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Five Points: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Matthew Hale Smith, Sunshine and Shadow in New York (1868)

Was Five Points Manhattan truly a downtrodden, inner circle of hell filled with degenerates, whores and criminals? Or was the Lower East Side slum home to those like ‘Copper”s Kevin Corcoran, citizens with a moral compass and…basic hygiene?  Bowery Boogie’s resident historian Allison Siegel takes a closer look at the notorious New York neighborhood.

Five Points, the Manhattan locale where Park (Cross) Street intersected with Baxter (Orange) Street and Worth (Anthony) Street, is no longer intact today. Some streets have been renamed, others gone, but Five Points’ imprint remains, immortalized in the works and words from such luminaries as Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, Herbert Asbury, and Tyler Anbinder. In 2002, Five Points was resurrected for a new generation with the release of Martin Scorsese’s The Gangs of New York, a film adaptation of Herbert Asbury’s historical work. In Scorsese’s Gangs, the character of Bill “The Butcher” offered a poignant description of the area:

“Mulberry Street… and Worth… Cross and Orange… and Little Water. Each of the Five Points is a finger. When I close my hand it becomes a fist. And, if I wish, I can turn it against you.”

Tyler Anbinder, Five Points (New York, The Free Press, 2001)

Five Points also touted a less flattering nickname, Bloody Ould’ Sixth, thanks to its location in the Sixth Ward and the area’s alleged murder a night. A reporter for the New York Evening Post wrote of Bloody Ould’ Sixth:

“They had a dreadful fight upon last Saturday night,
The papers gave the news accordin’;
Guns, pistols, clubs and sticks, hot water
and old bricks,
Which drove them on the other side of Jordan.
Then pull off the coat and roll up the sleeve,
For Bayard is a hard street to travel;
So pull off the coat and roll up the sleeve,
The Bloody Sixth is a hard ward to travel I believe.”

New York Evening Post, “The Dead Rabbits Immortalised,” July 10, 1857

Manhattanites weren’t the only ones balking over the escalating violence and unsanitary conditions plaguing the Lower East Side. On a tour of America, Charles Dickens wrote of a particularly scathing review of his visit to Five Points, detailed in American Notes for General Circulation:

“This is the place [Five Points], these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruits here as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home, and all the wide world over. Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays.”

But not all notable writers and journalists portrayed Five Points as America’s black hole – an entire community of lost causes. In 1842’s Aurora, New York native Walt Whitman came to Five Points’ defense, arguing that residents were “not paupers and criminals, but the Republic’s most needed asset, the wealth of stout poor men who will work.”

So was Five Points America’s most corrupt neighborhood, or a cultural melting pot with a bad rap?

In the early 1990’s prior to the construction of a new federal courthouse, the United States General Services Administration (GSA) conducted a full-scale archaeological dig in Five Points. Their findings proved Five Points wasn’t entirely a community of lost causes.

Take a look at the GSA’s report here.  The opening line reads, “To outsiders, Five Points was a frightening slum; from the inside it was a thriving working-class neighborhood.”

The GSA recovered several artifacts, most of which were unfortunately destroyed in GSA’s archaeology lab in the basement of 6 World Trade Center on 9/11. A few finds:

GSA Artifacts: Sewing related objects (right), Medicinal bottles (top left), Umbrella part, collar stay, buckle (bottom left)

A tannery, a saloon, an oyster house, and New York’s first garment district – all places of business – were discovered beneath the land where Five Points once stood. Still, there is no doubt that Manhattan’s Lower East Side was a dangerous, and at times truly horrific place to live. If Five Points represented the age old struggle between good and evil, in this place, evil won.

Want to learn more about the rich history of Manhattan’s Lower East Side? Check out Allison’s historical blog at Bowery Boogie.

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