Scary NYC neighborhood, 1888

Here's a photo from Jacob Riis's 1890 classic "How the Other Half Lives," "an early publication... documenting squalid living conditions in New York City slums in the 1880s." It shows "Bandit’s Roost, at 59½ Mulberry Street (Mulberry Bend), was the most crime-ridden, dangerous part of all New York City."

Those guys are clearly total bad-asses.

How the Other Half Lives is in the public domain; you can download the full book, listen to a free audio edition at Librivox, and choose from among several editions in print.

Bandit’s Roost (1888) (via Kadrey)


  1. Are you sure this isn’t some Gangs of New York promo pic? 

    There’s Leo DiCaprio in the foreground!

  2. But at least these dangerous characters understand the importance of sartorial elegance. One mustn’t beat the crap out of strangers unless one has one’s hat and coat on.

    1. Teach me more of this sartorial elegance.

      More importantly how does one keep the blood, stains, dirt, grit while giving the fisty cuffs to another?  Or the more extreme end, how does one keep the sufficient amount of blood, grt, etc,. while looking elegant badasstry?

    1. just swillin’ and chillin’…

      …with all the money that they saved by blocking linking to their site.

  3. Reminds me of Caleb Carr’s “The Alienist.” Set in NYC 1896, it features the newly appointed president of police commissioners, Teddy Roosevelt, who walked with Riis to evaluate the police patrols, and had great praise for this “muckraker.”

  4. Photo reminds me how disappointed I was in the BBC America “Copper” show.  Such an interesting period to cover and they skimp on the sets.  The doors to the buildings look like the sets in the “Blazing Saddles” fake towns.

    1. Give “Ripper Street” a try. Very similar basic material, but taking place rather obviously in period Whitechapel. I liked it a lot better than “Copper” plus it stars Bronn from “Game of Thrones”.

  5. Elegance because that’s what got passed down to them through the thrift stores of the times. It is actually the elegance of a slightly earlier time. Nothing fits right but they make it seem like a choice. 

    Also, photo-journalists of the day were not above making some suggestions like, “Can you hold that stick, just lean it against your leg. Can we get those guys from over there? OK, everyone put your hat on and stand very still.”

    My neighborhood is considered ‘dangerous.’ It isn’t.

    That’s all for today.

    1. “Elegance … passed down to them through the thrift stores … of a slightly earlier time. Nothing fits right … make it seem like a choice. ”

      This basically describes just about every punk rocker that I ever hung out with.

  6. I wonder if a century from now people will be lamenting that ruffians and scallywags no longer wear all that stylish jewelry like they did back in the day. What did they call it….ah, yes, bling.

    1. Scallywags is a misused term which actually refers too Southern traitors who  turned too the “North” as allies. 

      1. Collaborators who worked with or for Northern carpetbaggers such as John D. Rockefeller were referred to as scalawags. Both usages likely came from an Irish word for laborer.

      2. Meat used to mean food. Deer used to mean animals. Pineapple used to mean pine cone.

        But they don’t anymore.

        1. “Can’t use the word “fisting” anymore either, oh no. But back in the forties the girls and I used to fist every Sunday afternoon. It was a knitting stitch, and a very difficult one. I made a lovely yellow afghan full of tiny, intricate fistings, that won a grand prize at a jamboree”

  7. To me they look like scared kids, most of whom are probably only tough out of desperation.

    Just like a lot of the kids in ghettos today.

    1.  I am sure that’s a great comfort when they proceed to steal your money and beat the crap out of you for being the wrong color or wearing the wrong color or simply being in “their” neighborhood.

    1. Yes, and we should all be studying it to get ready. Times like that are coming back, thanks to the obscene and growing wealth gap.

  8. It would be pretty awesome to find out some of the stories of these people.  Who they were, what became of them.

  9. Bandits in the 1880s, living in squalid conditions, dressed better than almost everyone does in 2013.

    1. That because people today are living in the same squalid apartments  for $1,500 a month, so they can’t afford a dashing hat.

      1. I wasn’t saying “why don’t the poor dress better today?” I was simply stating how well these people dress compared to how everyone dresses today, including people who can afford it. 

        Also, do you think in the 1880s rent was $0, and therefore this allowed them to spend money on “a dashing hat”? It is the societal changes in fashion that are the cause, not higher rent.

        1. Yeah, if you read the book (and I don’t mean that you should have read this book) you’ll see that the poor are paying ridiculous rents to live in the hovels.  The author compares the rents for tiny dark holes to similar rents for whole nice houses in the suburbs.

  10. Apparently, this photo was shot in 3D by an associate of Riis’, rather than Riis himself. There is a 3D version on flickr, but it seems this was recreated from the single 2D image rather than being taken from the two stereo shots.

    Given the long exposures required at the time, presumably it was at least partially staged…

    1. One of the things I like about old photos is that it took so long to set the apparatus up that by the time they made the exposure, everybody in the neighborhood would be in the shot, looking directly at the equipment.

      Google Street View for the day would have shown the same group of locals in a dozen shots, following the shutterbug from spot to spot.

  11. I’m a little confused here.  What’s so scary?  The laundry?  The black and white picture?  The narrow alley?  Men with hats?  I don’t get it.  I’ve seen lots of pictures from this time and most seem a little menacing because people didn’t smile and the picture was in black and white.

  12. Well one “scary” bit is that the fellow in the foreground seems to clearly be holding a double barreled shotgun

    He’s letting the muzzle touch the ground, which is a major no-no for rifles (messes up the accuracy) but less so for shotguns. 

  13. According to a teacher of mine, Riis worked hand in hand with the police while making his photographs.  The occupants of a dreg house were dragged out kicking and screaming and made to stand still and be photographed in the daylight.  I seem to remember something about Riis using early flashes too, going into darkened hovels and setting off blinding explosions resulting in horrified looks on the subjects faces.

    1. “…in taking a flash-light picture of a group of blind beggars in one of the tenements down here. With unpractised hands I managed to set fire to the house. When the blinding effect of the flash had passed away and I could see once more, I discovered that a lot of paper and rags that hung on the wall were ablaze. There were six of us, five blind men and women who knew nothing of their danger, and myself, in an attic room with a dozen crooked, rickety stairs between us and the street, and as many households as helpless as the one whose guest I was all about us. The thought: how were they ever to be got out? made my blood run cold as I saw the flames creeping up the wall, and my first impulse was to bolt for the street and shout for help. The next was to smother the fire myself, and I did, with a vast deal of trouble.”

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