N.Y.C.’S Five Points, America’s First Toxic Industrial Ghetto

                                                                                   PART I of III


 By: Tom Frascella                                                                                                                                 March 2016



There is no community that has been identified more in art, literature and cinema with early 20th century Italian immigration than New York City’s “little Italy” neighborhood on the lower East side of Manhattan. But in order to truly understand the development of this immigrant community it should be examined from the neighborhood’s historical perspective.  There were literally no Italians or Americans of Italian descent living in lower Manhattan until about 1850 when refugees from the failed 1848 republican uprisings began to arrive.  However the beginnings of this community’s history as part of the expanding New York City landscape really starts in the 1750’s.

 As the U.S. entered the 1750- 1800’s time period the area that would become known first as the Five Points was primarily farmland and the site of what was called Collect Pond a major source of fresh drinking water for the city. In fact in the late 1700’s the area was frequently used by New Yorkers as a picnic area in the summer and the pond was used for skating in the winter. In fact, John Fitch the Trenton based inventor of the first steam powered boat once demonstrated the craft on Collect Pond.

 The early description of the area as farmland and pristine fresh spring water is far different than the way the area evolved over the course of the next 100 years. How this change came about and the conditions that greeted the early Italian immigrants in the 1850 and beyond is an important part of the Italian-American story. It is particularly important to the early Lucanian/San Felese immigration story as the Five Points section of New York was the location from which many began their U.S. residence in the 1850’s and 1860’s.



                                                             New York City’s Five Points 1771-1825


 The modern reader has to keep in mind that the New York City of 1771, just before the Revolution, was very different than what we see today. Although one of the largest “cities” in the  pre-Revolution” United States, the city of New York had only an estimated population of 22,000 people in 1771. Post Revolution as the City grew in population it needed more land and resources to support its growing population and spreading boundaries. By 1790 New York City’s population had grown to 33,000. While this is only a growth rate of 5,000 people per intervening decade this modest growth still presented challenges. We must remember that this was the age before steel high rise buildings, paved streets, public water and sewers or refrigeration.

 Slowly and not surprisingly in the later 18th century small local industry began to locate in the area known as the Collect Pond at the lower end of Manhattan Island. This limited late 18th century industry and housing was attracted to the area by the access to the fresh water from the pond. The pond drained naturally by a creek to the west which emptied into the Hudson River and by a second creek to the east which eventually emptied into the East River. So in addition to fresh water, power for watermills could be relied upon and waste could be discharged into the creeks.

 Among the early industries that located on the shores of the pond and creeks were tanneries, breweries, ropewalks, pottery factories and slaughterhouses. The waters of the pond and creeks quickly became polluted by highly toxic waste byproducts associated with the 18th century industries in the neighborhood. In addition, to the industrial waste the local community discharged both human/animal waste and garbage directly into the pond. By 1800, according to historians the pond had the stench of an open sewer and insects multiplying in the filth helped spread contagions to the resident population.

 City officials by 1800 recognized the unhealthy conditions present in an area that was becoming increasingly important to the expanding dynamic of a city. A city that was already becoming a center of national commerce and a gateway to the U.S. from abroad. In just the decade 1790 thru 1800 New York City’s population grew at a torrid rate from 33,000 to 61,000. Ideas, limited by the science and resources of the day, were discussed by City officials as to how to best improve conditions around the pond as well as how to secure a purer water source for the City. As early as 1800 these were recognized as critical issues for the anticipated surge growth and prevention of plague in what was becoming the U.S. largest city.

 Unfortunately, the pressures on city officials due to rapid growth caused them to deal with the pond pollution problem in a manner that would prove to be fundamentally inadequate.  Initially a plan was put forward to drain, clean and restore the pond to its original condition and to create a surrounding park. This would have insured that the area remain “eco” friendly, although it would not have been thought of that way back then. This plan was however abandoned in favor of a more expedient plan to build drainage canals to drain the pond. The drainage canals were to be located roughly where the creeks were. Once the pond was drained it was to be filled in. The city fathers thought that by eliminating the pond and filling it in valuable needed space to develop additional housing would be created.

 The work of building canals to drain the pond and to fill in the pond site was begun in 1804 and completed in 1813. To demonstrate the intense growth pressure that was being felt, the City’s population rose from 61,000 in 1800 to 96,000 by 1810. Again some poor engineering decisions were made on the project as it was built. Specifically, the polluted site was not cleansed of its toxic pollutants.

 Instead the toxic sediment was simply covered over and filled in with a combination of soil, construction debris and city landfill waste. The fill material was also laid in a manner too loosely packed and poorly suited as a construction base. Nevertheless, when the pond was filled in construction quickly began on a “new” middle-class housing development which was quickly completed. I want to point out that although New York City was growing rapidly at the time that the community’s first major housing development, this development was not an “immigrant” intended project. They built what was “middle-class houses” expecting middle-class American purchasers.

 Within a decade, by the 1820’s, the problems that the poor engineering had created began to be obvious to the new residents of the community. The two most noticeable problems were the strong methane odor rising up from the soil as materials used to fill in the pond decayed. This alone created an unpleasant environment and suggested that a decaying process was at work. In addition, the loosely packed soil that the houses were built on began to settle and sink causing many of the newly constructed middle-class houses to collapse or badly lean. The settling and sinking of the land also caused the area’s streets to depress and reform a basin where rain water gathered rather than drained. Once again the area was subject to insect infestation and insect borne disease. In addition the dirt streets were always wet and muddy. So by the 1820’s although this was a “new” neighborhood in terms of age, the community presented as an unhealthy and dilapidated environment, one which was no longer attractive to middle-class families.

 Thousands of people who had invested their life savings in the new housing construction suddenly found that conditions made those houses unhealthy for their families to live in and of little marketable resale value. Unable to sell or to resell at a return on their investment the owners looked for other ways to recoup their investment. Fortunately for these investors the City’s continued rapid growth provided opportunity. From 1810 thru 1830 the population of New York City rose from 96,000 to 202,000. New York had in fact become a major U.S. population center. As part of that growth, European refugees who sought new opportunities following the Napoleonic wars began arriving especially from Germany. These combined with increasing numbers of rural Americans also seeking job opportunities to form a large base of unemployed/underemployed newly arrived New Yorkers.

 Investors in the Collect Pond area found a housing market for the depressed area by converting the structurally unsound housing into makeshift multi-unit tenements. No one but the City’s poorest residents wanted to live there but between rural poor migrating to the City and newly arriving immigrate poor there were plenty of people who sought shelter there. Of course the rapid increase of newly arriving urban poor compounded all of the former environmental problems associated with the area. Increased demand for sanitation simply compounded the ill effects of poor waste management. Drainage and dumping once again began to clog and pollute the canals that had replaced the creeks. Once again the neighborhood became highly toxic and soon was recording the highest adult and infant mortality rates, three to five times that of other sections of New York. I should also point out three to five times higher than any neighborhood in any American city of the time.

 It was during the 1820-1840 period that the community became known as the Five Points, for the intersection of streets within. It was also during this time that the community took on its seedy, wretched public persona, and gradually was occupied the people representing the lowest rung of U.S. urban society whether American born working poor or foreign born new arrivals. It was in effect a melting pot of disadvantage.

 To be clear however up until about 1840 the community’s population majority were American born poor. So the culture of the original Five Points was that of a poor “American” community. Those that visited the area would have viewed activities consistent with other poor urban American neighborhoods and dock areas.

 The most distinguishing features of this community was not foreign culture but excessive crowding, filth and health issues. Most of the residents were “working” poor and decent people looking to survive and possibly improve their lot. However, the neighborhood was an environment that also attracted all of the vices that more “gentile” areas shunned. Gambling, drinking, prostitution, drugs, petty thievery, violence and local police and fire safety corruption abounded.

 Not surprising, people in the community who were able to accumulate financial resources usually exited the community as quickly as possible. This provided for a revolving community dynamic. In the 1840’s a unique event, to that point, in U.S. immigration occurred. An unprecedented mass migration of individuals fleeing the so-called “Irish Potato Famine” began to register at American ports of entry. The U.S. experienced for the first time hundreds of thousands of immigrants arriving over a very short time. The country was ill prepared to absorb the numbers and many of those arriving had little or no resources to fall back on when they arrived. During this time many of those arriving were in poor health from years of under nourishment. British authorities in Ireland also frequently emptied their debtor prisons and orphanages and shipped people over wholesale. Often this was done without regard for keeping families intact.  Many of these new arriving immigrants had little choice but to seek out the poorest neighborhoods including the Five Points and the community population again swelled. However for the first time the community’s majority dynamic began to shift to foreign born mostly Irish.

 As a result In the mid-1830’s thru mid-1840’s as the Irish immigration accelerated and more Irish and other immigrants found their way to the Five Points a clash between the American born poor and the newly arriving majority Irish developed. The two groups of course were competing for survival at the edges of the American society of the day. To be noted it was an environment with little or nothing of a social net for those who were most vulnerable, so in many ways the competition was life and death. Social programs and support groups were at a primitive stage in the America of the mid-19th century.

 Some of the conflict within the Five Points during the Irish immigrant influx acquired vestiges of more ancient European conflicts, such as the political conflicts between English society and Irish nationalism. Some of the conflict was religious inspired, Protestant vs. Catholic and of course some was ethnic/racial. However, it might have been characterized, the conflict was mainly economic/political in nature within the community.  Some of the local conflict reflected a larger political conflict as the anti-immigration issue grew nationally. That national reflection although fundamentally economic/political in form gave rise to the American Nativist movement. Gang based violence and intimidation became more prevalent at the political, social and economic level in New York and other Cities in the U.S. as well.

 I have written in previous articles about some of the Nativist inspired riots in New York and Philadelphia so I will not go into it again here. But it was a dangerous time in American politics and in the developing American culture. Essentially, America was confronted for the first time with how it would develop as a nation and whether it would embrace and absorb diversity of ethnic/racial populations. Significant gang/mob violence loosely connected to local and national politics were a norm not an exception. But something unique in the dialogue which would develop regarding this clash at the lowest end of American society did begin during this period.

 That conversation or dialogue, in my opinion had its origins in London slums, not the U.S. The nature of the social conversation of the time like many of the Irish immigrants who arrived in the 1830’s thru 1860’s were British Isle imports reinvented on to the American stage. Some of the dialogue regarding race, morality, and religion regarding immigrants was then recycled and adapted to immigrating Irish and then to other ethnic groups as later waves poured into the U.S. In the highly publicized, and publicly exposed Five Points, eventually Italians and Italian Americans replaced upwardly mobile Irish immigrants. By the 1880’s Italians and Italian-American cultural manifestations were the next in line after the Irish to inhabit and dominate the community. As such many of the stereotypes associated and targeted at Italians were inherited from characterizations applied first to other ethnic groups especially the Irish.  Even the political/social/economic media talk both good and bad but seldom accurate was largely a shift from previous stereotypes applied to earlier ethnic arrivals. As such it is therefore useful to look at how certain views of immigrants became engrained through the press/media of the day.


                                                          The Influence of English Social Thought


 England industrialized at least a century before the U.S. and in the later stages of colonial America as well as the early U.S history England closely guarded its industrial secrets. London, the Capitol of Great Britain, therefore was a major European City and industrial city long before any American “cities” of size even came into being. To compare London and New York using the pre-Revolution date of 1771 for example we have London’s population at approximately 1,100,000 as opposed to New York at 22,000.

 London had a relatively stagnant population pre-industrialization, of about 500,000 from 1675-1725. A number of factors contributed to a relatively slow growth over these 50 years. Among those factors were English tendencies of the time for marrying later in life, having fewer children, low illegitimacy rates and high infant mortality and of course high levels of rural labor needed which kept people on the farms. As the British Empire expanded and massive international trade and manufacture occurred a very affluent Upper-class arose. This new wealthy class expanded and demanded quality goods and services. One of the effects of this was a need for more cheap domestic labor than the city’s population could initially supply. This would result in the doubling of London’s population through migration to the city.

 London’s population grew to over a million people in just fifty years. But the majority of people increasing the population and filling in the labor needs were not native to London but rather, at first, migrants from rural England. So at first London’s low income/working poor neighborhoods were populated by English migrants from farming communities. This was much like the original poor of the Five Points but on a much larger scale.

 Toward the latter half of the 1725-1775 population expansion additional migrants began seeking employment opportunities in London from other parts of rural Great Britain, specifically Scotland, Wales and Ireland. By the mid 1770’s with a population of over one million all of the social problems that you would expect to find in very poor, poorly planned, highly polluted, densely packed urban setting were rampant in the poorer quarters of the great city of London.

  In addition to the expected density problems these latter migrants from the more distant and distinct cultures of Great Britain gave native Londoners a sense that the poor communities were “foreign”. This lead to undercurrents of both fear resentment and political stress..

 The other interesting element of the migration was that the city’s population, especially in the poorest neighborhoods was primarily made up of young people in the 14-30 age group. It was a dynamic population which did not have the traditional generational structure that more staid communities did.

 As significant as the above change was in the social fabric of the English Capitol those changes, already viewed as mostly negative by the middle and upper class of English society were greatly compounded by the growth associated with the next fifty year period of 1775-1825. It was during the next 50 year period that London tripled in size and grew to be a city with a population of over 3,000,000.

 Again, London’s growth depended on migration from elsewhere. However, instead of just migration from the British Isles a significant number of those arriving came from the far flung corners of the British global Empire as well as political refugees from many parts of Europe. Parts of London took on the characteristics of “international” communities complete with varied, languages, cultures, customs and religions foods and ethics.

 The Multi-culturalism of these expanding poor London neighborhoods became layered on top of the general social friction, vices, disease and chronic underemployment associated with the abject poverty, poor housing conditions and pollution which overwhelmed the sanitation capacity of the neighborhoods.

 Again, especially in these poor ghettoes the 1775-1825 expansion of the population to three million was middle loaded with people in the 14-30 age range. Interestingly, based on statistics of the day during this period about 50% of Londoners had been born elsewhere and 55-60% of the population were young mostly single women. This was also the period which saw a dramatic shift in “family” values within the poorer communities. Couples that married, married earlier than the previous period. Many couples failed to marry at all. There was a dramatic increase in births in these poor neighborhoods with close to equal numbers born in wedlock as without.

 To their credit, London’s ruling society did recognize the dangers of disease, especially plague that the pollution, poor sanitation and absence of clean drinking water poised. Aggressive measures to engineer solutions were undertaken and given the time and understanding of medical causes and effect were remarkably successful from an engineering perspective. In fact by about 1825 London planners had succeeded in lowering the mortality rate in these ghettoes to about that which was average for the countrywide society as a whole.

Interestingly, many of these same civic leaders in the community also viewed the other problems of the ghettoes, crime, illegitimacy, illiteracy, prostitution, gambling, drug use, violence and lack of Christian/Protestant religious affiliation as symptoms of social disease. They considered the poor as “infected” with these “social” diseases which in turn could be resolved with appropriate social engineering of various sorts just as physical engineering could overcome the sanitation and pollution problems.

 This brought on a host of English social reformers, religious “do-gooders”, and wealthy paternalistic social elites. While many maybe even most of the “reformers” acted with good intentions their ardent association with either religion or social privilege skewered their understanding of the problems they faced. The poor began to be looked upon, as chronically poor either through no fault of their own as an accident of birth or by genetic inferiority. Paternalistically the poor were considered an immoral lot that needed to be “saved”. With this as the social backdrop the character of the poor began to be shaped in the public consciousness of early 19th century London. 

 The media helped play a major part in shaping of how the upper social classes viewed these lower class neighborhoods and its people. Among the most powerful of created images were those that came from the pen of Charles Dickens. So powerful were these that those images and character types are repeated even today. But Dickins writings were just a small part of the greater media blitz aimed at creating a image of the poor and a pathway of dealing with the social problems.

 As early solutions to the social problems of poor neighborhoods we see in the London reformers the beginnings of religious based “soup” kitchens to feed the poor coupled with required instruction as to scripture. Orphanages and juvenile homes and shelters were set up often with training for industrial level work but also heavily religiously based. In addition some effort by the authorities to stem the widespread vices of drinking, drugs, gambling and prostitution occurred again this was often in response to protests from various religious based reformers to the immorality of the poor.

 This then became the early social model for how to deal with the collateral damage and spillage from industrialization and rapid urban development. Not surprisingly much of this social “thought” was imported as the U.S. grew and industrialized somewhat later in the century. Religious based reformers following the British model began to appear in the early to mid-19th century northeast urban U.S. landscape.



                                                                Drawing of cast off children in Victorian Industrial London



                                                                   New York’s Five Points 1825-1850


 The Five Points area of the lower east side of Manhattan was by its proximity to the center of New York City, the financial and immigration hub of the early U.S., ideally placed as a sort of social petri dish for early 19th century American social “reformers”. By 1825 the city had grown tenfold in population in just fifty years. Initially, the area of the Five Points was made up of American born middle-class who because of environmental issues quickly began to abandon the area. These initial inhabitants were replaced by working but underemployed poor primarily American born residents housed in ever increasing poorly maintained tenement housing. A description of the housing may be of use to the modern reader and fairly accurate of what newly arriving immigrants, at first Irish but later Italian found as housing in the Five Points.  It should also be noted that many of the early Irish immigrants and Italian immigrants that followed were not urban dwellers in their native countries. So in addition to everything else they had never experienced this type of living condition before their arrival in America. Tenement housing was described;

 “Usually such a building contained a narrow hall opening from a street or court; on each floor, including the cellar, two suits of rooms opened into the hall. Front and rear rooms of the building contained windows, but the bedrooms and closets in the middle were dark. In most cases, there was another tenement in the back yard, frequently altogether enclosed and accessible only through an alley.

 Alongside these buildings and in the yards were many, little irregular frame structures, some in dilapidated condition, serving partly as sheds and partly as homes for the overflow of the tenements. Such haphazard combinations of front and rear buildings on the same lot created an intricate array of rear courtsand alleys, notoriously dark, foul-smelling, and encumbered with accumulations of filth.” Robert Ernst, Immigrant Life in New York 1825-1863.

 As the community’s population became increasing composed of the poorest of the city’s residents the problems of systemic poverty grew. This was only compounded in the decade of 1830-1840.

 The decade 1830-1840 saw the overall population of New York City grow from 200,000 to 300,000. Many of these new arrivals to the city were foreign born. Many of those arrived with little or no money. The poorest of these new arrivals together with many of the most disenfranchised native born Americans gathered in the overcrowded tenements in the Five Point area. This gave the area an interesting and unique American urban ethnic composition. The area, predominantly poor American born and white, began to see an influx of poor free and escaped slaves, as well as initially German and later Irish immigrants. In essence it became a prime and conveniently located example of the “melting pot” urban landscape that was a familiar and much written about feature throughout the rest of the 19th and early 20th century.

 One of the features of an extremely poor, urban community with very limited access to social resources is high crime. Crime was an issue in the Five Points and surrounding depressed areas even when the areas were predominantly white and American born. As other very poor ethnic groups began arriving in the area they were frequently victimized by the already established poor American born community. Resentments and clashes naturally appeared. In the Five Points this clash was occurring at the same time as greater anti-immigration feelings were being stirred up. Some of the anti-immigration sentiment was economic, as people at the lowest rung on the economic ladder competed. Some of the anti-immigrant sentiment was religious, as many of the newly arriving German and Irish immigrants of the 1820’s and 1830 were Catholic. Some of the anti-immigration sentiment was ethno/racial as many of the immigrants were considered non-white, even the Irish and to a lesser extent the Germans. But I would be remiss not to mention that some of the anti-immigration sentiment had its roots in fear that the existing political balances would be shifted by the large number of “foreigners” arriving.

 At the top of the political food chain, this anti-immigration sentiment gave rise to the so-called Nativist movement of the 1830-1850’s. This was a powerful national movement which at its peak could elect 60-80 Congressman. At the more local political level control of the immigrant vote often was attempted initially by gangs of thugs and petty criminals who found lucrative employment and at times political protection by delivering or quashing votes during elections.

 Of course there was resentment and resistance to this form of intimidation within the immigrant areas such as Five Points. Not surprisingly, as the number of Irish immigrants began to swell, they slowly began to represent the “new” majority. This rising new majority began to push back, by forming their own “gangs at first for protection but later for “territorial” and political control.

 One of the earliest of the “Irish” gangs in the Five Points was the “Forty Thieves” gang which operated in the Five Points from roughly 1820 thru the 1850’s. In addition there were other Irish based gangs such as the “Bowery Boys”, the “Dead Rabbits” and the “Roach Guards”. Something of the clashes between Nativist and Irish gangs in the Five Points is the depicted in the film “The Gangs of New York. Although this movie does show some of the early political connections between the gangs and local politicians it is actually set about two decades too late to be historically accurate. By the mid 1840’s because of the enormous numbers of Irish immigrating, the Five Points was already being dominated by poor Irish displacing the poorer American born Nativists.

 The alarms set off by the rising tide of immigrants especially poor Irish/Catholic immigrants also provided fodder for “reformers” and “moralists”. They began to focus their attention in the Five Points in an attempt at external social engineering. Again the models employed in London served multiple American agendas not all of which were intended to benefit immigrants. As an example the Irish gangs of the Five Points with their colorful names served as useful stereotype characters ripe to be exploited by the American media of the day. These characters were then used to flame anti-immigrant sentiment. Charles Dickins himself was brought to the Five Points on a visit to the U.S. in 1842 and he was more than willing to compare the area to the slums and characters of his fictions. His comments on what he found at the Five Points was less than flattering of the inhabitants and largely misses the real issues at play. As an example of what he found in terms of the tenements he wrote in his book “American Notes”

 “Poverty, wretchedness, 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…

 As to the character of the inhabitants he fluidly mixes in his descriptions the physical conditions to the moral condition of the people as if inseparable;

 “Debauchery has made 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…

 Later on he wrote;

 “So far, nearly every house is a low tavern; and on the bar-room walls are colored prints of Washington and Queen Victoria of England, and the American eagle….

 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 wretched bed. Beside it, sits a man, his elbows on his knees, his forehead hidden in his hands…”

 The 1820’s onward saw a rise in American “social” reform efforts, anti-slavery, Temperance, anti-prostitution, etc. Many of these efforts were at least in part organized around or supported by various progressive religious based groups. While reform efforts existed in the Five Points prior to the 1840’s the efforts intensified at the about the same time that immigration, especially Irish immigration during the “potato famine” began to intensify.

 Among the more influential religious ministers that took up activities or can be connected to the Five Points in the 1840’s were Methodist minister Lewis Pease and Catholic priest John Hughes. Morality issues became somewhat highlighted during this Victorian age reform movement. Especially as in parts of London up to sixty per cent of immigrating Irish to the Five Points were young unmarried women. 

 By 1850 patterns of U.S. treatment and perceptions regarding immigrants began to emerge. How some of this reflected on the 1850’s Italian immigrant to the area will be discussed in the second Part of this article.


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