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What is Slumming?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 23, 2024
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Slumming is slang for patronizing an establishment or location mainly occupied by those well below one’s own socio-economic class, usually for the sake of entertainment or adventure. Illicit dealings or miserliness might also be reasons for slumming. The term is often associated with bars or restaurants, (e.g. “Let’s go slumming at The Red Canteen,”) or with infamous neighborhoods that have earned undesirable reputations.

Although slumming is used in modern slang, the idea of slumming for entertainment has been around for well over 100 years. In the 1840s, tours through notorious slums such as “Five Points” New York mark a time when slumming was in vogue. (This locale was depicted in Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film, Gangs of New York.)

London’s most infamous serial killer Jack the Ripper murdered several prostitutes in the autumn of 1888, many from a poor section of London known as Whitechapel. Tours soon brought middle-class Victorians through the impoverished area to see firsthand where so many of the shocking murders occurred.

While it might seem absurd and even voyeuristic to pay for tours through slums, the practice is gaining ground today. Some call it “reality touring,” “slum touring,” or instead of tourism, “poorism.” The idea is to get away from whitewashed tourist areas for a true taste of life as it really is for millions of people every day.

The current trend towards slum tourism is largely attributed to Marcelo Armstrong of Brazil, who in 1992, began taking tourists to Rochina, a large shantytown or favela in Rio de Janeiro. Slum tourism continues to grow in Brazil, India, Mexico, Africa and other countries. By some accounts, operators reportedly hope to bring awareness (and in some cases cash) to the areas, while critics find “poorism” distasteful. According to one article in the New York Times published March 2008, at least some of the tourists who have been on slum tours claimed the experience changed their lives.

While slum touring might be infused with an altruistic purpose for some, this isn’t the case with “slumming.” The pejorative word can be used with humor, however, to refer to an establishment or locale that is middle or upper class but not up to the standards of the one referring to it. For instance a celebrity who regularly shops on Rodeo Drive might joke about slumming at the Beverly Center; or a soccer Mom might quip about slumming at a discount department chain rather than shopping at the mall.

Generally, however, “slumming” is a daredevil act that implies a certain amount of risk and danger. It is an anticipated colorful experience that takes people from their comfort zones and drops them into another environment for sheer kicks, for “street creds” (street credibility), or for other similar reasons.

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