The green lanterns of a Chinatown police station

New York City has 77 police precincts, which means 77 precinct houses. One of the oldest is the Fifth Precinct station house at 19 Elizabeth Street, just below Canal Street—so understated it practically blends right into the tenements beside it.

These days, things are relatively sedate in the neighborhood, which encompasses Chinatown, what’s left of Little Italy, and a bit of Soho as well (since the late 1990s more or less collectively known as Nolita).

But imagine Elizabeth and Canal Streets in 1881, when the precinct house opened. This was the Sixth Ward, a rough and tumble immigrant enclave on the border of Five Points, Manhattan’s notorious 19th century slum district.

The neighborhood may have changed. But one thing remains: the green lanterns flanking the front door. (Above, in 2020, and below, a different set of lanterns in 1900)

It’s one feature every precinct house has in common. The tradition of the green lanterns harkens back to the city of the 17th century, before a professional police department was formed in 1845.

What constituted a police force in the mid-1600s was a group of watchmen formed a “rattle watch” that would patrol the streets at night, rattling keys and carrying a green lantern on a pole, wrote Bruce Chadwick in Law and Disorder: The Chaotic Birth of the NYPD.

(Some sources say the rattle watch carried actual wood rattles, but whatever they carried, the point was to scare off troublemakers by making noise.)

“When they returned to their watch house, they put the lantern outside it; this is why all old precinct houses in the city today have green lanterns beside their front entrances.”

[Third photo: NYPL]

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10 Responses to “The green lanterns of a Chinatown police station”

  1. Shayne Davidson Says:

    Fascinating history!

  2. Carl Reddick Says:

    And the origin of superhero The a Green Lantern………

  3. alaspooryorick Says:

    the 5th has a vintage “holding cell” on the 2nd floor, no longer used. it reminded me of an old gangster movie. about 8 feet square, green iron bars, on one side of a large room so there was no privacy and plenty of opportunity for harassment and pleas. “you gotta let me out of here, i’m innocent!” “aw shaddup, ya wino.”

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Wow, I wish they gave tours! Imagine the stories over the years of the people who ended up there and the crimes they did (or did not) commit.

  4. Greg Says:

    It raises the question for me, what *is* the oldest precinct house. Looks like Central Park is housed in the oldest structure, but one that has only been a precinct house since 1936.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      You’re right, based on my research into this. The Central Park police are based in the oldest building. But this one in the post, originally built for what was known as the 6th precinct in 1881, is the oldest actual precinct.

  5. Ricky Says:

    How do they decide what number each precinct is given?

  6. David H Lippman Says:

    One of the best early Police memoirs is by the turn-of-the-last century Detective Cornelius Van Willemse, a colorful Dutch immigrant who recorded numerous adventures in a colorfully written book, entitled “Behind the Green Lights.”

    The frontispiece shows him wearing his trademark straw hat and chomping on his equally trademark cigar, with a giant hole in the hat, apparently caused by a bullet from the man he has just arrested…according to the caption.

    However, a later book that mentions the incident says that after making an otherwise routine arrest of this important suspect, Van Willemse went around the corner, shot a hole in his hat, and returned to face the news photographers. He was ready to stretch the truth to gain some promotion.

    Frankie Philips, Popeye Egan, and the “Supercops” would later do the same in their decades. Today’s police memoirs are less heroic, more humorous, but otherwise, little has changed but technology.

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