Five Points

Five Points, the neighborhood once so foul that it had to be erased from the face of Manhattan, and the streets that formed these five points — re-arranged. As the name suggests, the neighborhood was centered around the five-pointed intersection created by Orange Street (now Baxter Street), Cross Street (now Mosco Street), and Anthony Street (now Worth Street). What used to be Five Points is now split between the Civic Center and Chinatown.

Collect Pond

The Collect Pond, 1880, NYPL

Before Five Points became a notorious slam, there was fresh water: through the 1600s and 1700s, a spring-fed Collect Pond was the main drinking water source for colonial New York. By the end of the 18th century, tanneries and slaughterhouses sprang up around it, polluting the pond. Soon after, a once pristine body of water turned into an open sewer, becoming unusable. In 1811, the city drained the pond into the Hudson River through the canal that became Canal Street. The pond that presented a public health hazard was filled in.

Paradise Square

Old Brewery

The terra firma built over the drained pond was not all that firm; the land was marshy, making streets muddy and houses built over soggy ground — unstable. Well-to-do New Yorkers left the area, and the neighborhood quickly became home to the poorest inhabitants and new immigrants who started arriving around the 1820s. The place was named Paradise Square, and for a while, it was not meant to be sarcastic. The center of the growing neighborhood was an old 1792 brewery, and the tenement built in its place became known as… the Old Brewery.

Five Points

Five Points, 1827, NYPL

By the 1830s, the place was known as Five Points, the notorious slum that was a breeding ground for crime, gangs, and disease. By all accounts the roughest place in NYC, it was an assemblage of thieves, prostitutes, and murderers. The overcrowded Old Brewery, housing 1,000 poor, was rumored to have averaged one murder each night for fifty years. In fact, Five Points was alleged to have the highest murder rate of any slum in the world.

Five Points became the center of brutal gang activity, where the anti-immigrant nativists Bowery Boys clashed with the Dead Rabbits, made up primarily of Irish Catholic immigrants.

Bandit’s Roost, Mulberry Street, 1888. Jacob A. Riis, Museum of the City of New York

In 1890 Jacob Riis, a journalist and a photographer, published How the Other Half Lives — a book that shed light on the horrible conditions endured by residents of the city’s slums, especially children. The book helped change public opinion on poverty, which in Victorian times was considered moral turpitude. Riis used newly invented flash photography to demonstrate horrible living conditions inside the Brewery.

Slum clearance efforts prompted neighborhood renewal; however, Five Points was beyond repair and had to be razed to the ground. Mulberry Bend, one of the worst sections of the Five Points, was turned into a park opened in 1897 and designed by Calvert Vaux, now called Columbus Park.

Ironically, Five Points, the most crime-ridden part of the city, had become the place of law and justice. It has been replaced by Foley square with a number of civic buildings, including the temple-looking NY State Supreme Court and the stately United States Courthouse.

Below are a couple of quotes describing Five Points.

“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?”

Charles Dickens 1842’s “American Notes For General Circulation”

“The Old Brewery was a five-story building, old and dilapidated. Along one wall an alley led to a single large room in which more than 75 men and women of assorted nationalities and races lived together. This was the Den of Thieves. The name was appropriate. Along the other wall ran another filthy lane called Murderer’s Alley, worse than the first.

Upstairs there were about 75 other chambers, housing more than 1,000 people … men, women and children. The section was a warren, with underground passages and murderous cul-de-sacs, into which the police dared venture only in large numbers, for the Old Brewery for a period of more than 15 years averaged a murder a night.

Five Points was too tough, too unlawful, too unsavory to last, even in the New York of a century ago. The Old Brewery was razed, the last of the gangs destroyed. Today [in 1952]  it bears little resemblance to the bull-baiting, rip-roaring hell it was in 1850.”

Kenneth Dunshee 1952’s “As You Pass By

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