Saturday, March 30, 2013

What Remains of the Five Points

"The Five Points" by George Caitlin (c. 1827)

Anyone who has seen Martin Scorcese's "Gangs of New York" is familiar with the notorious 19th century neighborhood in Lower Manhattan known as "The Five Points."  Because most physical traces of that world no longer exist, Scorcese couldn't film on location.   Instead, together with production designer Dante Ferretti, Scorcese recreated the Five Points of the 1860’s (along with other sets comprising over a mile of mid-nineteenth century Manhattan) at Cinecittà Studios in Rome.  This decision, itself, was a tremendous gift to the actors, who otherwise would have had to have devoted a great deal of their creative energies to conjuring up that world while acting against a green screen.

Where, exactly, was the Five Points?  It is today’s lower Chinatown (on the east) and the Courthouse district (on the west).  Between these two very different neighborhoods is today the oddly shaped Columbus Park, formerly known as "Mulberry Bend Park."  For those of you unfamiliar with the history of this area of New York City , here is a link to Dan Kowalski’s nine minute video about the Collect Pond in which I am featured.

Map of the Five Points (salmon overlay) with
contemporary streets & buildings in outline.
Only one of the five points (#2) still exists, along 
with a sliver of the former Paradise Square.

It’s hard for most people to conjure up the older world, since the streets and buildings depicted in the movie have been almost entirely altered since then.  Some streets (e.g., Little Water, most of Cross) have been demapped, others (Orange, Anthony) have been renamed and some streets (Anthony then, now Worth) have been extended.  Finally, the most notorious block of the Five Points neighborhood of the Sixth Ward, bounded by Orange (now Baxter) on the west, Cross (now Mosco) on the south, Mulberry on the east and Bayard on the north, is now a public park. The block was oddly shaped, since both Mulberry and Orange bent at a twenty degree angle to follow the lines of a stream that had drained the Collect Pond to the north, towards the flats below Mt. Bayard.  

Mulberry Bend, on Mulberry Street, c. 1902.  The alley 
known as "Bandit's Roost" opened off to the left, 
 between two buildings just north of the bend.

Because of the bend, the block was unusually deep and long.  This, and the common 19th century practice of jamming buildings into the rear yards of such neighborhoods, meant that there were two, and sometimes three, buildings set back from the street in the intereior of the block.  The character of the block can best be discerned from the names give the  alleys and byways that led deep into its interior: "Bandit's Roost," "Ragpickers' Alley," and "Bottle Alley."  All of the housing on this "superblock" was demolished in the middle of the 19-teens to create Mulberry Bend Park such that, together with the demolition of the Paradise Square area, almost all traces of the Five Points have been obliterated.
"Bandit's Roost" alley, c. 1890.  William Henry McCarty, Jr.  
(a/k/a William H. Bonney) better known as "Billy the Kid,"
 was born less than a mile away, on Allen Street, in 1859

The reason that most all of the courthouses in Manhattan are gathered here is a direct result of its earlier status as the Five Points.  When, in the early 1800’s, the decision was made to replace the aging Revolutionary War era Bridewell Prison (“theBridewell”), it was decided that a new jail and court complex needed to be built.  Nominally called “the Hall of Justice” (but more colloquially referred to as “The Tombs” because of its Egyptian style architecture) the decision was made to locate it in the center of the old Sixth Ward (and, by coincidence, at the center of the former Collect Pond) since, by the late 1820’s, the then new and (briefly) middle-class neighborhood in the Sixth Ward was already deteriorating into what would soon become known as the Five Points and it was thought that locating the jail there would “send a message” to the Irish and black riff-raff to keep them in line.  It did not.

The first Tombs (Hall of Justice), built in the 1830's in the center
of the Sixth Ward and the center of the former Collect Pond.

What most people do not know is that the Five Points, as depicted in that movie, persisted well into the first two decades of the 20th century and that, even today, traces of the Five Points remain.  There are places where one can go down into a subterranean tunnel on one block and emerge, back up into the daylight, one or two blocks over.  I give tours of it for friends.

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