Recalling Five Points
Epicenter of a Notorious Slum Proposed for Commemoration
In 1831, the City government considered a petition that warned, “that the place known as “Five points” has long been notorious… as being the nursery where every species of vice is conceived and matured; that it is infested by a class of the most abandoned and desperate character.”
A decade later, Charles Dickens, visiting New York, wrote of the same Lower Manhattan neighborhood that had inspired the petition, “what place is this, to which the squalid street conducts us? A kind of square of leprous houses, some of which are attainable only by crazy wooden stairs without. What lies behind this tottering flight of steps? Let us go on again, and plunge into the Five Points…. Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken forays.” Of the inhabitants, he observed, “pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright instead of going on all fours, and why they talk instead of grunting?”
The locus of this iniquity was a junction formed by three streets, the names of which have all been changed: Orange Street (now called Baxter), Cross Street (today known as Mosco Street), and Anthony Street (familiar to contemporary residents as Worth Street). The convergence of a third lane gave the intersection five corners, rather than the usual four. Hence the name: “Five Points.”
It was here that generations of impoverished immigrants gathered: waves of Irish, Italian, and Chinese newcomers mingled with newly emancipated slaves in the decades after the Civil War. They were drawn to housing made affordable by its squalor. In the early years of the 19th century, the City had filled in the nearby Collect Pond, hoping to eradicate the health hazard created by a decades of industrial pollution. Because hydrology was poorly understood at the time, they succeeded only in creating a swamp, which drew pestilential clouds of disease-carrying insects. The soggy ground was also nearly as detrimental to the buildings erected upon it, which quickly began to sink into the mud. As middle-class residents fled northward, they were replaced by destitute migrants. Some of these strangers in a stranger land banded together for mutual support, forming ethnic gangs that competed violently for local dominance. Although precise statistics are lost in the fog of history, scholars believe that by the middle of the century, Five Points had the highest murder rate of any urban ghetto in the world.
In what may have been America’s first experiment with slum clearance, the City decided to erase the entire neighborhood from its map in the late 1800s. Blocks of tenements were emptied, condemned, and demolished. On this land, the growing municipal government erected civic temples in which to house its courts, prisons, and dozens of other agencies.
The names of most of the surrounding streets were changed. Some thoroughfares, like Little Water Street, vanished completely. Some were elongated, like Worth Street, which was stretched eastward to Chatham Square, cutting off Baxter and Mulberry Streets as it went. And others were truncated, such as Mosco Street, which was shortened to its current, one-block length, so that architect and landscape designer Calvert Vaux (fresh from completing his masterpiece, Central Park) could create Mulberry Bend Park — now known as Columbus Park. (It opened two years after Vaux’s death, in 1895, but was renamed for the discoverer of the New World in 1911.)
As a result, the five-angled intersection no longer exists. Its closest remnant is the junction of Baxter and Worth Streets, where there is no marker or relic recalling the history of the Five Points.
At the November 21 meeting of Community Board 1, Lloyd Trufelman, representing the Municipal Art Society, said, “as many of you may know, Five Points was a historic neighborhood in Lower Manhattan that vanished over a century ago. Sadly, not a trace of it remains. Although long gone, Five Points played an important historical and cultural role in the City’s early development with regards to immigration, integration, and political and labor trends. A co-naming sign at Worth and Baxter Streets would mark its epicenter.”
This proposal was endorsed by the Historic Districts Council and Columbia University history professor Kenneth Jackson (editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of New York), along with the the Municipal Arts Society.
Later in the meeting, CB1 enacted a resolution endorsing the proposal, and acknowledging that, “posting a Five Points sign on the small triangular plot at Worth and Baxter Streets would recognize the lives of tens of thousands of 19th century Irish, Italian, Chinese and Jewish immigrants as well as the free African-Americans who lived together in this notorious slum where they faced considerable poverty and adversity while helping to make New York City the melting pot that it is today.”
With CB1’s support, the plan will next come before the City Council, which has the final say over street co-naming proposals.