Five Points

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Tyler Anbinder. Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum. New York: Free Press, 2001. Pp. 532. $9.95 (Paperback): ISBN 0452283612.

Summary

Located in New York City’s Sixth Ward, Five Points earned the reputation as “the most notorious precinct of moral leprosy in the city,” not to mention the most notorious slum in nineteenth century America (1). Five Points went largely ignored by the political and legal historians of the early twentieth century. Through social history, the neighborhood became the subject of increased scholarly focus, while popular histories like Luc Sante’s Low Life and Caleb Carr’s The Alienist brought Five Points’ story to a wider audience. Tyler Anbinder however believed that the historiography surrounding the neighborhood perpetuated inaccuracies, and thus attempted to “set the record straight by providing the first detailed history of this fascinating immigrant enclave” (3). Using bank ledgers, government records, real estate documents, newspapers, and diaries, Anbinder argued that Five Points presented a tale of political and cultural vitality within the context of abject misery and infamy, thereby symbolizing the immigrant experience.

Five Points gained its unsavory reputation through a combination of environmental and social factors. As Anbinder noted, the neighborhood developed on the former site of “the Collect,” a five-acre lake in lower Manhattan. The Collect vanished, but the grounds remained damp at a time when people attributed numerous diseases to dampness. To compound matters, Five Points not only became associated with immigrant, black, and other discriminated populations, but the neighborhood became New York City’s commercial sex center (14, 19). Five Points’ negative reputation gained national attention when Davy Crockett noted that he “would rather risque [himself] in an Indian fight than venture among these creatures after night,” and international attention when Charles Dickens declared “all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here” (26, 33). In short, the name Five Points became equated to wretchedness.

The neighborhood’s contemptible conditions could be seen in poor living conditions and vice. According to Anbinder, Five Points’ tenements usually provided overcrowded, dirty living spaces. Forty-six percent of the apartments housed six or more people, while another one-in-six housed eight or more people. To make matters worse, the tenements contained so much dirt that, “with occasional slops of water…, it had the appearance of the greasy refuse of a woolen mill” (75, 82). Vice, meanwhile, further characterized the neighborhood. While Anbinder noted exaggerations to the historical record, he nonetheless showed the pervasiveness of drunkenness and prostitution. George Appo, for instance, recounted the common occurrence of seeing six to ten drunken men and women sleeping off the effects of alcohol each morning. Furthermore, the New York District Attorney’s indictment records showed that almost every house radiating from the Five Points intersection housed a brothel (207-8, 230).

Yet, political and cultural vivacity emerged from an atmosphere of degradation and despair. Anbinder recounted the political rise of Matthew T. Brennan and his political ally, John Clancy. Their rise through Tammany Hall’s ranks during the 1850s seemed improbable to earlier generations of Five Pointers. Yet, at a time when Tammany took Irish votes while refusing to give them offices, Brennan and Clancy “refused to accept such limitations,” and ultimately played “a major role in reshaping the dynamics of political power in Civil War-era New York” (170-1). Five Pointers fought hard political battles, but they also played hard. Not only did Five Pointers enjoy bare-knuckle boxing, but they also enjoyed gambling and dancing. Elite New Yorkers found entertainment in Five Points shocking and depraved, further perpetuating the neighborhood’s wretched reputation. However, as Anbinder declared, boxing, gambling, and dancing significantly contributed to the neighborhood’s spirited cultural life (176, 182, 196-8, 200).

Ultimately, Five Points fell victim to the Progressive reforms of the late-nineteenth century. Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives offered a chilling exposé to tenement life in Five Points, arguing “that the tenements themselves were the source of the slum problem, incubating disease and crime and perpetuating poverty.” The book represented a call to arms which facilitated the neighborhood’s demise, as open space and charitable institutions replaced old tenement complexes like Old Brewery, Mulberry Bend, Bottle Alley, and Cow Bay (429, 433). Yet, as Anbinder argued, Five Points symbolized the immigrant struggle in the United States. The Korean experience in Los Angeles and the Mexican experience in Houston all share aspects of the Five Points saga, as they work to adjust and overcome the harsh aspects of their new lives. As Anbinder concluded, “[t]here may never again be another slum quite like Five Points, but as long as the United States remains a nation of immigrants, the outline of the Five Points story will never die” (441).

Commentary

Richard Hardesty, Fall 2011

In a detailed account of Five Points, Anbinder’s analysis suffered from his inability to fully examine the significance of the penny press. Tabloid papers like the Sun played an important role in giving Five Points its reputation as a slum. In one exposé, the Sun reported that “the worst parts of Five Points did not have ‘a table, chair or any other article of furniture, save a cooking utensil, a few plates, and knives, and bottles, with which to carry on the business of living’” (23). Anbinder’s inclusion of the penny press offered a useful opportunity to explore Five Points’ relationship with the new, and growing, medium. However, Anbinder’s failure to do so proved problematic, especially because his study emerged from his desire to set the record straight by correcting fabrications and errors. Anbinder could have improved his study by removing some of the detail he gave to the famine Irish, which, in turn, would have provided room for him to add greater depth to his analysis by further exploring Five Points and the penny press.

Anbinder, however, enlivened his study through the brief prologues that begin each chapter. Through the prologue, Anbinder connected individuals, places, and incidents to a theme that he wants to explore in greater detail in the chapter that follows. The “Old Brewery,” for instance, represented the subject of one of Anbinder’s prologues, a symbol of Five Points’ hyped reputation. As Anbinder noted, the “Old Brewery” exemplified the worst that Five Points had to offer, a place of murder and incestuous relationships. Anbinder, though, pointed out that “[c]onditions in the Old Brewery were not uniformly squalid, nor were the tenants habitually murderous and dissolute. Yet, dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of its residents lived in windowless, filthy, teeming apartments that were unfit for habitation” (66, 70-1). Anbinder offered nuance and balance to his discussion on Five Points, and, through each prologue and chapter, he presented a skillful synthesis on one of New York’s most intriguing neighborhoods.

More significantly, Anbinder presented a fresh way of examining community life, building off of Alexander von Hoffman’s work in Local Attachments. Anbinder and von Hoffman both explored the vitality of the urban neighborhood through social, economic, and political attachments. However, whereas von Hoffman showed that local vibrancy weakened in the midst of ethnic conflict, Anbinder argued that racial and ethnic clashes provided the source of Five Points’ local character and its impact on national society. Dance contests between Master Juba and Irish-American John Diamond used racial and ethnic tensions to increase interest, but, at the same time, Anbinder notes that these competitions “had a profound influence on the direction of American dance” (174-5). Conflict and strife served to not only highlight the misery experienced by Five Points’ residents, but also the community’s overall significance to American society.

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