Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Five Points (more history of the slums)

No place on earth perhaps has had so bad a reputation as Five Points. Considered both unreformable and unworthy of reform, it was razed to the ground in the mid 1890's, and, as if eliminating it were not enough, all the streets leading into it were renamed over the years erasing every evidence of its existence from the map of New York. Today, finding the site of Five Points requires either a bit of preparatory research or a good tour guide.

The neighborhood got off to an inauspicious start. It was first an undesirable marshy spread to the east of Manhattan's largest lake, called by the Dutch the Kulch and bastardized by the British as The Collect. Today Foley Square and Collect Pond Park cover the lake site. You can still see the water's outline: nothing tall is built where the lake was; the municipal skyscrapers, defining its solid-ground shoreline, stand hovering over the empty square.

The British name was unwittingly prescient. The lake, originally 60 feet deep, rife with fish – it was a favorite Dutch recreation area – began to collect waste as tanneries and slaughterhouses sprouted around its shores. It grew so polluted that it was used as a local dumping ground with garbage, according to at least one account, rising fifteen feet above the water level.

The exaggerations of the contemporary appalled aside, the putrid mess became an issue for the city, not because it was unsanitary, stinking and infested with vermin, but because it drove surrounding real estate values down, real estate being a matter of genuine municipal concern in a city owned and run by its landed gentry. Digging a canal to drain it (today's Canal Street), did nothing to quell the aquifers that fed the lake, and so a nearby hill, New York's Bunker Hill which rose over Broome Street, was shoveled into the watery pit, creating a landfill, though not what you could call dry land. It was more marsh.

Undaunted by the challenge of constructing over waterlogged land, real estate speculators, among them John Jacob Astor, wealthiest man in America, bought pieces of this worthless swamp for a song, renting it out to contractors who built ramshackle shacks there, not for themselves to live in – who would choose to live in muck and slime – but for those who could not choose to live elsewhere, the greenhorn immigrants clambering off the boats with not a penny in their pockets.

The immigrants were perfectly suited both to fill the shacks and work the factories, enriching both landlord and industrialist. They should surely have been welcomed for all the wealth they brought their superiors, but they were despised instead, as if keeping them in penury were easier to conscience if it were viewed as a sort of punishment and just desert. The German immigrants were deplored -- and feared -- as dangerous revolutionaries, the Catholic Irish reviled as subhuman brawlers. Newspaper cartoons – the news industry was Protestant-run -- consistently draw the Irish with simian features.

Rents, you'd think, would have to have been cheap, since these immigrants earned so little. Such an assumption woefully underestimates the robust vigor of irrepressible American entrepreneurial spirit. Rents outcharged the immigrants far beyond their capacity to pay. It was up to the renter to take in boarders -- whole families of boarders, and, if there was a tiny windowless closet of a backroom, as many as would fit who had a penny to pay. It is a tribute to this great American spirit that a once empty, worthless swampy dump could be transformed into a rich source of regular revenue, nevermind that it was dense, diseased and desperate beyond anything anyone had ever seen or imagined.

Exploitative real estate in the slums was so lucrative that the shacks were built with upper stories to expand rental space. Thus was the multiple dwelling conceived, profit being the mother of invention. Tenements couldn't be built high enough. At the time, the standard of housing elsewhere in the city was the town house. All the wealthy lived in them and the artisans too, along with their apprentices. Apartments wouldn't come along until the French made them fashionable later in the century. Boarding houses there were, but the tenement apartment belonged to the slum, considered unfit for any but alien laborers below the level of social inclusion. They were built taller than the standard townhouse, almost twice as tall, among the tallest structures in the city. The oldest tenement still standing, on Mott Street, is no less than seven stories tall, and no elevator. In an age without the mechanical lift, well-heeled businessmen would not consider climbing more than a few flights of stairs. The great business establishments and the great businessmen's great mansions were broad and expansive, not tall. But no thought was given to immigrants living even seven stories up, taking those flights several times a day, since without refrigeration, merely eating required a trip downstairs to the street carts.

This was the context of immigrant life: housing without running water or toilet facilities – the toilet was a ditch in the back yard – no sewage system, streets piled with garbage, pigs the immigrants couldn't afford to feed running wild in the streets alongside the thousands of abandoned children the immigrants also couldn't afford to feed, and the prostitutes, prostitutes walking the streets, prostitutes waiting in the doorways, prostitutes reclining on the steps, prostitutes everywhere. It was estimated that a third of the female population of New York in 1840 was or had been engaged in prostitution. And no surprise: a seamstress might earn between one and two dollars a week, working sixteen hours a day seven days a week; a prostitute could earn nearly twice that in a day. Every second or third house in Five Points had an accommodation for prostitution of some kind. Nearly every building on Anthony Street between Centre and Orange housed a bordello.

If prostitution was nearly everywhere, alcohol was absolutely everywhere. Every building had an accommodation for whiskey. All the early renditions of Five Points show groceries, a euphemism for groggeries, in every house. Whiskey was the cheapest drink on the street, cheaper than tea, cheaper than coffee. Drunkenness was a genuine and pervasive problem for the slums, contributing to child abandonment as well as compelling children to runaway, no longer able to endure the abuses of irascible parents unhinged by liquor. This backdrop of whiskey pouring into every corner of the neighborhood softens the image of the temperance movement. Teetotalers might have been extreme, but they were responding to a genuine reality.

The saloon became one of the two centers of social life in the slum. The saloon owner, a man of the people, though a few steps above in income, became the local leader, trusted, respected and relied-upon. He was equally connected to a powerful industry, liquor, and to a broad constituency, the neighborhood. He could hide a local gang member in trouble with the law; he could help him out with a small loan in a pinch. The slum invested its political strength in the saloon owner and the list of saloon-owner power brokers in New York is a long one.

The collusion of politics, saloons and gangs was evident from the beginning. Political ringleaders, like theatrical impresarios, staged gang riots as today's activists stage demonstrations. The source of their influence was not in the low-level offices they occasionally held, alderman or district leader. They typically operated out of a saloon, the center of gang activity.

To appreciate the influence of the saloon owner, just walk over to New York's civic center. Surrounded by the palaces of municipal authority and splendid marble courthouses lies Foley Square, named after "Big Tom" Foley, a saloon owner. Big Tom's greatest gift to New York was promoting his protégé Al Smith, New York's greatest governor, through the ranks of Tammany Hall into Albany. It is a testament to the power of the saloon that while the impressive civic center square bears Foley's name, the monument to the great Al Smith is shunted far to the east on Oliver Street amidst a nondescript affordable housing project, the Al Smith Houses, built over what was once the worst slum complex in the city, Gotham Court. Scarcely a New Yorker has not walked through the saloon-keeper's square; scarcely a New Yorker knows where to find Al.

The political influence of this gang-and-saloon working class cannot easily be overestimated. Tyler Anbinder, in his study, The Five Points, describes the old caucus method in New York's primaries: candidates appeared at the party hall with their gang of choice; they fought; whoever was left conscious after the brawl took the nomination, all possible objectors having fallen silent for the evening. Candidates employed gangs to scour the graveyards for the newly inscribed tombstones of the recently interred: they would be the voters in the next election. In one election in the Tenth Ward, there were no fewer than 2,000 more voters than living inhabitants. Sly critics liked to say that Fernando Wood, the controversial Democratic mayor and champion of the working class and Irish, was elected by the unanimous vote of the dead. Repeat voting was another familiar scam. There was little risk of being caught: the polls themselves were guarded by the gangs. Wood, running for a second term, gave his police a furlough on election day, advising them not to visit the polls except to vote, and promptly drew out his Irish gangs to keep out Protestant Republican voters.

Politics was a central concern among the gangs. The gang member of old New York may have been violent, but he wasn't a criminal, or, just as important, didn't imagine himself a criminal. The gang was a kind of social-civic organ. Gangs of the mid-19th century share fighting bravado and territorial pride with our contemporary notion of a gang, but little else. New York's volunteer fire departments were filled by local gang members, intent on demonstrating in as heroic and masculine way as possible the mettle of their civic virtue, their protective dedication to their own community and their indispensability to the city's welfare. They dressed up proudly too, in flashy outfits with ostentations hair-dos – permanent locks drawn forward around the cheek bones and held in place with soap, "soaplocks." They imagined themselves young men-about-town (though their bright-hued gear drew frowns of disapprobation from the rich, dignified and colorless). They were proud of themselves, of their ethics, their civic devotion, of their brotherhood. When they went to the theater they cheered the character of Mose, gang member, fireman, defender of the innocent and helpless from the predatory rich, nemesis of thieves and lowlifes. Mose, the noble working man hero, was their self-identity.

In the case of the Five Points gangs, these were Irish Catholic immigrants anxious to prove themselves every bit as American as the native-born Protestants who hated them, who hated their presence and who hated their damaging effect on wages, on the decline of skilled labor and workplace conditions. The Protestant gangs formed their own party – the Know-Nothings – while the Irish stood behind Tammany Hall's Democratic machine. It is the remarkable legacy of the gangs of New York that a city entirely owned by industrialists and landlords whose wealth and power drove a nation, became a working class Democratic town.

Next: Entertainment and politics


Anonymous said...

excellent article - informative,entertaining, and very well penned

Anonymous said...

I'm loving this. Gives such a great historical perspective. Thanks for posting!