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The Five Points by Tyler Anbinder

One of my most most enduring media images of the mid-19th century were the ragtag gangs of New Yorkers facing off amidst squalid tenements in Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York. Was the Big Apple really as ramshackle and foreboding as its appearance in this film? Were these gang battles in the streets really this organized and fearsome? Bill the Butcher? Hell Cat Maggie? Was this shit real?

So when I was researching my initial reading list, I knew I had to include the book that served as Scorcese’s primary source material for the film in my studies, Herbert Asbury’s 1928 history of the Five Points neighborhood depicted in the film.

But as I continued to research the period, I kept coming across claims that much of Asbury’s work was based on the inflated legends, mythmaking and hyperbolic testimony of the era rather than a concentrated study of the actual facts. Of course, historic research has come a long way since the 1920s.

Fortunately, historian Tyler Anbinder capitalized on the success of Scorcese’s film to produce the first comprehensive history of the Five Points neighborhood. Drawing from, according to the book’s publisher, “letters, diaries, newspapers, bank records, police reports, and archaeological digs”, Anbinder’s book is a more accurate, more varied, and more thorough account of the neighborhood itself. It details not only the gang wars depicted in the film, but also the political struggles, tenement conditions, saloons and brothels, immigrant experiences, entertainment and social institutions of the area.

The Five Points is today’s Chinatown. Its boundaries were generally defined as Centre Street to the west, the Bowery to the east, Canal Street to the north, and Park Row to the south. Today, according to Wikipedia, it is “now occupied by the Civic Center to the west and south, which includes major federal, state, and city facilities, and the African Burial Ground National Monument. To the east and north, former Five Points area is located within Chinatown.”

Anbinder is a gifted writer, and I found the book to be fascinating, educational, and generally entertaining throughout.

Much of the book details life in the Five Points squalid tenement flats; two-room affairs that sometimes housed as many as 15 people. Through much of the early decades of the era, primarily the 1820-30’s, the area was made up of two-story, wooden structures that often contained a grocery, saloon, or some kind of merchant shop on the ground floor, along with apartments above. As the neighborhood became more crowded (primarily with Irish immigrants) many of these building were torn down and replaced with what one typically thinks of as NYC tenements, 4-5 story brick buildings with ground-floor retail and rows of cramped, airless apartments above.

By the 1840s, most of the neighborhood’s inhabitants were Irish refugees of the nation’s catastrophic potato famine that drew huddled masses from Ireland’s rural west coast, primarily County Mayo and County Sligo. Even the Five Points slums were an upgrade for many of these poor souls.

As Ireland’s Catholics began to mix with New York’s native, primarily Protestant residents, differences were bound to metastasize into open conflict and it was this internecine warfare that makes up Anbinder’s chapters on the “Gangs of New York” storylines, which were engrossing. Of course, it wasn’t just religious differences that pitted these bands against each other. Political parties, rival cells within parties, turf wars, personal feuds and business interests all played their own roles in making the constantly shifting alliances that much more complex.

But I found the chapters on photojournalist Jacob Riis to be some of the book’s most interesting. His documentation of the Five Points alleys, tenements, and working conditions in the 1880s depicted in his famous book, How the Other Half Lives became an early example of advocacy journalism that led to extensive new laws, regulations and redevelopment that changed the Five Points forever. Anbinder also details Riis’ love life, professional trials and hard-scrabble childhood in chapters that read like the best narrative fiction.

Throughout the book’s 400+ pages, we’re also treated to eye-opening stories of the neighborhood’s Italian and Chinese immigrants, free-blacks, its saloons, dance halls, political battles, riots, street merchants, “sporting men”, alcoholics and pickpockets, organ grinders, fruit-sellers, and police force.

Andbinder weaves an irresistible milieu of a culture and place that still occupies much of our conventional archetypes of New York City even today. The story of the Five Points is, in many ways, the story of 19th century urban America and it’s brought vividly to life here. Highly recommended.