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The Five Points
The old rookeries and dilapidated shanties that formerly abounded in the vicinity of the Five Points and Cow's Bay in the Sixth Ward were the resort and refuge of a desperate class of criminals. This narrative covers those years in that notorious district in 19th century Manhattan.
[897 words]
Gregory J Christiano
I was born in NYC 1947, lived in the Bronx till I got married and moved to Jersey in 1979. I was raised Roman Catholic and went to Catholic grammar and High School. Graduated with BA from Central University of Iowa. Worked in Manhattan most of my career. Presently I am a Claims Adjuster for a service company in the city.

I have only been writing seriously for the past three years, but am published in various nostalgia magazines, have won some awards on line and was awarded the coveted Halpern Memorial Award for best narrative for the Fall 2002 issue of the Bronx County Historical Society Journal. I also have several of my poems published in anthologies. Two short stories will be published at the end of this year.

I will submit essays, historical articles, short stories, and poetry. Looking forward to reading and commenting on the works of fellow authors at this site.

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The Five Points
Gregory J Christiano

The name Five Points, in nineteenth century New York City, evokes images of

poverty, rampant crime, decadence and despair. It was a lurid geographical

cancer filled with dilapidated and unlivable tenement houses, during a time of

gang extortion; corrupt politicians, houses of ill-repute, drunkenness and gambling.

This was a place where all manner of crimes flourished; the residents terrorized and

squalor prevailed. Such was the setting over most of the nineteenth century, from the

1830’s through the 1880’s after which these slums were torn down.

This district, known as the Sixth Ward, was bounded south by Reade Street, west by

West Street, north by Canal Street, east by Broadway. The Five Points derived its

name in the 1830’s from the convergence of the intersection of five streets:

Mulberry, Anthony (now Worth Street), cross, (now Park St.), Orange ( now

Baxter), and Little Water Street (which no longer exists). This neighborhood was

built over what was known as the Collect Pond, a marshy swampland north of the old

Court House. The scene is set for the appearance of the first ghetto in America.

When the landfill started to decay in the 1820’s the wood frame houses began to tilt

over and sink. Certain areas of Manhattan Island are not suitable for erecting tall

structures because there is no bedrock to support them. This was the case in the

Canal Street area. (If you take time to look at the Manhattan skyline, you will notice

how the taller buildings are clustered together in particular areas while other areas can

only support smaller buildings).

The Collect Pond area became infested with mosquitoes and disease; the decent

residents moved out and those who remained became impoverished and victims of

the slumlords, gangs and ruthless politicians. Personal safety was compromised and

everyone was under constant threat of being conned, robbed or worse! Beginning

with the Old Brewery, a building that was converted to an apartment house, the floors

were partitioned into small flats, rented to the poor and other seedy characters. Each

room had entire families living, cooking, eating and sleeping in this one room. It was

definitely a ghastly sight with such squalid living conditions. The same situation

prevailed throughout the district housing, the lower floors usually reserved for

drinking, dancing, gambling and riotous behavior.. Many people were robbed, beaten

or shanghaied. In the cellars (the people were called “cellar dwellers”) were the

“ oyster saloons,” which were kept open all night, luring fresh, unsuspecting victims.

This neighborhood was a very dangerous place to live and visit.

The many dancehalls brought together the Irish and African-Americans, both having

a large population in the district. A combination of the Irish Jig or Reel and the

African-American Shuffle, created a new dance form – Tap Dancing! This became

an extremely popular trend and forever was ingrained in American culture as a new

art form. As to stuffing ballot boxes and stealing elections, the politicians in this

Ward were expert and notorious. The Five Points (Sixth Ward) had a reputation for

casting more ballots than eligible voters. Some names used had been from people

who had been dead for decades!

Over the course of time the neighborhood changed. It was exceedingly bed in the

1830’s and 40’s until Protestants made inroads to clean up the area in the 1850’s.

By 1860, Five Points was a little less violent, but still a revolting slum. Abraham

Lincoln visited the area in 1860 and reluctantly gave a speech to some school

children. He, as well as Charles Dickens, who also visited the area in 1842, were

both appalled at the abject poverty and terrible living conditions. But these

conditions improved only to crumble again in the 1880’s with the influx of Italian

and Chinese immigrants. By 1897 the area houses had all been demolished and the

district took on a whole new appearance, and for the better.

Martin Scorsese’s film, The Gangs of New York, captures the very essence of the

period between 1846 and the New York draft riots of 1863. But this is more than

’make believe’ history. Scorsese’s story is based on hard facts and most of the story

line holds to the real history of the period. The characters were composites of

historical figures, for instance, Bill “The Butcher” Cutter (played by Daniel Day-

Lewis), the Protestant leader of the Nativists, was actually Bill “The Butcher” Poole

who was assassinated in 1855, many years before the riots. There was a gang called

the Dead Rabbits, and other gangs accurately portrayed in the movie, but the

character of Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) was obviously fictitious. However

that masterful scoundrel William “Boss” Tweed (played by James Broadbent) was

true to character. Tweed was the Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall and had the

reputation as one of the most corrupt politicians in New York City history.

The movie depicted the times accurately, creating the proper atmosphere and showing

the desperate plight of the free African-Americans already living there, and the newly

arrived immigrants hoping to find paradise, only to be thrown into a world of racism,

religious bigotry and social rejection. The film presented a great sense of what life

was like in that part of town and how it differed from the uptown rich and middle

class. To many uptown New Yorkers no one was considered to be ‘respectable,’ if

they came from the Five points. But, multi-ethnic America was born out of that slum.

By the turn of the century this neighborhood faded into memory. (The very last scene

in The Gangs of New York demonstrates how the city changed over the decades

following these events and how memories are lost to time). There is still a strong

lesson to be learned here.


                                                    THE END


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© 2003 Gregory J Christiano
December 2004

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