Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Gangs of New York

The Gangs of New York
© 1927 Herbert Ashbury
368 pages

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A few weeks ago I opted to read Herbert Ashbury’s Gangs of New York to see what his writing style might be like. I have a strong interest in city life during the late 19th century, so a book set in that time period such as Gangs of New York is right up my alley.  The book was initially published in 1927, meaning before Prohibition and before organized crime as Americans perceive it in the form of the Mafia. The gangs presented in this book pretend to no sophistication: they are street brawlers who delight in a good fight as much as they do in making money.  Some of these crawlers make for interesting characters, like the hood who was never seen without a book in his pocket and who thought Herbert Spencer particularly good reading.

As I started in, I quickly realized that Ashbury’s work wasn’t the most readable book I’d ever picked up. It’s full of interesting information, but the information is presented as-is:  there’s little narrative here, which hurts the book. Even the slightest of narratives doesn’t just make the book easier or more “fun” for the reader: it helps the book communicate. In the chapter on tong wars in Chinatown, for instance, Ashbury tells what happens, but he does not explain what the tongs were or how they fit into immigrant society. Jerry Flamm did this in Good Life in Hard Times: San Francisco’s Twenties and Thirties, and as a result I learned more in Flamm’s brief chapter on how San Francisco police officers broke the tongs of their day than in Ashbury’s longer chapter on tong history. The same is true of the gangs comprised of European immigrants: while Ashbury writes on what they did, he offers no explanation as to why they arose, although the reader can draw his or her own ideas out if they’re creative enough.

Because of this weakness, I wouldn’t recommend this for readers just starting to explore this period. The book’s genuine wealth of information -- including varied and bizarre characters and stories -- is of value to a more read student of the period, and it is to those readers I would recommend this work. Ashbury’s tone betrays the time in which he wrote this: his criticism often employs religious language, giving it an expressly moralistic flavor which I found more amusing than anything else. Ashbury’s words often have a shadow of racism about them, and they are particularly dark in the chapter on the tongs of Chinatown.

The book thus has its problems, but given the wealth of information here, is still very much useful to a student of the period. The book covers nearly a hundred years of history, and I was able to see the gangs evolve from collections of uniformed hoods who liked brawling to political bully-boys and “businessmen”.  Ashbury does a good job of portraying how bleak a place late-19th century New York was, and I think I leave the book more knowledgeable for having read it. Given that it’s such a straightforward account -- an expanded police blotter -- this will be better appreciated by those with more background knowledge.

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