With infant mortality, disease, prostitution, violent crime and sheer population density on the rise, Five Points quickly became the most dangerous neighborhood in the world. Urban legend has it there was a murder a night in the Old Brewery which housed about a thousand of the city’s poor. That’s a mortality rate which is only rivaled by the top two deadliest prisons in the world today.Five Points also came to embody the very definition of the great American melting pot. The combination of New York fully emancipating African Americans in 1827 and the Irish fleeing their homeland due to the Great Potato Famine during the 1840’s caused these two groups, penniless and destitute, to pour into this neighborhood in search of new beginnings. This notably was the first time in history that whites and blacks voluntarily lived and worked side by side in America. Here’s a factoid for you: the resulting fusion of African and Irish dancing in the Five Points pubs created what we know today as modern tap dancing.The city police were more than happy to simply leave this neighborhood to its own bloody devices, which created a spectacular opportunity for enterprising gutter criminals. Unionizing had its merits and before long the slum became ruled by gangs with some pretty colorful names: The Dead Rabbits, Bowery Boys, Shirt Tails, Plug Uglies, Roach Guards. Don’t be fooled by the cutesy names because these were all some very, very bad dudes. And they were not mere thugs, folks! They were political in their aspirations and used their criminal coalitions to influence local politics. Acting as brutal enforcers, each gang would work at driving a cowering population to the polls with knives, pistols and brickbats to ensure that their “favored” candidates won elections.You always knew who was who by their distinct style of dress. The Bowery Boys favored black stovepipe hats, and red shirts red shirts, the Plug Uglies all wore plug shaped hats stuffed with wool and leather (which not only protected the head but could double as a blunt weapon)… and then there were the Dead Rabbits. Although I’m sure the gangs were all fearsome, I think I’d be most frightened of the Dead Rabbits. To start, these guys had a height requirement of 6 feet to join the gang, so they were universally enormous for that era…and they carried long spears or pikes with actual dead rabbits impaled on them. Talk about a compelling campaign strategy! Seeing a posse of them coming would be sufficient to get me to vote for Michelle Bachmann. Virtually unchecked, these gangs were able to grow in power and influence so it was only a matter of time before they would would clash with one another– and on an epic scale.
Much has been written and filmed about Five Points, the notorious downtown neighborhood that was the breeding ground for some of New York’s most violent gangs like The Dead Rabbits and The Bowery Boys. When the ‘hood it comes up in conversation, though, I find that most people don’t know exactly where the real Five Points were…or are. Well, here they are, folks. Right here where Baxter, Park and Worth meet over the south-eastern section of the old Collect Pond.
So what were the factors that made Five Points so frickin’ dangerous and notorious? The short answer…water. Let me shed a little light. Collect Pond was a gorgeous body of water surrounded by rolling hills on the northern reaches of this town when it was settled way back in the 1600′s. It was Manhattan’s main source of water and used as place to swim and sunbathe during the warm months and ice skate during the cold ones.As the city expanded north, businesses like breweries, slaughterhouses and tanneries began to populate the shores of this important little body of water. As they grew, so did the waste they produced and tossed into the pond. By the early 1800′s the levels of human, animal and commercial waste had reached hazardous levels. A solution was needed. There was a proposal to clean it up and turn it into the focal point of a public park for the city’s residents to once again enjoy, but real estate interests won. Imagine that! The pond was filled in with earth from the surrounding hills and, beginning in 1811, upper-middle class houses were built along the newly formed streets. A big problem revealed itself pretty quickly, though. The engineers who managed the process of filling Collect Pond were lousy at their jobs. Houses began to sink and methane gases from decomposing organics and water under this newly formed nabe began to rise. Entire streets would fill with a foot or more of mud while swarms of mosquitos and giant packs of rats found themselves a fantastic place to terrorize the residents.By the 1820′s, the moderately wealthy were getting the hell out of Dodge and the just-off-the-boat and dirt-poor immigrants were moving in to this creature-infested bog. It was a perfect combination of damp and steamy filth that acted as the perfect petri dish for some of the most violent and organized crime the city had ever seen. More on that next week on Five Points. Then, Still.