Reputation of the Five Points:
It is virtually 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 particularly known 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, the chronicler of London's underside wanted to see it for himself.
The Location Provided the Name Five Points:
The Five Points took its name because it marked the intersection of three streets, Anthony, Cross, and Orange, which came together to form an irregular intersection with five corners.
In the past century the Five Points has essentially disappeared, as streets were redirected and renamed. And modern office buildings and courthouses were 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. And 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.
Shocking Conditions Prevailed in the Five Points:
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:
An large building which 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 New York Gangs Called the Five Points Home:
There are many legends about street gangs which 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).
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 policeman, 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...
Dickens went on at considerable length describing the horrors of the Five Points, concluding, "all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here."