NYC History of The Five Points

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.

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A FIVE POINTS RUM SHOP.

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 herd 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 policemen 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.

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 Points 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 attachés 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. Shultz, 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.”

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