- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 21, 2001

By Tyler Anbinder
Free Press, $30, 532 pages, illus.

In any chronicle of urban sinkholes lower Manhattan's Five Points a name derived from the crisscross of angled streets that defined and bounded the area would fall at the halfway mark between William Hogarth's Gin Lane in late-18th century's London and the late-20th century's South Bronx. Tyler Anbinder's "Five Points: The 19th Century New York City Neighborhood that Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections and Became the World's Most Notorious Slum" is a high yield excavation of a long-buried stratum in New York's urban history. He brings to surface from the city's lower depths the full life cycle of that forbidding slum.
In doing so the author has performed a prodigious (truly, awesome) feat of research, leaving no original or secondary source untouched. This historian's prose is nicely brightened with a profusion of contemporary cartoons and illustrations, and further leavened by absorbing vignettes of the wretched inhabitants and sinister denizens who populated Gotham's heart of darkness.
Not much this day survives of Five Points save for some street names and a couple of hardier structures. Five Points' grave, though unmarked, is still discernible at Baxter and Centre Streets, where the older core of Chinatown merges into government edifices and courthouses that serially superseded a rotted past. As with its Hogarthian predecessor and South Bronx successor, Five Points was construed by everyone as urban squalor in extremis, packed concentrations of vice, crime and depravity that respected neither gender or age. In 1858 one religious journal declared Five Points to be "the most notorious precinct of moral leprosy in the city, a perfect hot-bed of physical and moral pestilence, a hell-mouth of infamy and woe."
In its day, Five Points attained a kind of "must see" status, a theater for sensation-hungry journalists, passing dignitaries and touring foreigners, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Dickens and an occasional Russian grand duke among them. Dickens' visit in the 1840s spurred a fashionable mode of slumming parties composed of New York's elite, some for a look and others to do good. Averred one worthy, "I did not dream that human beings within reach of human aid could be abandoned to the wretchedness I saw there."
Mr. Anbinder skillfully weaves into the fabric of his tales certain thematic threads. One dominant theme is the succession of immigrant settlements that simultaneously churned and depressed the area. A second theme is that religious and ethnic strife consequent to new immigration compounded (given Five Points' component of Negro freedman) racial strife as well; cumulating black-white tension would eventually explode into the savage Civil War anti-draft riot. A third narrative strand is the rise of an Irish political machine that, in due time, evolved into Tammany Hall. Still another theme is the multitudinous intrusions of social reformers, governmental and private. The reform movement comprised a sequence of official tenement house commissions en route to a sequence of building code enactments.
Immigration is a dominant motif. Serial waves of foreign settlers infused lower Manhattan matrix for both the storied Lower East Side and Five Points with repeated injections of fresh blood and a pumping pulse. Five Points, the locus of overage cheap wooden tenements, was a popular hub. The lesser immigrant strains included Germans fleeing the 1848 revolution, plus Polish Jews and others who left the turbulence of center-east Europe. Thin though their numbers these continental groups served as Five Points' saving remnant, a striving base of storekeepers, micro-entrepreneurs and property owners. But by overwhelming margins it was the Irish who would form Five Points' predominant population and ethnic stamp; one eminent historian tells us that only Dublin then contained more Irish.
As true then as now indeed, an axiom of the immigrant experience the arriving Irish huddled by relationship, congregating into subgroups of friends and relatives stemming from the same old-country village or county. To an uncommon degree those from Cork, Sligo or Tipperary bonded with their geographical kinsmen. In Five Points a single row of adjoining buildings might be occupied by those who originated from some particular agricultural estate. (In a passing observation Mr. Anbinder points out something I had not known before that some wealthier English estate owners actually paid the ship passage of thousands of their starving tenants, calculating it was more economical than trying to keep them alive.)
Mr. Anbinder devotes much of his history to describing the indescribable living conditions of Five Points. Overcrowded shelter was driven to new depths. Typically, large families, at times expanded by a paying roomer, were shoehorned into two small rooms lacking indoor water or toilets. These human sardines were the lucky ones. The luckless resorted by the score to the wet filthy floors of basements or, worse yet, the filthier streets and alleys. Alcoholism was rampant, not just among the derelict but among intact families as well. Five Points counted 292 saloons and even the respectable German groceries carved out a corner for rum, whiskey and beer.
And in an era before systemic public welfare it was either work or starve. The hunt for a paying job, when not interrupted by illness or binge, was unceasing. Schooling was a sometime thing, usually in Catholic or Protestant classrooms Boys of eight or nine sold newspapers or blacked shoes. Girls of like age earned pennies by "dusting," that is, sweeping the filth-laden street crossings in the van of a fastidious and perhaps grateful pedestrian.
Into this tangle of pathologies plunged the earnest social reformers. Among the more conspicuous uplifting institutions was the House of Industry, an early model for what would, decades later, emerge as the settlement house.
The House of Industry's focus was job training and job placement, its programs complemented by an "Inebriate's Retreat" for drying out drunks. A second institution was Mission House dedicated to preaching temperance to miscreants, instilling constructive rules of behavior plus a strong dose of the Christian creed.
On July 13, 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, the area became ground zero for a Manhattan firestorm, a bloody destructive anti-draft riot, nakedly expressed as an anti-black lynching party. This event would take its place as the grim climax of the Five Points chronicle. Though this violent episode is more completely recounted in other histories, Mr. Abinder views it from a local perspective.
The Irish did not consider the Civil War to be their war; to them it was the insane outcome of a perfervid Protestant abolitionist crusade; tellingly, only 12 percent of Five Points had voted for Lincoln. The spark igniting smoldering straw was the war's perceived class inequity. Three hundred dollars would buy a draft exemption and (unlike young John Rockefeller who promptly purchased one) not many Five Pointers could muster so princely a sum. The street battles raged for three days, finally quelled by five Union regiments, with a counted loss of 105 lives.
By the 1870s the Five Points saga came to an end. The wooden dwellings were giving way to brick tenements, factories, public buildings and reconfigured streets. More transforming was the demographic suppression, as tidal waves of new Europeans poured in. An area once 70 percent Irish became 80 percent Italian and Jewish and increasingly Chinese. Manhattan's primary immigrant settlement shifted to the Lower East and, with improved public transpiration, to secondary enclaves elsewhere.
Mr. Anbinder tends to treat Five Points as almost an enclosed specimen, only occasionally penetrated by shaping outside events the Civil War, congressional legislation and state and presidential elections. Another concern is a degree of unnecessary repetition. Though the author is a superb storyteller his multiplied accounts of Five Points' miseries are a tad overdone. But these are minor flaws in an otherwise splendid and solid work of scholarship that deserves a permanent place in any top shelf of urban history.

Louis Winnick is an urbanist and currently a senior consultant to the Fund for the City of New York.

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