The Blackest Streets: The Life and Death of a Victorian Slum by Sarah Wise
4.5 stars, actually.
I rate non-fiction from the perspective of whether the author is impressive in their depth or breadth knowledge of the topic, and how well they convey that to a lay person.
The Blackest Streets’ author, Sarah Wise, is super-impressive with her knowledge of the history, politics, letters, and spoken history of “The Nichol” slum neighborhood of London’s Bethnal Green area in Victorian times.
From the verbal history of one of the last residents (as a boy), to letters written by well-meaning purveyors of charity or religious folks, to newspaper notices, police reports, and government data, Wise constructs a wideshot of the desperately poor of the Old Nichol. These were folks living many to a room in dilapidated housing, eeking out existence as costermongers, fishers, dog breeders, weavers, etc. An impressive hive of industry that various waves of greater London folks came into as outsiders to try to “reform” and “improve” the lives they led.
While the depth of details about the folks of Old Nichol, as well as the wider view of politics of that time (the lesser known to USAian me politics of boards, neighborhood vestries, Poor Law guardians, etc) is impressive, the author often assumes a familiar tone referencing politicians or famous figures offhandedly in a way that makes it clear she’s writing for an audience already deeply familiar with British politics of that era.
So sometimes a bit confusing for lay folks like me. And the prose is quite dense.
But then she’d stick in some super interesting data like lists of rate-payers professions in the Old Nichol, or a letter from an anarchist who was organizing no rent strikes for absent landlords, and it became deeply interesting again.
Very interesting slice of Victorian life, along with a slightly cynical viewpoint of the religious and political folks who came into the neighborhood to change things.