Thursday, August 12, 2010

NYC Neighborhoods: Five Points (2)

(Continued from Page: 1)

Between Fourteenth street and the Battery, half a million of people are crowded into about one-fifth of the island of Manhattan. Within this section there are about 13,000 tenement houses, fully one-half of which are in bad condition, dirty and unhealthy. One small block of the Five Point district is said to contain 382 families. The most wretched tenement houses are to be found in the Five Points. The stairways are rickety and groan and tremble beneath your tread. The entries are dark and foul. Some of these buildings have secret passages connecting them with others of a similar character. These passages are known only to criminals, and are used by them for their vile purposes.

Offenders may safely hide from the police in these wretched abodes. Every room is crowded with people. Sometimes as many as a dozen are packed into a single apartment. Decency and morality soon fade away here. Drunkenness is the general rule. Some of the dwellers here never leave their abodes, but remain in them the year round stupefied with liquor, to procure which their wives, husbands or children will beg or steal. Thousands of children are born here every year, and thousands happily die in the first few months of infancy. Those who survive rarely see the sun until they are able to crawl out into the streets. Both old and young die at a fearful rate. They inhale disease with every breath.

The exact number of vagrant and destitute children to be found in the Five Points is not known. There are thousands, however. Some have placed the estimate as high as 15,000 and some higher. They are chiefly of foreign parentage. They do not attend the public schools, for they are too dirty and ragged. The poor little wretches have no friends but the attaches of the missions. The missionaries do much for them, but they cannot aid all. Indeed, they frequently have great difficulty in inducing the parents of the children to allow them to attend their schools.

The parents are mostly of the Roman Catholic faith, and the clergy of that Church have from the first exerted their entire influence to destroy the missions, and put a stop to their work. They feared the effect of these establishments upon the minds of the children, and, strange as it may seem, preferred to let them starve in the street, or come to worse ending, rather than risk the effects of education and Protestant influence. To those who know what a great and blessed work these missions have done, this statement will no doubt be astounding. Yet it is true.

In spite of the missions, however, the lot of the majority of the Five Points children is very sad. Their parents are always poor, and unable to keep them in comfort. Too frequently they are drunken brutes, and then the life of the little one is simply miserable. In the morning the child is thrust out of its terrible home to pick rags, bones, cinders, or anything that can be used or sold, or to beg or steal, for many are carefully trained in dishonesty. They are disgustingly dirty, and all but the missionaries shrink from contact with them. The majority are old looking and ugly, but a few have bright, intelligent faces. From the time they are capable of receiving impressions, they are thrown into constant contact with vice and crime. They grow up to acquire surely and steadily the ways of their elders. The boys recruit the ranks of the pickpockets, thieves, and murderers of the city; the girls become waiters in the concert halls, or street walkers, and thence go down to ruin, greater misery and death.

In winter and summer suffering is the lot of the Five Points. In the summer the heat is intense, and the inmates of the houses pour out into the filthy streets to seek relief from the torture to which they are subjected indoors. In winter they are half frozen with cold. The missionaries and the police tell some dreary stories of this quarter. A writer in a city journal thus describes a visit made in company with the missionary of the Five Points House of Industry to one of these homes of sorrow:

"The next place visited was a perfect hovel. Mr. Shultz, in passing along a narrow dark hall leading towards the head of the stairs, knocked at an old door, through which the faintest ray of light was struggling. "Come in," said a voice on the opposite side of the room. The door being opened, a most sickening scene appeared. The room was larger than the last one, and filthier. The thin outside walls were patched with pieces of pasteboard, the floor was covered with dirt, and what straggling pieces of furniture they had were lying about as if they had been shaken up by an earthquake. There was a miserable fire, and the storm outside howled and rattled away at the old roof, threatening to carry it off in every succeeding gust. The tenants were a man, his wife, a boy, and a girl.

They had sold their table to pay their rent, and their wretched meal of bones and crusts was set on an old packing box which was drawn close up to the stove. When the visitors entered the man and woman were standing, leaning over the stove. The girl, aged about ten years, and a very bright looking child, having just been off on some errand, had got both feet wet, and now had her stockings off, holding them close to the coals to dry them. The boy seemed to be overgrown for his age, and half idiotic. He sat at one corner of the stove, his back to the visitors, and his legs stretched out under the hearth. His big coat collar was turned up around his neck, and his chin sunk down, so that his face could not be seen. His long, straight hair covered his ears and the sides of his face. He did not look up until he was directly questioned by Mr. Shulty, and then he simply raised his chin far enough to grunt. The girl, when spoken to, looked up slyly and laughed.

"The man, on being asked if he was unable to work, said he would be glad to work if he could get anything to do. He was a painter, and belonged to a painters' protective union. But there were so many out of employment, that it was useless trying to get any help. He pointed to an old basket filled with coke, and said he had just sold their last chair to buy it. He had worked eighteen years at the Metropolitan Hotel, but got out of work and has been out ever since. Mr. Shultz offered to take the little girl into the House of Industry, and give her board, clothes, and education. He asked the father if he would let her go, saying the place was only a few steps from them, and they could see her often. The man replied that he did not like a separation from his child. The missionary assured him that it would be no separation, and then asked the mother the same question. She stood speechless for several moments, as if thinking over the matter, and when the missionary, after using his best arguments, again asked her whether she would allow him to take care of her child, she simply replied, "No," She said they would all hang together as long as they could, and, if necessary, all would starve together.

"This family had evidently seen better times. The man had an honest face, and talked as if he had once been able to earn a respectable living. The woman had some features that would be called noble if they were worn in connection with costlier apparel. The girl was unmistakably smart, and the only thing to mar their appearance as a family, so far as personal looks were concerned, was the thick-lipped, slovenly boy."

End of Article:

Source of information: Sights and Sensations of the Great City by James Dabney McCabe; National Publication Co: Philadelphia, Pa. 1872

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