Saturday, May 23, 2009

Entertainment in the slums (more LES history)

The other center of working class social life was the theater. The wealthy had their parlor pianos; the working class had theater. The halls built to house the stages were immense, holding thousands. The Bowery Theater was built for 3,500. No other indoor spaces in the city could accommodate such crowds. Theater took the place of the town gathering, an alternative to the town hall; the gangs flocked to the theaters and rallied there. At a time when life was far more social than we, sitting in front of our computers, can imagine, the theater was the bonfire that drew all around it.

Theater was so popular that even the abandoned slum children formed their own theater on a little strip of Orange Street (now Baxter Street) just south of Little Anthony Street (now Worth Street), today covered by a pristine post-Modern courthouse. It was no mean entertainment. Eventually one of the city's hottest tickets, it was visited by the Grand Duke of Moscovy on his American tour, and called thereafter "The Grand Duke Theater." Legendary performers of early vaudeville got their start at the Grand Duke. Harrigan and Hart, fathers of the American musical, held annual benefits there.

Theater back then had little in common with theater today. You didn't buy your ticket to sit in your seat attentively, waiting until the end of the first act to applaud. Theater was a form of self-expression for the audience every bit as much as for the actors. Catcalls, cheers, jeers, howling, booing, jumping onto the stage, sometimes crowding onto the stage -- even fights and riots -- were all a part of the evening. Peanut shells or rotten food were thrown onto the stage and the actors, often drunk themselves, played to the audience for cheers. The noise and mayhem must have been thrilling and frightening, with such large, unwieldy crowds stirred up into excitement and often anger. No wonder some of New York's most violent riots occurred in, at or around theaters.

Nor was the stage the only focus of attention in the theater. In the recesses of the uppermost balconies, the prostitutes plied their trade. Theater owners encouraged whorehouses to open nearby – good for business. The intertwining of the red light district and the theater district is no coincidence. It's all entertainment for the evening in a male-oriented society; the owners and purveyors of popular distractions aimed to please.

For the wealthy, the Five Points itself became an entertainment, a curiosity. The slum was so shockingly poor and the people so far from the dignified standards of propriety, that the genteel were given to junkets in among the slum dwellers to see for themselves "how the other half lives," the phrase reformer John Griscom coined in describing Five Points in the 1840's. No one had ever before seen or imagined such sordid loathsomeness, such moral abandon, such anarchic criminality, such filth, and perhaps most disturbing of all, such uninhibited racial mixing. White women could be seen in the arms of black men in the African quarter, a little alley known as Cow Bay between Centre and Orange (today's Baxter) Streets where the Lefkowitz office building now stands. Although slums are typically self-segregating, and Five Points was no exception – there were streets divided between the counties in Ireland from which the immigrants came – there is also mixing around the margins of slum society. In Five Points it was Irish with African, Chinese with Irish, later Jew with Italian, leaving the erect Protestant elites to choose their careful unions amongst each other, while still allowing themselves the occasional titillating thrill of peeking at the slum.

The neighborhood's renown as a human freak show was not merely local. Five Points was known throughout the country; word had even spread abroad. Guidebooks devoted whole sections to its dangers and dark crimes, its unsavory natives and to the noxious place itself, with titles like "The Nether Side," "Sunshine and Shadow," "Lights and Shadows," and "The Dark Side."

From afar and abroad, the great and famous, expected by their audience and fans to pass judgment on this extraordinary American city -- overflowing with wealth and holding the financial and industrial reigns of power in shipping and railroads and trading and banking, this metropolis so important to the country and so bluntly different from it -- the great and famous could not fail to take in the slum on their tours of New York. Davy Crocket came to visit – the country boy was appalled – and Charles Dickens, more familiar with desperate slums in London, came to compare. Dickens, whose literary responses leaned towards the colorful extremes of denunciation or enthusiasm, found fare for both in Five Points. His response to the slum dwellers is damning. He imagines that the pigs in the slum must wonder "why their masters walk upright" and "talk instead of grunting." But he also visited Almack's Dance Hall on Orange (Baxter) Street near Bayard, roughly where the Columbus Park pavilion now stands. There he saw the greatest dancer of his time, William Henry Lane, known as Master Juba, who invented a dance so fast, wild and electric that, as Dickens writes, it brought "new brightness in the very candles." It was tap dance.

Next: Attempted reform and revolution

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