Thursday, August 12, 2010

NYC Neighborhoods: Five Points (1)

"Just back of the City Hall, towards the East River, and within full sight of Broadway, is the terrible and wretched district known as the Five Points. You may stand in the open space at the intersection of Park and Worth streets, the true Five Points, in the midst of a wide sea of sin and suffering, and gaze-right into Broadway with its marble palaces of trade, its busy, well-dressed throng, and its roar and bustle so indicative of wealth and prosperity. It is almost within pistol shot, but what a wide gulf lies between the two thoroughfares, a gulf that the wretched, shabby, dirty creatures who go slouching by you may never cross. There everything is bright and cheerful. Here every surrounding is dark and wretched.

The streets are narrow and dirty, the dwellings are foul and gloomy, and the very air seems heavy with misery and crime. For many a block the scene is the same. This is the realm of Poverty. Here want and suffering, and vice hold their courts. It is a strange land to you who have known nothing but the upper and better quarters of the great city. It is a very terrible place to those who are forced to dwell in it. For many blocks to the north and south of where we stand in Worth street, and from Elm street back to East River, the Five Points presents a succession of similar scenes of wretchedness.

Yet, bad as it is, it was worse a few years ago. There was not more suffering, it is true, but crime was more frequent here. A respectably dressed man could not pass through this section twelve years ago without risking his safety or his life. Murders, robberies, and crimes of all kinds were numerous. Fugitives from justice found a sure refuge here, and the officers of the law frequently did not dare to seek them in their hiding places. Now, thanks to the march of trade up the island, the work of the missionaries, and the vigilance of the new police, the Five Points quarter is safe enough during the day. But still, there are some sections of it in which it is not prudent to venture at night. The criminal class no longer heard here, but have scattered themselves over the island, so that the quarter now contains really more suffering than crime.

Twenty years ago there stood in Park street, near Worth, a large dilapidated building known as the "Old Brewery." It was almost in ruins, but it was the most densely populated building in the city. It is said to have contained at one time as many as 1200 people. Its passages were long and dark, and it abounded in rooms of all sizes and descriptions, in many of which were secure hiding places for men and stolen goods. The occupants were chiefly the most desperate characters in New York, and the "Old Brewery" was everywhere recognized as the headquarters of crime in the metropolis. The narrow thoroughfare extending around it was known as "Murderers' Alley" and "The Den of Thieves." No respectable person ever ventured near it, and even the officers of the law avoided it except when their duty compelled them to enter it. It was a terrible place.

Nor was the neighborhood in which this building was located any better. The ground was damp and marshy, the old Collect Pond having originally covered the site, and the streets were filthy beyond description. It is said that there were underground passages extending under the streets from some of the houses to others in different blocks, which were kept secret from all but professional criminals. These were used for facilitating the commission of crimes and the escape of criminals. Brothels and rum shops abounded, and from morning until night brawls were going on in a dozen or more of them at once.

The locality is better now. In 1852, the Old Brewery was purchased by the Ladies' home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and was pulled down. Its site is now occupied by the neat and comfortable buildings of the Five Points Mission. Just across Worth street is the Five Points House of Industry, and business is creeping in slowly to change the character of this immediate locality forever.

In speaking of the Five Points, I include the Fourth and Sixth Wards, which are generally regarded as constituting that section, probably because they are the most wretched and criminal of all in the city. This description will apply with almost equal force to a large part of the First Ward, lying along the North River side of the island. The Fourth and Sixth Wards are also among the most densely populated, being the smallest wards in extent in the city.

The streets in this section are generally narrow and crooked. The gutters and the roadway are lined with filth, and from the dark, dingy houses comes up the most sickening stench. Every house is packed to its utmost capacity. In some are simply the poor, in others are those whose reputations make the policeman careful in entering them. Some of these buildings are simply dens of thieves. All the streets are wretched enough, but Baxter street has of late years succeeded to the reputation formerly enjoyed by its neighbor, Park street. It is a narrow, crooked thoroughfare. The sidewalk is almost gone in many places, and the street is full of holes. Some of the buildings are of brick, and are lofty enough for a modern Tower of Babel. Others are one and two story wooden shanties. All are hideously dirty.

From Canal to Chatham street there is not the slightest sign of cleanliness or comfort. From Franklin to Chatham street there is scarcely a house without a bucket shop or "distillery," as the signs over the door read, on the ground floor. Here the vilest and most poisonous compounds are sold as whiskey, gin, rum, and brandy. Their effects are visible on every hand. Some of these houses are brothels of the lowest description, and ah, such terrible faces as look out upon you as you pass them by! Surely no more hopeless, crime-stained visages are to be seen this side of the home of the damned. The filth that is thrown into the street lies there and decays until the kindly heavens pour down a drenching shower and wash it away. As a natural consequence, the neighborhood is sickly, and sometimes the infection amounts almost to a plague.

Next: 5 Points (2)

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

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