The Five Points: New York's Most Notorious Neighborhood

The Five Points depicted circa 1829
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It is impossible to overstate how notorious the lower Manhattan neighborhood called the Five Points was throughout the 1800s. It was said to be the roost of gang members and criminals of all types, and was widely known, and feared, as the home turf of flamboyant gangs of Irish immigrants.

The reputation of the Five Points was so widespread that when the famous author Charles Dickens visited New York on his first trip to America in 1842, the chronicler of London's underside wanted to see it for himself.

Nearly 20 years later, Abraham Lincoln visited the Five Points during a visit to New York while he was considering running for president. Lincoln spent time at a Sunday school run by reformers trying to change the neighborhood and stories of his visit appeared in newspaper months later, during his 1860 campaign.

The Location Provided the Name

The Five Points took its name because it marked the intersection of four streets which came together to form an irregular intersection with five corners.

In the past century, the Five Points has essentially disappeared, as streets have been redirected and renamed. Modern office buildings and courthouses have been constructed on what had been a slum known around the world.

Population of the Neighborhood

The Five Points, in the mid-1800s, was known primarily as an Irish neighborhood. The public perception at the time was that the Irish, many of whom were fleeing the Great Famine, were criminal by nature. The appalling slum conditions and pervasive crime of the Five Points only contributed to that attitude.

While the neighborhood was predominantly Irish in the 1850s, there were also African Americans, Italians, and various other immigrant groups. The ethnic groups living in close proximity created some interesting cultural cross-pollination, and legend holds that tap dancing developed in the Five Points. African American dancers adapted moves from Irish dancers, and the result was American tap dancing.

Shocking Conditions Prevailed

Reform movements of the mid-1800s spawned pamphlets and books detailing horrendous urban conditions. And it seems that mentions of the Five Points always figure prominently in such accounts.

It's hard to know how accurate the lurid descriptions of the neighborhood are, as the writers generally had an agenda and an obvious reason to exaggerate. But accounts of people essentially packed into small spaces and even underground burrows seem so common that they are probably true.

The Old Brewery

A large building that had been a brewery in colonial times was a notorious landmark in the Five Points. It was claimed that up to 1,000 poor people lived in the "Old Brewery," and it was said to be a den of unimaginable vice, including gambling and prostitution and illegal saloons.

The Old Brewery was torn down in the 1850s, and the site was given over to a mission whose purpose was to try to help neighborhood residents.

Famous Five Points Gangs

There are many legends about street gangs that formed in the Five Points. The gangs had names like the Dead Rabbits, and they were known to occasionally fight pitched battles with other gangs in the streets of lower Manhattan.

The notoriety of the Five Points gangs was immortalized in the classic book Gangs of New York by Herbert Asbury, which was published in 1928. Asbury's book was the basis of the Martin Scorsese film Gangs of New York, which portrayed the Five Points (though the film was criticized for many historical inaccuracies).

While much of what has been written about the Five Points Gangs was sensationalized, if not entirely fabricated, the gangs did exist. In early July 1857, for example, the "Dead Rabbits Riot" was reported by the New York City newspapers. In days of confrontations, members of the Dead Rabbits emerged from the Five Points to terrorize members of other gangs.

Charles Dickens Visited the Five Points

The famed author Charles Dickens had heard about the Five Points and made a point of visiting when he came to New York City. He was accompanied by two policemen, who took him inside buildings where he saw residents drinking, dancing, and even sleeping in cramped quarters.

His lengthy and colorful description of the scene appeared in his book American Notes. Below are excerpts:

"Poverty, wretchedness, and vice, are rife enough where we are going now. This is the place: these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth...
"Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays...
"So far, nearly every house is a low tavern; and on the bar-room walls, are coloured prints of Washington, and Queen Victoria of England, and the American eagle. Among the pigeon-holes that hold the bottles, are pieces of plate-glass and coloured paper, for there is, in some sort, a taste for decoration, even here...
"What place is this, to which the squalid street conducts us? A kind of square of leprous houses, some of which are attainable only by crazy wooden stairs without. What lies beyond this tottering flight of steps, that creak beneath our tread? A miserable room, lighted by one dim candle, and destitute of all comfort, save that which may be hidden in a wretched bed. Beside it, sits a man, his elbows on his knees, his forehead hidden in his hands..."
(Charles Dickens, American Notes)

Dickens went on at considerable length describing the horrors of the Five Points, concluding, "all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here."

By the time Lincoln visited, nearly two decades later, much had changed in the Five Points. Various reform movements had swept through the neighborhood, and Lincoln's visit was to a Sunday school, not a saloon. By the late 1800s, the neighborhood went through profound changes as laws were enforced and the dangerous reputation of the neighborhood faded away. Eventually, the neighborhood simply ceased to exist as the city grew. The location of the Five Points today would be roughly located under a complex of court buildings constructed in the early 20th century.

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McNamara, Robert. "The Five Points: New York's Most Notorious Neighborhood." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). The Five Points: New York's Most Notorious Neighborhood. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Five Points: New York's Most Notorious Neighborhood." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).