Slumming It

"Doing the slums" - A scene in the Five Points"Doing the slums" - A scene in the Five Points. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 1885 (Photo: Library of Congress)

In 2013, Mike Momany caused an Internet backlash when he launched his new Seattle tour, “Sub-URBAN Experience”. This tour promised customers a three-day opportunity to be “injected into the Seattle homeless culture” – for only $2000. Momany called the tour a “course in applied homelessness,” and promised the customers a chance to go “incognito,” but also guaranteed that the tour would be “GPS trackable [sic] online and 911 will be one click away.” He hoped this new endeavor would help raise awareness about the homeless situation in Seattle, but it did not take long for the Internet blowback to erupt. CNN, The Huffington Post, International Business Times, Jezebel, and several local Seattle news sites jumped on the story, and most lambasted Momany for making money off homelessness. As controversial as Momany’s business may seem today, the homeless tour, or “slumming” as it used to be called, was all the rage in the late nineteenth-century.

In 1884, a New York Times article declared, “SLUMMING IN THIS TOWN: A Fashionable London Mania Reaches New-York.” This article detailed how Londoners brought to New York City the idea of slumming, or “the visiting of the slums of the great city by parties of ladies and gentlemen.” The author noted that New Yorkers’ “foreign cousins” used slumming as a way to spearhead sanitary reforms in London, but conceded that “the mania here has assumed the single form of sight-seeing – the more noble ambition of alleviating the condition of the desperately poor visited has not animated the adventurous parties.” While Londoners may have used slumming as a way to help clean up tenements, New Yorkers in 1884 were slumming as a “curiosity to see the sights.” Just like in Momany’s tour, fashionable New Yorkers in the nineteenth-century would disguise themselves in “plain and homely” clothes, in order to go unnoticed. Also like the Momany tour, which had the police “one click away,” the author of the New York Times article advised that slummers take with them a ward detective “whose official presence alone would protect the ladies of the party from insult and the gentlemen from violence.”

Slumming was not only fashionable for the socialites who participated, it was also lucrative for criminals. In 1886, the infamous lawyers William Howe and Abraham Hummel published their book, Danger: A True History of a Great City’s Wiles and Temptations. Under the guise of a middle-class handbook for avoiding crime in New York City, Danger was really a handbook written to instruct criminals on how to operate in the city. Howe and Hummel included an article from the Cincinnati Enquirer about slumming in New York City, warning potential slummers that “two things were necessary, a prize-fighter and a late start.” The author of the article described the night he and friends had spent at Billy McGlory’s saloon on Hester Street. In order to listen to music and watch women dance the Can-can, they had to buy alcohol and sit in a booth. He recalled a young man from Cincinnati who, several weeks before, had drunk too much of the required alcohol, passed out, and woke up without his coat, wallet, or jewelry. The young man paid his hotel clerk $100 and “no questions asked” to get back his belongings (but not the cash in his pocketbook). This article explained to potential criminals how to take advantage of less-than-savvy socialites looking for a good time.

Twenty-one years later, a 1907 article written for The Outlook removed the idea of reform when it explained to its readers the best way to see poverty in New York City:

If you want to go slumming and yet don’t want to, the horse-car is just the thing. From that vantage-point you can see the most typical East Side, the swarms of children on the streets, the narrow lanes of tenements fortified with fire-escapes and daring the tenement-house inspectors to condemn them, the push-carts, the sweat-shops, the second-hand stores where they revamp old clothes “like new.”

The expressed intentions of both Momany’s tour and its nineteenth-century predecessors were to raise awareness of the living conditions of the urban poor in order to improve them. What happened with all of the tours, though, was that the companies failed to provide tourists with concrete ways to address poverty, focusing instead on a sense of risk and adventure. The practice of slumming commodifies poverty, reinforcing the idea that it is an entertaining curiosity rather than a national failure.

About the Author

Elizabeth Pingree

Elizabeth Pingree is currently working toward her MA in history at Boston College, where she studies late nineteenth and early twentieth-century US history. She focuses specifically on labor, race, and immigration, and is interested in the impact industrialization had on rural people, both those who lived in rural areas, as well as those who immigrated to urban centers.

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  1. And it currently is happening in so many creative scams for well meaning, uneucated poverty tourists in places like Cambodia and Ethiopia.

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