Tag Archives: Five Points Slum

The Five Points slum

When I first learned my German immigrant ancestor Michael Harm arrived in New York on June 30, 1857, I thought I’d have trouble digging up some newsworthy event to write about. Au contraire. Or rather, ganz im Gegenteil!

five pointsIn the 19th century, New York City had a seriously grungy neighborhood, a notorious slum called the “Five Points.” Conditions in the Five Points –so named because five streets met at one intersection–were so overcrowded it became an “international attraction, drawing such notables as  Charles Dickens, a Russian grand duke, Davy Crockett, and Abraham Lincoln. … In its heyday, Five Points was very likely the most thoroughly studied neighborhood in the world. Journalists chronicled its rampant crime, squalid tenements, and raucous politics.” –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: The Free Press, 2001.

The opening scene of my novel The Last of the Blacksmiths is set in Manhattan during the weekend of the Five Points Gang and Police Riots of 1857, because, as fate would have it, my great-great-grandfather Michael Harm actually did arrive in New York City that July 4th weekend, just in time to witness those frightening, deadly events.

“Oh, you mean like that movie, ‘Gangs of New York’?” People ask me at book talks.

nyc five points mid-19th centuryWell, yes and no. The Five Points was the scene of 1857 gang and police riots, and also of 1863 Civil War draft riots. From what I can tell, the ‘Gangs of New York’ movie is a make-believe, mixed up jumble of those two historic events.

I won’t go into all the facts, as we know them, since others have already done so, at web sites like Urbanography, and the History Box. Here’s a succinct summation of that time from Gregory Christiano.

The year 1857 in New York City was a memorable one, or rather, a harrowing one.  It was a terrible time for the City and the nation.  A year best forgotten because of its painful consequences.  Not only were the two police forces battling each other, gang warfare broke out in July. Police battled police, police battled gangs, gangs battled gangs, and gangs attacked pedestrians, shopkeepers and residents. It was an incredible scene of mayhem and unrest.

If your ancestors landed in New York

I am taking a Genealogy class through South Seattle Community College. Friday mornings, Sarah Thorson Little leads us through the growing on-line databases of documentation that might lead us to learn more about our ancestors. In a recent exercise, she was showing us what she had learned about a class member’s ancestors, how the wife and son had arrived ahead of the husband, and taken up residence on Baxter Street in New York City.

The mention of Baxter Street instantly brought to mind the infamous Five Points. I had just been reading Tyler Anbinder’s book, Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum. An eye-popping, thorough resource for anyone studying the era.

In ye olde Manhattan, the Five Points neighborhood was once Collect Pond, but by the mid-nineteenth century, the pond had been filled in and the tenements rose as high as seven stories. It featured boarding houses in basements consisting of human beings lying side by side on stacked shelves, rampant alcoholism and prostitution, street filth and overused outhouses that stunk to high heaven. Oddly, it was also a tourist stop for the wealthy and famous. Police men led well-to-do citizens in groups among the tattered, alcoholic, and downtrodden. And the Five Points was the home of riots: in the 1830s, when African Americans suffered at the hands of an angry mob, and in 1857, when Irish gangs fought in the streets.

Anbinder’s book provides maps that show the concentrations of racial and ethnic groups in the Five Points District. Here’s the breakdown, lifted from Anbinder’s map:
Mulberry Street – Irish
Baxter Street north of Park Street – predominantly Irish
Baxter street south of Park – Jewish
Baxter Street on the west side, closest to the Mission/Worth Triangle – African American
Mission Place (aka “Cow Bay”) – African American
Park Street, north side between Mott and Baxter – African American
Centre Street, east side between Leonard and Worth – Jewish and Christian Germans
Mott Street, west side – Irish
Mott Street, east side – Jewish and Christian Germans
Elizabeth Street – Christian Germans

The Five Points were in NYC’s 6th and 4th Wards. Just to the north and east, in Wards 10, 11, 13 and 17, was an area known as Kleindeutschland (little Germany). To the outsiders, the English-speaking yankees, it was known as “Dutchtown” (dutch being a bastardization of “deutsch.”) According to a 1981 thesis by Stanley Nadel, “German New York was the first of the great urban foreign language speaking communities in the United States, growing from thirty-three thousand people in 1845 to over three hundred-fifty thousand in 1880.” Further, “Between 1855 and 1880, Vienna and Berlin were the only cities with a larger German population than New York.”

So if your ancestors landed in New York, chances are their first impression of America was via the Five Points or Kleindeutschland.