Slumming: From Past to Present
I am currently reading a book about different scandals and events that took place in New York City from 1893 to 1903 and it has quite a few interesting stories in it. The one I read today was about the then popular craze of "slumming".
Basically, slumming was when rich people decided they wanted to live dangerously and see how the poor and degenerate of New York lived. They would usually get a group together, meet at the police station, meet their slumming guide, and go to some of the seedy areas of the town to see what the working class poor did in their free time. Think of it as an urban safari. There were actually tour guides that would take the well-off on these little adventures, some actually made a pretty good living at it too.
The rich people got off on this because it made them appreciate their own lives a little more and it reaffirmed the fact that they were indeed rich. It was a very shallow, degrading, and voyeuristic pasttime. The key to the whole thing though was that the poor were not allowed to talk to the rich. This would shatter the fragile world that the rich had constructed to justify the poor. Most of the tour stops involved gawking at people that were sleeping or passed out, this made it easier to ignore the fact that they were people and made it seem more like an art viewing.
At Christmastime, ghetto children would be allowed into the department store toy departments to stare at all of the wonderful toys that Santa would not be bringing them. The was an acceptable practice and it was tolerated by store owners so long as none of the children touched any of the merchandise. The odd part is why the store owners tolerated the street urchin; the children gave the rich adults something to look at. While their poor little imaginations dreamt of playing with the toys, the adults that were shopping would stop and watch them. The kids created a sort of "slumming" spectacle without the adults having to pay for a tour. The kids watched the toys, the adults watched the kids, and the circle of starring was complete.
The whole thing kind of depressed me. I don't think we have come very far in the hundred or so years since slumming was commonplace. The only big difference is now, we can do it from the privacy of our own homes while watching television. All talk shows, reality shows, and the like really are is a nicely packaged slumming tour delivered directly into our living rooms. I for one am guilty of watching Montel and Ricki Lake for the sole purpose of seeing what kind of freaky people get dragged on stage with each new episode. Jerry Springer is another prime example, he provided a spectacle and we tuned in. Slumming is alive and well today, we just have to endure the commercials that come with it now.