Posts Tagged ‘Five Points NYC’

Everyone in 19th century New York loved oysters

January 5, 2017

oysters1900mcnyx2010-11-10037Oysters in the booming 19th century city were kind of like pizza today: sold in exclusive restaurants and lowly dives, prepared in countless styles, and devoured by rich and poor alike.

“Oysters were the great leveler,” wrote William Grimes in his book Appetite City. “At market stands, the New Yorker with a couple of nickels rubbed shoulders with the gay blades known as ‘howling swells.'”

“In humble cellars and lavish oyster palaces all over the city, oysters were consumed voraciously for as long as the oyster beds held out.”

oystersfultonmarket1870nypl

Oyster saloons popped up near theaters. Fisherman sold them off boats on the rivers. Fancy oyster houses fed the wealthy. Vendors at curbside stands sold them on the cheap, often adhering to what was called the “Canal Street plan”:

oystersmcdonaldsbowerynypl1907“All the oysters you could eat for six cents, usually sprinkled with vinegar and lemon juice, or perhaps just a little salt,” wrote Grimes. “By the 1880s, ketchup and horseradish were standard as well.”

As the ultimate democratizing food, oysters were enjoyed on Fifth Avenue the same as they were in Five Points (see illustration below).

Even Charles Dickens was amazed by their abundance and popularity at cheap Bowery dives during his visit to New York in 1842, which he famously chronicled.

“Again across Broadway, and so—passing from the many-coloured crowd and glittering shops—into another long main street, the Bowery. . . .” he wrote in American Notes.

oysters5pointsnypl1873

“These signs which are so plentiful, in shape like river buoys, or small balloons, hoisted by cords to poles, and dangling there announce, as you may see by looking up, ‘oysters in every style.’

“They tempt the hungry most at night, for then dull candles glimmer inside, illuminating these dainty words, and make the mouths of idlers water, as they read and linger.'”

[Top image: MCNY, 1900, x2010.11.10037; second image: NYPL, 1870; third image: NYPL menu collection; fourth image: NYPL, 1873]

How Five Points became the city’s worst slum

November 17, 2014

Filling in Collect Pond, once at today’s Centre Street behind City Hall, promised to solve two problems in late 18th century New York.

Fivepoints1827

First, it would do away with the foul body of water that in more bucolic times was used for drinking but in the 1700s had been given over to tanneries, slaughterhouses, and other manufacturers who polluted it (below, in a 1776 British map).

Fivepointscollectpond1776Also, housing could be built on the new land, easing congestion in the crowded, growing young city.

By 1813, the pond was covered over, and development began, stated Tyler Anbinder in his book Five Points.

“Landowners generally filled their lots with two-and-a-half story wooden buildings, the half story an attic with low ceilings and dormer windows suitable for small workshops,” wrote Anbinder.

Fivepoints1851mapResidents who moved in were artisans, bakers, carpenters, and masons, along with merchants, shopkeepers, and businessmen.

Through the 1820s, it was more or less a middle- and working-class area. By the 1830s, it was the city’s center for poverty, vice, gangs, and disease. So what happened?

Part of it had to do with the declining wages of artisans, who were increasingly replaced by mass production, wrote Anbinder.

Also, immigration surged, housing prices rose, and landlords began subdividing buildings meant for one family into quarters for several—introducing a new word to the city, the “tenant house,” soon shortened to tenement.

Fivepoints1852

The land under the houses was a problem as well. Collect Pond no longer existed, but the “ground remained damp and unsettled, causing houses to shift and tilt dramatically just a few years after construction,” wrote Anbinder.

Fivepoints1873“Because so many diseases of the period were attributed to dampness and ‘vapours,’ few New Yorkers wanted to live in such a locale.”

Soon prostitution and rum shops arrived, followed by gang-related crime. Anyone who could move out of what was once called the Collect neighborhood did, and those who remained lived in the newly christened Five Points, a wretched slum that persisted through most of the 19th century.

[Top: Five Points in 1827, by George Catlin; third image: Five Points map in 1851; fourth image: Five Points house in 1852; residents of Five Points illustration in 1873]