Posts Tagged ‘Five Points slum’

Stand here and feel the ghosts of Five Points

October 3, 2016

Let us “plunge into the Five Points,” wrote Charles Dickens in American Notes, after his disagreeable 1842 trip to New York, when he toured New York’s shocking and notorious slum.

fivepointsgeorgecatlin1827

“This is the place: these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere of dirt and filth. . . . Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotting beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays.”

fivepoints1853map

New Yorkers at the time wouldn’t take issue with Dickens’ description. But more than a century after Five Points was wiped off the map thanks to late Gilded Age progressive ideals that fostered slum clearance and new development, where exactly was it?

5pointsstreetsignThe corner of Baxter and Worth Streets south of Columbus Park in Chinatown is the best modern-day approximation.

Five points formed roughly a five-point intersection at the juncture of four streets (see above 1853 map): Anthony, Orange, Cross, and Little Water Street to the north. Now, Anthony is Worth Street, Orange is Baxter Street, and Cross is Mosco Street—cut off from the others when the park was built in 1897. (Little Water was obliterated altogether.)

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New York often succeeds at burying the remains of its past. Standing at the corner of Worth and Baxter, beside the bustling park and contemporary courthouse complexes, it’s hard to imagine what Five Points was like in its heyday: the rum shops and rookeries, the stifling tenements, dancers like Master Juba tapping and stepping in makeshift dance halls, the pigs roaming the streets serving as garbage collectors.

TheGildedAgeinNewYorkcoverThe top photo reveals what Baxter and Worth Streets looked like in 1827, when George Catlin painted this image of Five Points.

Here’s what Five Points looks like today in a very different New York City.

How did Five Points become so awful? Find out more in The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, on sale now.

[Top photo: George Catlin painting, 1827; second photo: 1853 map from William Perris’ Atlas of New York City]

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.

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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]

A squalid lane nicknamed “murderers’ alley”

December 15, 2011

If the Five Points section of Manhattan was the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhood of the mid-1800s, then perhaps Donovan’s Lane was the worst part of Five Points.

Called “Murderers’ Alley,” it was a tiny rookery a few blocks from City Hall that linked Baxter and Pearl Streets, providing an escape route for criminals as well as a resting place for drunks.

“One reporter described Donovan’s Lane as an ‘Arcardia of garbage,’ filled with ‘rambling hovels and Alpine ranges of garbage heaps,'” writes Timothy J. Gilfoyle in A Pickpocket’s Tale: The Underworld of Nineteenth Century New York.

“Like other Baxter Street alleys, such as Bandit’s Roost and Bottle Alley, the thoroughfare was more accurately a small, unkempt courtyard behind the teeming, densely packed tenements.”

Inside Donovan’s Lane were opium dens—and mixed race couples, wrote Thomas N. Doutney, a temperance reformer, in his 1883 autobiography:

“Miscegenation held high carnival in Donovan’s Lane; black men and white women cursed and stunk and loafed and brawled and suffered there; the ‘basements’ in some of the old houses in the lane were so vile, that we approached their broken-down doors with our fingers to our nostrils.”

In the late 19th century, social reformers built a wall that cut off Donovan’s Lane, making it a dead end—eventually paved over and de-mapped.

[Above: Baxter Street in 1875, where Donovan’s Lane ran from]

Remnants of old Manhattan live on in city parks

July 29, 2010

Bloomingdale Playground, a spit of land on Amsterdam Avenue and 104th Street, is a reminder that much of the west side was once known by Dutch settlers as Bloemendaal, or “valley of flowers.”

Bloemendaal turned into Bloomingdale once the British moved in. 

In 1703, an early highway called Bloomingdale Road was built. It eventually ran through today’s Upper West Side.

By 1900, Bloomingdale Road had become Broadway, and the Bloomingdale name forgotten.

Collect Pond was never a neighborhood name. But after the pond was filled in by the city in 1811, it eventually became the site of the notorious 19th century slum called Five Points.

[Illustration depicting Collect Pond in the late 18th century. What was once the city’s water source soon became a filthy, polluted body of water.]

Collect Pond Park, on Leonard Street off Lafayette Street, is all that’s left.