Five Points (or The Five Points) was a neighborhood in the central lower area of the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York. The neighborhood was generally defined as being bound by Centre Street in the west, the Bowery in the east, Canal Street in the north and Park Row in the south. The former neighborhood known as Five Points is now split between the Civic Center on the west and south and Chinatown on the east and north.
The name Five Points was derived from the five-pointed intersection created by Orange Street (now Baxter Street) and Cross Street (now Mosco Street); from this intersection Anthony Street (now Worth Street) began and ran in a northwest direction, creating a triangular-shaped block thus the fifth “point”. To the west of this “point” ran Little Water Street (which no longer exists) north to south, creating a triangular plot which would become known as Paradise Square or Paradise Park.
Five Points gained international notoriety as a disease-ridden, crime-infested slum that existed for well over 70 years.
The topography of the area that would become Five Points was a major factor in the progression of the neighborhood from middle-class homes built upon reclaimed land to a sprawling, disease-ridden slum within a relatively short period.
The Collect Pond (or Fresh Water Pond) was a body of spring-fed fresh water, occupying approximately 48 acres (194,000 m²) and as deep as 60 feet (18 metres). The pond was located in an inverted U-shaped valley with a linear portion in the north heading northwest to the Hudson River. The eastern and western sections of the valley were separated by a hill the Dutch called Kalk Hoek, (Dutch meaning Chalk Corner), named for the numerous oyster-shellmiddens left by Native Americans. The elevation rose in the south, with Pot Bakers Hill dominating the south southwestern shore.
The pond was located in the eastern section of the valley, with Kalck Hoek to the west and Bayard Mount – at 110 feet (34 metres), the tallest hill in lower Manhattan – to the northeast. A stream flowed north out of the pond and then northwest through a salt marsh (which, after being drained, became “Lispenard Meadows”) to the Hudson River, and another stream, known as the Old Wreck Brook or the Old Kil flowed out from the southeast through Bestevaer Swamp(later Beekman’s Swamp) called Bestevaer Kreupelbosch by the Dutch to the East River. The southwestern shore of the pond was the site of a Native American settlement known as Werpoes. A small band of Canarsie who were MunseeIndians – the northernmost division of the Lenape – occupied the site until the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdamwas established.
The pond was the main source of drinking water and freshwater fish for the City of New York.
Beginning in the early 18th century, various commercial enterprises were built along the shores of the pond, in order to use the water. These businesses included Coulthards Brewery, Nicholas Bayard’s slaughterhouse on Mulberry Street (which was nicknamed “Slaughterhouse Street”),numerous tanneries on the southeastern shore, and the pottery works of German immigrants Johan Willem Crolius and Johan Remmey on Pot Bakers Hill on the south-southwestern shore.
The contaminated wastewater of these businesses flowed back into the pond, creating a severe pollution problem and environmental health hazard.Pierre Charles L’Enfant proposed cleaning the pond and making it a centerpiece of a recreational park, around which the residential areas of the city could grow. His proposal was rejected and it was decided to fill in the pond. This was done with fill partially obtained from leveling Bayards Mount and Kalck Hoek. The landfill was completed in 1811 and Middle class homes were soon built on the reclaimed land.
The landfill was poorly engineered. The buried vegetation began to release methane gas (a byproduct of decomposition) and the area, still in a natural depression, lacked adequate storm sewers. As a result, the ground gradually subsided. Houses shifted on their foundations, the unpaved streets were often buried in a foot of mud mixed with human and animal excrement and mosquitos bred in the stagnant pools created by the poor drainage. Most middle and upper class inhabitants fled the area, leaving the neighborhood open to poor immigrants that began arriving in the early 1820s. This influx reached a height in the 1840s, with large numbers of Irish Catholics fleeing the Irish Potato Famine.
At Five Points’ “height,” only certain areas of London’s East End vied with it in the western world for sheer population density, disease, infant and child mortality, unemployment, prostitution, violent crime, and other classic ills of the urban destitute. However, it could be considered the original American melting pot, at first consisting primarily of newly emancipated African Americans (gradual emancipation led to the end of slavery in New York on July 4, 1827) and Irish, who had a small minority presence in the area since the 1600s. The local politics of “the Old Sixth ward” (The Points’ primary municipal voting district), while not free of corruption, set important precedents for the election of Catholics to key offices. Prior to that time, New York, and America at large, was governed by the Anglo-Protestant founders. Although the tensions between the African Americans and the Irish were legendary, their cohabitation in Five Points was the first large-scale instance of volitional racial integration in American history. In the end, the Five Points African American community moved to Manhattan’s West Side and to the then-undeveloped north of the island.
Five Points is alleged to have sustained the highest murder rate of any slum in the world. According to an old New York urban legend, the Old Brewery, an overcrowded tenement on Cross Street housing 1,000 poor, is said to have had a murder a night for 15 years until its demolition in 1852.
“Almack’s” (also known as “Pete Williams’s Place”), an African American-owned dance hall located at 67 Orange Street in Mulberry Bend (today Baxter Street), just south of its intersection with Bayard Street, was home to a fusion of Irish reels andjigs with the African shuffle. This had happened in other parts of the United States in which different ethnic groups merged, this music and dance had spontaneously developed on the street from competition between African American and Irish American musicians and dancers, spilling into Almack’s, where it gave rise in the short term to tap dance (see Master Juba) and in the long term to a music hall genre that was a major precursor to American jazz and rock and roll. This ground is today known as Columbus Park, used primarily by residents of modern Chinatown.
Infectious diseases such as cholera, yellow fever, typhus and tuberculosis had plagued New York City since the Dutch colonial era. The poor sanitary conditions, overcrowded dwellings and lack of even rudimentary health care made impoverished areas such as Five Points ideal for the development and transmission of these diseases. Several epidemics swept the City of New York in the 18th and 19th centuries, some of which originated in Five Points. In June 1832, an outbreak of cholera in Five Points spread rapidly throughout the crowded, unsanitary dwellings of the neighborhood before spreading to the rest of New York City. Cholera epidemics would break out again in 1849 and 1866.These epidemics were seen by some as resulting from the immorality of the residents of the slum:
“Every day’s experience gives us increased assurance of the safety of the temperate and prudent, who are in circumstances of comfort…. The disease is now, more than before rioting in the haunts of infamy and pollution. A prostitute at 62 Mott Street, who was decking herself before the glass at 1 o’clock yesterday, was carried away in a hearse at half past three o’clock. The broken down constitutions of these miserable creatures, perish almost instantly on the attack…. But the business part of our population, in general, appear to be in perfect health and security.”—”New-York Mercury, 18 July 1832″