Slumming in Squeeze Gut Alley: The Story of the Dirtiest Ward

Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum , by Tyler Anbinder. Free Press, 532 pages, $30.

In the 19th century, New York bustled and swelled, new buildings sprouted like weeds, de-rusticated bumpkins made fortunes trying their luck in the city and impoverished foreign immigrants started new lives, far away from the medieval demons chasing them out of their huts and across the Atlantic. Or so the story goes. The truth, of course, is more complicated–which is another way of saying the truth is much worse. A great many people did not improve their lot in life by coming to New York. Amidst all the building and Babbittry attending the city’s expansion, one neighborhood grew into a dark and scary place that gave the lie to the grinning rhetoric of the American dream–a black hole beside the rising sun of prosperity. The neighborhood was known simply as Five Points–after an awkward intersection formed by three extinct streets (Orange, Anthony and Cross) in what is now Chinatown. As America’s first slum, it sat at an important crossroads.

Five Points has been brought back to life by Tyler Anbinder, a historian who made forays for lo mein in Chatham Square when he was a Columbia University grad student–he’s been hooked on the area ever since. He borrows his geographical definition from 1873 (“the area originally comprehended under the term Five Points is bounded by Canal Street, the Bowery, Chatham, Pearl and Centre Streets, forming a truncated triangle about one mile square”), but his sprawling book ventures far beyond these strict boundaries to explore a state of mind that evolved in America’s toughest 19th-century ‘hood.

Unlike the Lower East Side, which inherited its reputation, Five Points is not generally known to modern New Yorkers. At the end of the 19th century, following the photojournalistic exposés of Jacob Riis, the slum was Haussmannized out of existence. It was quickly forgotten, except by diligent researchers into New York’s shadows–Herbert Asbury and Luc Sante spring to mind. But at the height of its infamy, it exerted a power of such force over writers that none of them, foreign or otherwise, could quite specify its terror. In 1834, the New York Sun described “a state of misery almost indescribable,” which upon closer examination emanated from 1) bad smells and 2) interracial sex, the great bugbear of 19th-century America. In 1849, the Tribune called it “the great central ulcer of wretchedness.” A journalist who sounds like he lived in my last apartment described a typical lodging: “without air, without light, filled with damp vapor from the mildewed walls, and with vermin in ratio to the dirtiness of the inhabitants, they are the most repulsive holes that ever a human being was forced to sleep in.” The Scandinavian writer Fredrika Bremer opined that “lower than to the Five Points it is not possible for human nature to sink.” The immortal Dickens put it best: “[A]ll that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here.”

Five Points began, appropriately, as a swamp. In the 18th century, New York’s slaughterhouses clustered around a lake called the Collect (many of New York’s finest families, including Astors, Schermerhorns and Lorillards, trace their wealth to their first slumlord purchases here). The Collect was filled in by 1813, but the stench attached to the neighborhood remained. By 1830, it was a center for prostitution and urban squalor. The houses were poorly built, the dampness of the ground rotted everything, and the concentration of all these evils was at Five Points itself, where no light seemed to escape and danger lurked around every corner, either from criminals or lethal disease. Many of the Irish who were coming to New York in droves settled here, in “the dirtiest Ward of the dirtiest City in the world.”

The neighborhood really hit its stride in the decades leading up to and including the Civil War. The inhabitants, overwhelmingly foreign-born, found political expression in two ways. First, they rioted a lot, terrifying uptown Manhattanites. Second, they figured out how to achieve the same ends by simply stealing elections–they sent obstinate champions to city and state government. Using eyewitness accounts, Mr. Anbinder convincingly reenacts some of the more violent insurrections of the period, including the great riots of 1857 and 1863. It’s fascinating to see writers and politicians grappling with a new social reality that had nothing to do with Jefferson’s dream of an Arcadian republic. Southerners pointed to the Five Points to suggest that slavery wasn’t so bad. Wealthy New Yorkers pretended the problem didn’t exist. Both were wrong.

The book, like the neighborhood, changes direction with the approach of the 20th century, as new types of immigrants flooded through Ellis Island. In the 1880’s, Italians replaced the Irish, who treated them about as despicably as they themselves had been treated. This was the period made famous by Riis, with his riveting photographs of overcrowding in “Bandits’ Roost,” “Bottle Alley” and other places near Mulberry Bend. Then the even more foreign Chinese secured a foothold they have yet to surrender, and word trickled back to the villages of China that there was a fabulous country called “Mott Street” where wizards cast spells that made you very rich. Mr. Anbinder describes the Italian and Chinese occupations with less energy, but the story stays interesting to the end–if, indeed, we’ve reached the end.

To his credit, Mr. Anbinder takes on more than just a chronology of a neighborhood. In fact, a conventional historian would argue that he’s bitten off much more than he can chew, a fact that’s immediately apparent from the book’s run-on title–he crams it all in. Though there were not yet Ashcan painters, old haunts like “Squeeze Gut Alley” come alive through diary entries and contemporary journalism. Long-dead New Yorkers walk on- and offstage, different and yet utterly recognizable. In smoky bars like Dooley’s Long-Room, political careers were launched and squelched. It’s hard not to like the tough but dandyish Bowery B’hoys, Hedwigian glam rockers before their time. Even Abe Lincoln makes an appearance: During a campaign swing in 1860, he gave a touching speech to orphans about his own poverty when he was a child. Along with the criminal elements, there were legions of reformers, documentary photographers and church groups trying in their ways to “save” Five Points. One hot spot was the “Industrial House for the Friendless, the Inebriate, and the Outcast.” Faith-based charities were the worst, squabbling eternally with rival denominations. (Even then, New York was sect-crazed.)

I like Mr. Anbinder’s voracious approach, though the way he shifts from an academic to a breezy tone will irritate purists. The “prologues” before each chapter, intended to whet our appetite, are merely distracting. I’d have enjoyed more on race relations in Five Points–we hear about great black dancers (Savion Glover cited one Five Pointer, Master Juba, as an inspiration), and also about outrageous acts of cruelty toward African-Americans, but these stories are not tied together. Mr. Anbinder could have thought harder about the parasitic relationship between the new penny papers of the 1830’s and the lurid conditions they described. On a couple occasions, he surrenders to the urge to idealize in a silly Ken Burns-ian way. But Five Points is not Jazz , or Thomas Jefferson or Baseball . It’s about something far more American: the Darwinian survival of the fittest, and the importance of crushing your enemy before he crushes you. That lesson is important–especially since we’re not allowed to teach Darwin in vast stretches of George W. Bush’s America.

There’s a line in the film Ghost World where Enid and Rebecca debate whether something is so bad it’s good or so bad it’s gone past good to bad again. Clearly, Mr. Anbinder feels that this bad place is good to the extent that it illuminates certain truths about the New York experience. He’s right–and others will surely agree. The more New York cleans itself up, the stronger the pull of its unvarnished past. The New-York Historical Society has a new exhibit on the Bowery. Martin Scorsese is finishing work on his film version of Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York , which will resurrect Five Points gangs like the Plug Uglies and the Dead Rabbits and make A Clockwork Orange seem like a nice movie about Beethoven. Who knows? Maybe the film’s success will turn Chinatown into a Disney theme park featuring drunken riots, interracial sex and a mechanical Abraham Lincoln.

Ted Widmer is director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College. He is the author of Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City (Oxford).

Slumming in Squeeze Gut Alley: The Story of the Dirtiest Ward