Five Points. Then.

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.

five points, nyc, new york city, collect pond, greg mchale, jesse shaver, jesse and gregSo 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.five points, nyc, new york city, collect pond, greg mchale, jesse shaver, jesse and gregAs 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.five points, nyc, new york city, collect pond, greg mchale, jesse shaver, jesse and gregBy 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.

About the Author |
We earn our living selling New York City. The next day is never like the last. The last is never ordinary. We witness all sorts. We listen to the City’s noise. We devour its phenomenal food. On the Real is our documentary. It is your pack of unfiltered New York 100s.

Union Square. Now.

It’s hard to imagine now, but Union Square was once an incredible death trap. During the latter years of the 19th century and up until the late 1920’s, the Square was perhaps most notorious for its Dead Man’s Curve. The cable car system that ran up and down Broadway took a hard “S” at about where the southern pedestrian plaza stands today just north of 14th Street.  You see, the cables ran underground at a constant speed and were set for the optimal speed…for going in a straight line. When the cars would get to the curve the conductors would shout for everyone to hang on as they zipped and rocketed trough said curve. So not only were there unsuspecting riders being tossed out onto the cobblestones, there were busy pedestrians getting mutilated and slaughtered by these speeding buckets of iron and wood. It wasn’t until 1929, when Union Square was completely torn up to make way for the massive underground transportation hub and the much more pedestrian friendly park that Union Square is today, that the square became a pedestrian-safe haven.

     
In addition to being a transportation and shopping nucleus, Union Square has always been a place where people gather to rally, protest, and generally say what’s on their mind. In 1908, an “anarchist” set off a bomb in the Square only killing himself and one other. Commies. This would come to set the tone for the rest of the century when the city would redesign the park several times to discourage political protests. If you look at the old photos from our Then portion of our Union Square post, you can see how much more space there is surrounding the actual park then there is today. With the redesigns, the city has put it under the control of the Parks Department which requires gatherers to follow a certain set of rules…great for peaceful gatherings, but sucks for protesters. Activists remain frustrated by this, but at least there is still room for feathery pillow fights and topless rallies. In fact, on just about any day you walk through the park, there is someone screeching about one injustice or the other. Sometimes valid. Sometimes ridiculous.
     
In 1970, Mayor Lindsay closed Fifth Avenue and held the first Earth Day celebration in New York City which culminated in Union Square with about 100,000 people. Lindsay wanted to promote the city as a fun and tolerant place to live, so, among other things, he shut down 14th Street for a couple of blocks on either side of the square and called it an “ecological carnival.” Six years later, the Union Square Greenmarket was founded with just twelve farmers. It somehow survived the drug dealers of the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s and now has over 140 vendors and averages 60,000 shoppers a day. In addition to the Greenmarket, there is a holiday gift market that comes to the square every November and December with all sorts of folksy art, clothing and accessories. Today, those of us that live here often find Union Square to be a congested mélange of tourists seeking stinky candles and locals seeking fresh sunchokes, but there seems little question that the current iteration is an improvement over any of its former lives…unless you enjoy a limb-losing match of dodge ball with a clanging streetcar.

About the Author |
We earn our living selling New York City. The next day is never like the last. The last is never ordinary. We witness all sorts. We listen to the City’s noise. We devour its phenomenal food. On the Real is our documentary. It is your pack of unfiltered New York 100s.