originally published January 13, 2012
For anyone who has not watched Martin Scorcese’s epic 2002 film, The Gangs of New York, the gist is essentially that there were gangs. In New York. The focus is on a neighborhood known as the Five Points in central Manhattan, a slum filled with poverty-stricken immigrants, which came to be known as the least reputable set of blocks in the country. It was Compton, East London and all of Detroit crammed into one neighborhood. This was in the 19th century of course, I ate Chinese food in the Five Points neighborhood a couple years ago. I felt mostly safe.
The name came from the intersection where Orange, Cross, Anthony and Little Walter Streets intertwined. With Little Walter Street no longer in existence, we’re left with four points, or more succinctly, “an intersection.”
The story starts with a pond. Collect Pond was the main source of freshwater fish and freshwater water for New York City back in the New Amsterdam days. Businesses set up around the pond, and subsequently spewed their contaminated wastewater right back into it. Pierre Charles L’Enfant, civil engineer and designer of Washington DC’s streets (so blame him) suggested turning the pond into a park area. That was nixed in favor of filling it, forgetting it, and tossing up a bunch of middle-class housing. Problem is, the city did a shitty job. The buried vegetation started decomposing and emitting methane gas, houses shifted on their foundation, and anybody with the financial means to do so got the hell out of there.
The exodus of the well-to-do happened right around the mid 1800’s, when scores of Irish immigrants showed up in New York to take advantage of its bountiful supply of potatoes (often in latke form). Land was cheap atop the old pond, and in they moved. Slavery was outlawed in New York in 1827, so the newly emancipated African Americans took up residence there also, making the Five Points quite likely the most integrated neighborhood in the country, possibly the world.
This was not, however, a golden paradise of hippie-level along-getting. Gangs were formed, sides were taken, and the Five Points became the most violent, murderous slum in the known world. The Old Brewery, a tenement house on Cross Street, allegedly had averaged a murder every night. For fifteen years.
In 1862, police arrested over 82,000 people in New York, most of them tied to violence and gang activity. To put this into context, they arrested roughly 10% of the city’s population in a single year. Scorcese’s movie was said to have amplified the massive violent confrontations for cinematic effect, but the vibe of living in that area at that time is was accurately portrayed. It wasn’t a G-rated community, to say the least.
It was, however, a haven for music. It stands to reason, you gather a heap of African-Americans and Irish people in one place, you’re going to get some hardcore song and dance. Maybe not choreographed and narrative Broadway-esque song (if only!), but this region is said to have given rise to tap dancing, as well as the music hall tradition that would one day give us jazz and rock ‘n roll.
So that’s good news. If you could live through the cholera, the typhus, the yellow fever, the tuberculosis and the gang warfare, maybe you could catch a delightful tap number before bed.
Oh, and let’s not forget the riots. The Anti-Abolitionist Riots of 1834 pitted the anti-slavery Protestants against the anti-Protestant Catholics. The Dead Rabbits Riot (which sounds like a punk music festival, but is not. Yet.) pitted the Dead Rabbits gang against the Bowery Boys. At the time there were two police forces, the Municipal and Metropolitan cops. They didn’t coordinate their efforts, and thus the riot spread all over the city. The New York City Draft Riots took place in 1863, arising out of mixed support for the anti-slavery aims of the Civil War. Keep in mind, this isn’t just an anti-black sentiment; historian Eric Foner felt the Irish were just worried about losing their jobs to the influx of freed slaves from down south.
Numerous churches and Christian-based charity groups moved in to try to ‘save’ the poor in the Five Points. Merchants badgered City Hall to get something done – it’s hard enough selling I-Heart-NY shirts with the competition in Manhattan; I’m sure the crime rate wasn’t helping.
Toward the end of the century, the politicians listened. Mulberry Bend, one of the seediest, trashiest sections of the Five Points, was flattened to make room for Columbus Park in 1897. A lot of the old tenement houses and shop buildings from the era remained – and still do – but the gangs were whittled down, and the poor, tired, huddled masses tended to move elsewhere.
‘The Tombs’, a catchy nickname for the Manhattan Detention Complex that housed thousands of criminals from the Five Points area and the site of numerous public executions, was torn down in 1902. Sure, it was replaced by another prison building (and still remains a prison building to this day), but most of the corruption, the filthiest of conditions and the public hangings went with that original building. A number of civic buildings went up around this area in the 20th century – courthouses, offices and federal administration buildings, that sort of thing.
The gangs never fully left though. The Five Points Gang ran most of the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 1900s, featuring notable gangsters like Al Capone, Lucky Luciano, and a number of other guys who looked cool carrying around a tommy-gun.
Even those gangs were wiped out by the 1920’s, replaced by people with more structure, better food and a much brighter futures as ethnic stereotypes in movies: the mafia.
Today the Five Points neighborhood is the stuff of legend. In addition to the aforementioned parks and government buildings, you can find Foley Square, an area of greenery and commerce (that was, for my film-loving readers, the site of Emilio Barzini’s staircase assassination at the end of The Godfather). A lot of the area is taken up by Chinatown.
It’s a relatively safe part of New York today. If you’re looking for some real adventure, to get caught up in some true uncontrollable violence and racial tension, I’m afraid you’ll just have to head to Detroit.