Five Points, the absolute shit show of 1800s NYC
Largely due to Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York (still trying to forget that unapologetic casting of Cameron Diaz), “Five Points” is a phrase familiar to many, however the depth of its history is not known by most.
The area that eventually became Five Points was originally a fresh water pond, known as Collect Pond. During the colonial era, the pond served as a major source of drinking water for Lower Manhattan. As the area developed, the pond was utilized by breweries and tanneries, which led to heavy pollution of the water source. The city drained the pond and its surrounding marsh via a canal that lead to the river (down what is now Canal Street), back-filled it with garbage, and then in 1811 began erecting buildings in the lot. Due to poor city planning, the grounds remained swampy and mosquito infested, so only the most destitute were relegated to this neighborhood. Keep in mind the city population from 1800-1855 grew from 60,000 to 800,000, with the majority of the influx being Irish.
The absolute poorest chose to live in Paradise Square, which we now refer to as Five Points. This neighborhood was the only haven for recently emancipated African Americans and endless immigrating Irish, the latter of which boomed in the 1840s, when the Great Famine killed one million Irish and forced another million to flee for their lives. Considering this Melting Pot, Five Points was the first large-scale instance of volitional racial integration in American history,
Tenements built on the soggy grounds began to lean as soon as they were completed. Buildings become infinitely divided into tiny, one-room “dwellings”, where on average 8-12 people would call the shared area their home; however, that number sometimes escalated to 30. The most famous of these tenements was “The Old Brewery”, which at its height housed 1,000 people and was notoriously the most lawless, filthy, disease-ridden building with at least one murder a night. To put that in perspective, Five Points on the whole averaged 15 murders a night.
Dominated by multiple gangs (and notably the birthplace of mobster Al Capone), the two most infamous gangs – the Dead Rabbits (Irish Catholic immigrants) and the Bowery Boys (anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant native New Yorkers) – demonstrated their historic hatred of one another during a famous 2-day riot in 1857. 1,000 gang members took the streets, municipal and metro police soon joined in taking sides, and then the madness continued for 48 hours until the New York State militia arrived to break up the dissidence with bayonets.
Jacob Riis’ How The Other Half Lives, was a pioneering form of photojournalism that brought to the country’s attention the absolutely deplorable living conditions in New York’s destitute neighborhoods. It sparked progressive reforms to protect the working poor and was the first step in ending the hell that was Five Points.
If you’re genuinely interested in this period, head over to amazon for this fantastic book, which covers the history of the neighborhood without being a snooze.
Other links if you’re curious to explore more:
A great National Geographic article about what it was like to live in Five Points
History.com has a nice piece on the 7 most notorious 19th century gangs
A photo gallery of when the Bowery Boys and Dead Rabbits ruled Paradise Square