A Map of "The Five Points" neighborhood in New York City and its relationship to today's streets and the old Collect Pond., a photo by amproehl on Flickr.
This is my first attempt to try to render the story of "The Five Points" Neighborhood in historical layers. The neighborhood or more aptly, slum was also known as Paradise Square was always notorious but was made famous more recently as the setting for Martin Scorcese's, "Gangs of New York" film.
Here’s the story...
The area that was eventually to become the Five Points was originally a spring-fed fresh water pond known as the Collect Pond. It shows up clearly on British maps of Manhattan around the time of the American Revolution. The pond was a major source of drinking water in the colonial era. There was also an area of the pond known as “Cow Bay” where farmers would bring their cows to drink.
As lower Manhattan grew, several breweries and tanneries set up shop near the Collect. This included Coulter’s Brewery which was built in 1792. Coulter’s building would eventually become known as “The Old Brewery,” perhaps the Five Point’s most infamous tenement. The breweries and tanneries no doubt benefitted greatly from their proximity to the Collect Pond’s fresh water but it was not a mutually beneficial relationship. Over time, the pond had become quite polluted and smelly and the city made plans to fill it in. The Canal that gave Canal Street it’s name was built, in part, to drain the Collect and it’s surrounding marsh. The City backfilled the collect with garbage and debris around 1811 and began allowing buildings to be erected. The pond however had been poorly filled and was still being fed by the underground spring. The area remained wet, muddy and mosquito infested. As a consequence of this, anyone that could move out of the area did. In the 1830s, more and more tenements were built on the soggy ground and began to settle and lean almost as soon as they were completed. Little Water Street, which had once been the footpath to Cow Bay was now a dangerous, crime-infested alley. There was a building at the northern end of Little Water Street known as “Jacob’s Ladder” because the front steps were badly rotten, broken and misaligned.
Eventually only the poorest of the poor chose to live in the area known initially as Paradise Square and later as Five Points. This included freed black slaves and a group of immigrants arriving from Europe. The Potato Famine had hit Ireland in the 1840s prompting a huge exodus. As they arrived in New York poor and destitute, many ended up in the Five Points. As many as a thousand may have lived in “The Old Brewery” which had been broken up into tiny, one-room “dwellings”. It was said that there was a murder every night in the brewery for months on end.
The emergence of The Five Points as a crime-ridden slum feels like destiny in action. Had the Potato Famine happened a decade later, the Irish might have ended up in a different neighborhood. If the Collect Pond had not become polluted then drained and backfilled, there would not have been the cheap, undesirable land to build on. Had the buildings not been built on soggy, marshland, they might have been more stable, desirable and able to charge more rent.
With all of the above conditions in place, in came the poor and the crime associated with so many scrambling to scratch out an existence. The area was famous for numerous gangs including the “Dead Rabbits” featured in Scorcese’s movie. The neighborhood had many alleys like “Bottle Alley” and “Bandit’s Roost” that were gang hangouts. Some gang members eventually ended up at “The Tombs” prison after being convicted of a crime. The Tombs was built in 1838 in the Egyptian Revival style in the hopes its ominous appearance would be a natural deterrence against crime. It too was built over the Collect Pond and suffered as a result. The foundation sank and leaked eventually forcing the building to be destroyed. The Tombs was replaced twice with newer buildings. The current nearby detention center is still referred to as The Tombs by some law enforcement officials.
Despite the seedy history of the Five Points, some good did come out of the area. There were a number of dance and music halls in the area. One came to be known as Almack’s Dance Hall. Both the Irish and African Americans living in the area frequented it creating a mix of African and Irish dance traditions. It is said that this combination led to what eventually became what we know now as tap dance.