A multidecade study of a few Manhattan blocks that have been seen as emblematic of the entire city.
Five Points, so named after city authorities extended Anthony Street to join the X-shaped junction of Orange and Cross streets, lay in the heart of a mixed residential and commercial district that was always a bit rough-and-tumble, and as the city grew northward in the early 1800s, Five Points declined. In a Hogarthian painting of 1827, the artist George Catlin captured its already infamous reputation; and, as Anbinder (History/George Washington Univ.) writes, “Fights are breaking out everywhere; people are drunk; pigs roam the streets; whites and blacks are mixing; and prostitutes brazenly solicit customers.” Little changed over the next 70 years except the cast of characters: Five Points emerged as a touchdown point for successive waves of immigrants from Ireland and Italy, central and eastern Europe, as well as for blacks moving north after the Civil War. These newcomers, Anbinder writes, remained for a time “locked into the lowest-paying occupations, such as laborer, tailor, shoemaker, or seamstress” but eventually moved on to make room for the next group of newcomers. Prostitution and other vices, particularly alcoholism and drug addiction, remained constants; so did corruption, as policemen and city officials pocketed money and accepted favors to look the other way. So seedy did Five Points become that many of the horrific examples of slum life in pioneering reformer Jacob Riis’s reports came from its tenements. Eventually, after conditions reached their worst, even the hoodlums, hookers, drunks, and bohemians left, and the area—much of it razed to make room for Columbus Park—formed the beginning of New York’s Chinatown.
Plodding and overdetailed at times, but overall a slice of Americana that captures much and offers welcome social history. (40 b&w photographs)