Posts Tagged ‘How Five Points Became a Slum’

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]