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Today I am going to be discussing the Five Points, a poverty-stricken area in New York City of the nineteenth century. My work in progress, Mrs. Foxley’s Secret, opens up in a slum-like setting in 1826. My main character, Helen Barnet is living in poverty with her troubled father who is addicted to alcohol and card playing.
Recently, I discovered a fantastic resource: 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. As this lengthy title suggests, it deals with various aspects of the Five Points, from when it got started to its long-lasting influence.
Today, we are going to be focusing on the early years of the Five Points. Specifically, we will be focusing on the late eighteenth century until about the 1830s. However, before we dive into that, let’s explore what those five points were.
What Are The Five Points?
The Five Points is an intersection of four different streets. From 1830 to 1854, the streets were: Cross, Orange, Anthony, and Little Water. Later in the century, they were Park, Baxter, Worthy, and Mission Place.
At its height, the Five Points was a place that became synonymous with being an over-crowded, disease-ridden slum. It was home to many working class people such as African Americans, Irish, Germans, and Italians. Needless to say, it was a common destination for immigrants when they came to America.
Despite having the unpopular association of being a slum, it was a place where many people lived their lives, raised families, built churches, and formed political unions. There was a great deal of poverty, vice, debauchery, filth, drunkenness, and disease.
Five Points: The Early Years
Located in lower Manhattan, the Five Points was once a five-acre Collect Pond. According to Tyler Anbinder, this area was a beautiful one throughout the earlier part of the eighteenth century. People would go there to picnic because of the stunning views. However, by the end of that century, the Collect Pond was polluted by the nearby slaughterhouses and tanneries. So, by 1813, it was filled in with dirt.
After the War of 1812, there was an influx of people trickling into New York City. Anbinder seems to suggest that this caused the population of the Five Points to grow. In as early as 1825, “immigrants accounted for at least 25 percent” and African Americans comprised “about 15 percent of its inhabitants.” During this time, two-and-a-half story wooden buildings dominated the metropolitan landscape.
By the time of the 1820s and 1830s, the Five Points wasn’t yet the sinister place that it would become. It was previously home to artisans, many of whom lived in the two-and-a-half story wooden buildings. Eventually, portions of the wooden buildings would be separated into different apartments. In time, the two-and-a-half story buildings were demolished to make way for higher brick buildings that would become the precursor for tenement buildings.
The next post will continue our deep dive on the early years of the Five Points, from the 1820s to the 1830s.
- Maryland Mapping & Graphics Inc., “Map of the Five Points Neighborhood, 1855-67,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed June 4, 2022, https://shec.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/832.
- “Life in Mid-19th Century Five Points.” American Social History Project: Center for Media and Learning, https://shec.ashp.cuny.edu/exhibits/show/life-in-five-points
- Anbinder, Tyler. Five Points: The 19th Century New York City Neighborhood that Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum. Free Press, 2010, pp. 1-17.