin rush and a good dinner conversation. A glimpse into the lives of the less fortunate offered an exciting experience: exotic-looking people spoke unfamiliar languages, and a taste of “authentic” chop suey could be followed by a spontaneous fight between vicious rival gangs.

Slum tour in Victorian London. Source : Koven (2006: 15). 

The idea of slumming originated in London under the guise of helping improve the poor’s terrible conditions. The idea, however, quickly morphed into a touristic product and became a popular pastime for the upper classes. Around the 1880s, it swept New York as the entertainment of choice for the social elites. 

Slum tourism in Five Points, Manhattan in 1885

When this voyeuristic activity reached the form of popular entertainment, the satisfaction of every visit had to be guaranteed. Just imagine going slumming without encountering an “authentic” experience filled with images of depravity and an invigorating sense of danger! Thus, entrepreneurial New Yorkers turned slumming into a profitable business. The “slummers” were organized into groups led by local guides that fully guaranteed the “authenticity” of the tour and delivered the complete viewing package of social evils.

One of such industrious guides, and perhaps the most famous of them, was Chuck Connors – a local fixture nicknamed the “Mayor of Chinatown.” Entrepreneurial Chuck Connors brought the slumming business to a different level. He took all unpredictability out of downtown visits by hiring actors to play opium addicts and ruthless killers. Connors took his tours to an “authentic” Chinese restaurant and dazzled them with a visit to a seedy opium den where opium-stoned Chinese lolled around and white women, scandalously, were lounging along. The visitors were treated to a “spontaneous” gang fight that always conveniently broke out of the street. Connors’ “authentic” tours were meticulously staged. His were exclusive private excursions, serving such clientele as Sir Thomas Lipton of Lipton tea, Broadway actress and a Ziegfeld star, Anna Held, and even members of German and Swedish royalty. (Incidentally, Chuck Connors was operating from Barney Flynn’s Saloon at 18 Bowery – the house still standing. He was responsible for discovering and launching the spectacular career of Irving Berlin, one of the greatest American composers, who wrote God Bless America and White Christmas.)

Born of a distasteful and rather cruel fascination with poverty, “slumming” tourism still exists around the world. Fortunately, it’s been long abandoned in New York City.

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