Five Points

This is the place, a world of vice and misery, these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays.
Charles Dickens [1842]

The Five Points was a notorious slum centered on the intersection of Worth St. (originally Anthony St.), Baxter St. (originally Orange St.), and a now demolished stretch of Mosco St. (formerly Park St.) on Manhattan island. The name Five Points derived from the five corners at this intersection. Originally, the area had been a barren swamp well into the late 1600s. When New York City started to expand beyond The Wall, a five-acre lake called Fresh Water Pond, later known as ?the ?Collect??, served as a safe boating and picnic locale in summer and skating rink in winter. Interestingly, the first steamboat was tested there.

However, by the mid-1700s the Collect was already rimmed with slaughterhouses and tanneries. The masters of the Five Points were the butchers who, for entertainment, would organize bull-baiting contests; huge crowds would gather and money was bet on how many dogs the bulls would gore.
The bloody effusions from the slaughterhouses were poured directly into the lake; more industries and more trash quickly followed. By 1800 the Collect was a reeking cesspool. By 1813 it had been entirely filled in and by 1825 something entirely new stood on the site -- America's first real slum, the Five Points.

The neighborhood took form next to the site of the former Collect Pond. The landfill job on the Collect was a poor one, and surface seepage to the southeast created swampy, insect-ridden conditions resulting in a precipitous drop in land value. Most middle and upper-middle class inhabitants fled, leaving the neighborhood open to the influx of poor immigrants that started in the early 1820s and reached a torrent in the 1840s due to the Irish potato famine.

At Five Points' height, only certain areas of London's East End vied with it in sheer population density, disease, infant and child mortality, unemployment, violent crime, and other classic ills of the destitute. But to characterize Five Points as a pure wasteland would be misleading, for it had a certain rough vibrancy that gave rise to some of the more admirable aspects of modern American life. It was the original melting pot, at first consisting primarily of emancipated African Americans and newly arrived Irish. The confluence of African, Irish, Anglo and, later, Jewish and Italian culture, seen first in Five Points, would be an important leavening in the growth of the United States.

In the labyrinth of tenements, families and other groups lived crammed into one or two dark rooms. The outhouses were too few and often overflowing. Sewage and pigs ran in the streets. "The whole neighborhood just stank," said historian Tyler Anbinder. Without argument, the worst tenement in the Five Points area was the old Coulter's Brewery, commonly referred to as the Old Brewery. This was an imposing wooden structure, surrounded by alleys. Built in 1792, it was condemned as a brewery in 1837. Once the workers abandoned the building, the most impoverished of Five Points moved in. It was home to over 1000 people, mostly Irish. One section of the building was called the Den of Thieves. This section housed 75 people, mostly criminals and prostitutes. There were no furnishings or bedding, and very few lights. Another section of the building was aptly named Murderer's Alley due to the occupation of its inhabitants. One room in this section was 15 foot square in size, but was home to 26 people.

In the 1840s and '50s, nearly all the structures on every block radiating from the Five Points intersection was a house of prostitution. "Every house is a brothel, and every brothel a hell," wrote missionary Lewis Pease. New York Tribune reporter George Foster added in 1850, "It is no unusual thing for a mother and her two or three daughters?all of course prostitutes?to receive their 'men' at the same time in the same room?.

The overwhelming reality of the Five Points was the misery. The endless drudgery and the low pay. The appalling sanitation and the firetrap tenements. The plagues of cholera, measles, diphtheria, and typhus that struck hardest at children and infants. It was said that in one building ? the abandoned Old Brewery ? there was a murder a night for three years.

Still, the Five Points also produced a vibrant popular culture all its own, one that easily lived up to its colorful claims, everything from child street musicians to shell games and magic acts, from the first Chinatown to William Henry Lane, aka Master Juba, the teenage African-American phenomenon who is said to have invented tap dancing by combining Irish and African folk traditions.

During the four bloody days of the Draft Riots in 1863, the overwhelming cause of death among 105 rioters, policemen, and soldiers was gunshot wounds. The second: beatings with clubs, cudgels, and bricks. Some died jumping from burning buildings. At least one woman was killed when hit by a bureau thrown from the window of the burning Colored Orphans Asylum. Some of the dead were beaten and thrown into the rivers. There were reports of the sexual mutilation of a small number of African-Americans, but most of the 18 murdered blacks were lynched, shot, or beaten to death.

The Irish gangs of the Five Points established the basic model for the alliance of Irishmen, Jews, and Italians who created the modern Mob during Prohibition. The Irish hoodlums established the nexus between New York crime and New York politics that would last more than a century. A path was established among the Dead Rabbits, the Plug Uglies, and the Bowery B?hoys that continues all the way to today?s Latin Kings, Crips, and Bloods. The district`s original `Five Points`gang produced young criminals who later rose to become some of the most notorious, wealthiest, and most powerful leaders in America`s organized crimes history. Guys like Capone and Torrio were members of the infamous Five Points gang before going on to much greater wealth and notoriety via the money making machine called organized crime

It is almost impossible to discuss the neighborhood of Five Points without discussing the Tombs. The Tombs was a second home to many of Five Points' most notorious residents. In the 1830s, New York City was in need of a new jail. City officials decided to build one on the exact spot where the Collect Pond once stood. In August 1838, the imposing fortress-like New York City Jail opened; the ugly building resembled a giant mausoleum -- hence the nickname, the Tombs. The building began to sink into the swampish ground not too long after it had been erected. The massive sewer system that ran under most of the tenements of the Points also ran under the Tombs. The stench of sewer waste hung in the air, contaminating prisoners' hair, and clothes. The walls of the cells were soaked from sewage. Rats were a common sight. Rumors abounded of cruel mistreatment of the prisoners. Some prisoners escaped the Tombs by following the sewers back into Five Points. Many of the city's most-wanted criminals came out of the sewers at the Old Brewery and stayed there for safety (the police were often hesitant even to enter the Old Brewery).

Mulberry Bend Park (now Columbus Park) was erected between Mulberry and Orange Streets in 1896. Now it sits as a peaceful park in the heart of Chinatown. Today, Five Points has ceased to exist as a neighborhood. The streets have changed names -- Orange has become Baxter Street and Anthony has become Worth. Paradise Square, once the meeting area for the city's worst street gangs is no more. Foley Square, with its complex of court buildings, now sits on that infamous ground. Where there was once lawlessness and disorder, law and order have taken over completely. Yuppified lofts and restaurants dot the same blocks where anarchy once reigned.