The Five Points
America’s First Great Slum
The Five Points was America’s first great slum, and by the mid-1840s it had become the most notorious slum in the world, aided in no small part by Charles Dickens’s American Notes for General Circulation, which was published in 1842:
What place is this, to which the squalid street conducts us? A kind of square of leprous houses, some of which are attainable only by crazy wooden stairs without. What lies behind this tottering flight of steps? Let us go on again, and plunge into the Five Points.
This is the place; these narrow ways diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruit as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home and all the world over.
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 forays. Many of these pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright instead of going on all fours, and why they talk instead of grunting?
The neighborhood’s notorious reputation has been revived in the past decade or so by the release of Martin Scorcese’s The Gangs of New York, which was primarily set in 1846 and 1862-63 (culminating in the Draft Riots of July 13-16, 1863), and the recent BBC series, Copper, which is set in the latter stages of the Civil War, just after the Draft Riots. But as Tyler Anbinder, the great scholar of the Five Points has observed, as bad as the Five Points was, it was “never quite so bad as outsiders wanted it to be.”
The neighborhood’s name was derived from the five points of an intersection that created the triangular bit of misery known as Paradise Square. Orange Street (now Baxter Street) ran roughly north/south and Cross Street ran roughly east/west, forming the southern and eastern borders of the triangular-shaped Paradise Square. Little Water Street (which no longer exists) ran from the north side of the square into a dead-end. Anthony Street (now Worth Street) began on the western terminus of Paradise Square and ran to the northwest across Broadway and points west.
In the 18th century, the area was bucolic, centering on a freshwater, spring-fed pond called the Collect. Bunker Hill rose one hundred feet high, just to the northeast of the Collect, affording summer picnickers a magnificent view of the wildlife gathering at the Collect’s shores in the foreground, with the growing city of New York farther to the south. In the winter, the Collect was a popular spot for skating. Beginning in the late 1790s, the area began to industrialize, with tanneries, breweries, ropewalks and slaughterhouses polluting the Collect. By 1813, the Collect had been filled in with the earth from the now-leveled Bunker Hill.
At first, the neighborhood that grew up on the swampy land appeared to be little different from the rest of Gotham—small business owners lived in two- or two-and-a-half-story buildings that also contained their businesses and the quarters for their servants and apprentices. But by the late 1820s, it was clear that the Five Points had become a collecting ground for immigrants and African Americans—although the neighborhood was far from the “ulcer of wretchedness” it would eventually become. Changing economic conditions in the city as a whole—the decline of the artisan class and the transformation of the city from one of neighborhoods organized by type of artisan to one of neighborhoods that were either primarily commercial or primarily residential—exacerbated the neighborhood’s evolution. The Five Points became primarily residential, and those who could began relocating either west of Broadway or farther uptown in more salubrious neighborhoods.
As Tyler Anbinder notes, what sealed the Five Points’ future as a slum was prostitution. By 1830, the neighborhood was the center of the city’s commercial sex industry, and what an industry it was, with more bordellos between Centre and Orange Streets than on any other block in the city.
The 1832 cholera epidemic hit poorer neighborhoods such as the Five Points particularly hard, further contributing to the misery of its inhabitants. Worse still were a series of three riots that took place in 1834 and 1835. The first was an election-day riot in April, 1834. The second riot occurred three months later, in July, and it was an anti-abolition riot. Eleven months later, a third riot pitted Irish immigrants against native Americans. From these riots was born the Five Points’ reputation as the most violent part of the “’ould bloody Sixth Ward.”
In 1837, the brewery that the prominent Coulthardt family had established alongside the Collect for easy fresh water access closed, and the building was converted into a tenement. Herbert Asbury in his Gangs of New York said of the “Old Brewery,” as it became known, that “[t]houghout the building the most frightful living conditions prevailed. Miscegenation was an accepted fact, incest was not uncommon, and there was much sexual promiscuity.” Crime was rampant, and it was said that a murder a day occurred within its not-so-friendly confines. In 1852, reformers at the Ladies Missionary Society had purchased the Old Brewery, and by the middle of the decade a new building, The Five Points House of Industry, had taken its place.
The Five Points neighborhood that appears in Billy Gogan, Copper and the Gangs of New York changed radically in the decades following the Civil War, with the onslaught of new waves of Italian and Chinese immigrants and much urban renewal in the 20th century. Today, the Civic Center occupies the west side of what was once the Five Points, and Chinatown occupies the eastern and northern sides.
Charles Dickens’s American Notes for General Circulation, published in 1842, provides as good a contemporary look at the Five Points as there is. Davy Crockett’s (ghostwritten) memoir also has a few scathing things to say about the district. George F. Foster’s New York by Gas-Light is drawn from the “flash press” of the 1840s and provides considerable flavor of what it must have been like in the Five Points. Florry Kernan’s Reminiscences of the old fire laddies and volunteer fire departments of New York and Brooklyn. Together with a complete history of the paid departments of both cities, published in 1885, is another important primary source, as is Solon Robinson’s Hot Corn, published in 1854.
One other source that must be mentioned is Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York, published in 1928 and upon which the Martin Scorcese movie of the same name was based. Tyler Anbinder said of Asbury’s work (and of Alvin F. Harlow’s Old Bowery Days, published in 1931):
Asbury and Harlow were imbued with many of the same prejudices against the neighborhood’s Irish, Jewish, Italian and Chinese immigrants that had colored contemporary accounts of Five Points, and this led to many distorted depictions of the district and its inhabitants. In addition, they tended to accept as fact virtually anything found in nineteenth-century newspapers, even though the press of the day was hardly reliable. Many of the most sensational stories about Five Points in The Gangs of New York and Old Bowery Days were patently untrue.
By far and away the most important modern source of information about the Five Points is Tyler Anbinder’s incomparable book, Five Points, The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum. Other important secondary sources include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gotham, A History of New York City to 1898, by Edwin G. Burrow and Mike Wallace and City of Eros by Timothy J. Gilfoyle. City of Eros provides a real insight into prostitution in the era. Christine Stansall’s City of Women, Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 illuminates the roles played by, and the plight of, immigrant and African-American women living in the district.
There are many other primary and secondary sources available to the scholar and general reader, far too numerous to be mentioned here, but many of which are listed in the bibliography.
 (Anbinder, Five Points, the 19th Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notrious Slum, 2002) at I.
 (Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation, 1850) at 61.
 Regarding the Martin Scorcese film, The Gangs of New York, see Internet Movie Database at http:/ /www.imdb.com/title/tt0217505 (accessed February 19, 2013); (Wikipedia, 2009) at http://en.wikipedia.org /wiki/Gangs_of_New_York (accessed February 19, 2013).
Regarding the BBCAmerica television series, Copper, see http://www.bbcamerica.com/copper/ (accessed February 19, 2013).
 (Anbinder, Five Points, the 19th Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notrious Slum, 2002) at 14-15.
 (Anbinder, Five Points, the 19th Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notrious Slum, 2002) at 16.
 (Anbinder, Five Points, the 19th Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notrious Slum, 2002) at 19. For a more in-depth discussion of the Five Points as a commercial sex district, see (Gilfoyle, 1992) at 36-46.
 (Anbinder, Five Points, the 19th Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notrious Slum, 2002) at 31.
 (Anbinder, Five Points, the 19th Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notrious Slum, 2002) at 67-76.
 (Asbury, The Gangs of New York, 2008) at 13.
 (Anbinder, Five Points, the 19th Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notrious Slum, 2002) at 249.
 (Anbinder, Five Points, the 19th Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notrious Slum, 2002) at 3 (internal citations omitted).
Real Gangs of New York