Tuesday, May 31, 2016


Manhattan’s Chinatown is currently a thriving community of shops, restaurants, and businesses, but it was once part of the notoriously shabby Five Points district.  The actual Five Points – made up of the intersection of five streets – no longer exists because one of those five streets (Little Water Street) is now covered by various court buildings.  But the intersection remains.  Columbus Park (formerly Five Points Park) is located there.  The park is basically a cemented area – one of many in Manhattan which are referred to as parks – where you’ll find a basketball court, cement tables where people play chess, and make note, a public restroom.

When the British took over New Amsterdam (1664), renaming it New York, the area of Chinatown, parts of Tribeca, and parts of the Court district were covered by Collect Pond.  This was a spring-fed, freshwater pond 60 feet deep that supplied New York farmers and merchants with their water.  The pond is gone, but the springs are still there, so next time you are in Chinatown you can think about walking on water.

As the town grew in the 18th century, merchants built homes near the edge of the pond in what would later be called Five Points to enjoy the water.  That is, until the tanners, slaughterhouses and breweries on Bayard Street started dumping their waste matter into the water, polluting it until the water was unusable and stank.  The homeowners were disappointed as was the owner of Coulthard Brewer (aka “Old Brewery) and searched for a solution in the courts. 

The value of real estate being of primary influence in New York, and after some lobbying of the politicos, it was decreed that the pond should be filled in.  Unfortunately, the job, probably done by government bid, was done poorly.  Shortly after the pond was buried, methane gas escaped the landfill, the stink of which finally drove the sensible and prosperous tenants to move to more habitable parts of the island.  Their homes were left to be inhabited by those less fortunate who would tolerate not only the smell of the methane, but the smell of the slaughterhouse and the tanneries (a ripe cheese smell) and the sewage and carcass matter that bubbled up from the pond through the earth on rainy days. 

Dozens of people moved into what became “boarding houses,” living on the second floors and above while pigs, chickens, and goats were housed on the ground floor.  Hence they could answer the phrase, “were you raised in a barn?” with a resounding “yes I was.”  When the “Old Brewery” closed down and was abandoned (although it is certain that other breweries continued in existence), the building was turned into a tenement in which there was one murder every night for fifteen years.  I supposed one had to have suicidal tendencies to rent there.  That building has been torn down, otherwise it would probably be on a “ghost tour.”

The Irish and freed slaves were the majority of tenants who made Five Points as home – mainly because they were not readily welcome in others part of Manhattan.  They integrated in the houses and tenements and mixed socially.  [Their dances – the African shuffle and the Irish jig developed into tap dancing.]

Five Points became the most densely populated area of Manhattan.  It was also the Sixth Ward and the Irish formed gangs that influenced voters to elect Irishmen to city offices.  This would eventually lead to the rise of Irish domination of New York politics, Boss Tweed and the hyper-inflated building of Tweed Courthouse (still standing and available for view on Chambers Street between Broadway & Centre Street) as well as Irish domination of the police force.  The Irish Catholic churches formed schools demanding that the Irish rise intellectually. 

The Irish gangs fought against each other and there were riots.  One of them, the Dead Rabbits Riot of 1857, started at 40-42 Bowery (home of the Bowerie Boys).  Those houses are still standing and just for the sake of history might be worth a look if you’re in the neighborhood. 

The gangs also competed with each other in the manner of firefighting, each trying to reach the fire first and going so far as to turn over each others trucks, thus allowing the fire to demolish a building and possibly kill a few people so that everyone came out an equal loser.  Wooden buildings began to be replaced by brick ones and the 19th century architecture currently houses tenants and stores in modern Chinatown, but you have too look past signs.

The first Chinese tenant in Five Points was Ah Ken, who started a cigar-rolling business.  As the business prospered, other Chinese men came to work for him and to start their own cigar-rolling businesses.  One man started a laundry and other followed.  The men were willing to live in the squalor that was Five Points to earn a living as the Irish and African Americans moved uptown.  The Chinese immigrants started their own markets, theaters, and gangs.  Their gangs, called tongs, were social, political and sometimes criminal, but the had nothing to do with the fire department luckily. 

Of course, the Chinese immigrants were no more welcome than the Irish or freed slaves or any other immigrant willing to take lower wages than anyone else, but the Chinese were the only ones to have a law passed preventing immigration.  The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882 and only repealed in 1943.  The act suspended immigration so that there would be no more legal Chinese immigration, and men already in the US could not bring their wives to live with them, and if the men left the US to visit their families, it was difficult for them to return.

A few Chinese women lived in Five Points, wives who had managed to get to the US before the law, but many were prostitutes who were smuggled into the country.  According to the 1900 census, there were 7028 Chinese men in Five Points and 142 women.  In some ways, it must have been like a male prison – men only, limited resources, glass walls all around instead of iron bars. 

But still, they managed to prosper.

post by Alana Cash

Tuesday, May 24, 2016


Photo by Hu Totya
You exit the subway on Canal Street to immediate noise – car engines, diesel engines, honking, screeching, sirens, yelling, talking, and the general din of New York.   Canal Street leads to the Manhattan Bridge (the Brooklyn Bridge knockoff that carries the subways out of and into Brooklyn as well as cars and busses) so there's loads of traffic.  Chinatown may not have more people crowding the sidewalks than other parts of Manhattan, but it feels like it because the sidewalks and streets off Canal Street are narrower than uptown tourist places like Times Square and Rockefeller Center.  Those narrow streets add a sense of mystery and romance, most particularly after sunset when the neon lights and colored bulbs come on highlighting all the signs in Chinese script.  You could be somewhere far away.

Unless you live there, Chinatown is two-square miles of shopping, eating, and getting a cheap massage.  The most visible shopping spills out onto the sidewalks of Canal Street between Baxter and East Broadway.  Purses, backpacks, cheap jewelry, and sunglasses (umbrellas as soon as it starts to rain) sit on tables or hang from racks.  As you walk past these hole-in-the-wall stores whose doors roll up like garage doors, the hawkers invite you to buy and to bargain for a price.  These stores all sell basically the same merchandise that changes out every few weeks.

Canal Street in Chinatown is also where you can get a knockoff designer purse, wallet, watch, keychain, shoes, etc.  If you’re interested in that, just stand on any street corner and within a few seconds, someone will whisper, “Handbag? Handbag?  Watch?” and show you a wrinkled photographic menu of designer items.  If you get hooked, you follow someone to the back of a shop, or to a van parked on The Bowery, or down an alleyway to a door.  You’ll have a variety of Louis Vuitton, Coach, Chanel, or other famous brand goods to choose from – in the expensive versions ($hundreds) with genuine leather and brass trim or cheaper ($less and hundreds) which have polyurethane trim that doesn’t wrinkled or stain, but looks obviously fake and ends up in a thrift store instead of on eBay.  You can choose Rolex, Patek Philippe, and other watch brands as well.  Then you can brag that you have a genuine fake something or other.

The designers have boutique stores or have their goods for sale in high-end stores uptown, and they deeply frown at this illicit activity in Chinatown.  The police watch for it and I’ve seen people scatter when a police van arrived.  At one time, the entire block of stores from Baxter to Centre Street were shuttered and padlocked – for months.  It was quite a message. 

Purses and watches are not the only counterfeit items moving through Chinatown.  There’s also a lot of counterfeit money.  I remember once there was a 3-card-Monty game under a construction “shed” (what New York calls covered scaffolding).  I played that scam the first time I visited New York.  I broke even because there was a police car nearby and and I got him to come over and tell the man to return the money he’d cheated from me.  But I digress.  There was a game going on under the scaffolding on lower Broadway near Canal Street.  A tourist had been suckered into playing, but oddly, he was winning.  The crooks running the game were paying out.  It was fascinating and I stood there until I figured it out.  They were giving him counterfeit money.  Two counterfeit $20 bills for a real one.  They wouldn’t get caught passing counterfeit money, the tourist would have that wonderful experience.  I walked over to the Chinatown police precinct and suggested they send someone to play 3-card-Monty on lower Broadway.  This is a floating game all over midtown as well.  Anywhere there are crowds of tourist,s there is a Monty game.

Back to the good stuff.

There are a lot of massage places in Chinatown where you can get a very inexpensive one-hour reflexology session.  That was my weekly event.

I also did grocery shopping in Chinatown.  Along Canal from Baxter to Mulberry I chose from various tiny fresh vegetable and fruit stands at the edge of the sidewalk.  There were two fish markets side by side near Baxter Street.  And, one 3-floor general store that sold maybe 100 types of tea – loose tea in huge glass jars, loose tea in packages, and boxes of teabags.  They sold over 100 types of candy as well as cookies, spices, canned food, etc. 

There was at one time a terrific store on Lower Broadway called Pearl River.  It carried Chinese silk clothing, household products, beauty products all sorts of wonders on two floors creaky wooden floors.  There was plenty of space for wandering around, and it was a flow-through, meaning you could enter on Broadway and exit at the other end of the store onto Mercer Street.  Unfortunately, the rent was raised on this 30,000 square foot store from $100,000 per month to $500,000 per month (yes, that’s right, per month), and they closed down.  You can find Pearl River online though:  http://pearlriver.com/v3/index.asp

There used to be a lot of unique shops on lower Broadway – art dealers selling prints, boutiques owned by the designers who sold their own clothes there, music stores, rare book stores, and even a holographic “museum.”  All gone now because of high rents.  The chain stores have moved in – The Gap, American Apparel, Starbucks.  You could be at a mall in Kansas.

After shopping, comes hunger.  Sometimes I cruised south of Canal looking for a restaurant – there are many, but my favorite restaurant was actually Vietnamese – on Centre Street just south of Walker Street.  It was always crowded at lunchtime, so I tried to get there in the afternoon when there was a lull.  I liked to sit at a two-top table near the cash register and have a Vietnamese coffee (espresso dripped into condensed milk).  

And, more often than not, before going home, I stopped into Pearl Paint.  This is a multi-story art store on Canal Street near Broadway.  It has old wide-plank floors that creak, every kind of art supply you can imagine, and quite possibly the rudest staff you can find in New York.  Overcoming that, I went there to buy gel pens because they had a selection of 100s of colors and I used them up quickly.

More to come on Chinatown

Tuesday, May 10, 2016


Once the weather was nice – meaning no further threat of a snowstorm – people claimed their spots on the sidewalk in my neighborhood.  There was a line of men who sat on chairs, wheelchairs, or on the seat of a walker along a storefront on Lincoln Avenue. One man was particularly friendly and always called hello whenever I passed by.  

Around the corner and down the block on Flatbush Avenue, there were a couple of permanent kitchen chairs outside the barber shop, usually filled with men complaining about one thing or another.  They never spoke to me, but looking inside the barber shop it always seemed like a party was going on.  

On Parkside Avenue, where there was a sort of crummy grocery store, sometimes I might pass gang members – there was a shooting there one afternoon while I was shopping, once there was a hooker laying on the sidewalk (saw that in Manhattan too).  Once, I was propositioned once in a very vulgar way by a large sweaty man getting on a bus.  Good luck, buddy.

Walking down Ocean Avenue on a warm day, I might find Chester standing underneath the awning of the apartment building where he lived. He was friends with my landlord so I had been formally introduced and we always chatted whenever I saw him.  He’d lived in the neighborhood for forty years and he told me all about the changes that had happened

He told me that some of the apartment buildings along Ocean Avenue had doormen and carpets and furniture in the lobbies.  Now they were lucky if the front door actually locked and the elevators were running.  The lobbies were now floored with cheap linoleum and empty of all furniture.

I remember one day Chester was just chatting about his foot hurting, then changed the subject, saying, “Hitler was sitting on my refrigerator this morning for three hours.  Yes, he was only 12 inches tall and he sat on the top of the fridge from 9 o’clock until noon.  I tried not to look at him, but I could see him out of the corner of my eye.  I went out of the kitchen for a long while, checking every once in a while to see if he was still there, and finally he was gone.” 

Well, that certainly surprised me. 

Another day he told me about some crows three feet tall that flew in his bedroom window and spent the night.

I wasn’t quite sure what to say during some of his conversation, but I sure did find him interesting.

Post by Alana Cash

Monday, May 2, 2016


As the weather grew warmer, I used to sit at the window in the eat-in kitchen with the windows open.  That’s an important term in New York – “eat in.”  It means you don’t have to fit a dining table in your living room somewhere.  The eat-in kitchen was formerly a bedroom, so it was a nice size, and it had a bay window overlooking the back garden.  It was a very pleasant place to work.

The trees at the back of the garden, disguised the wall to the subway ditch that were just beyond them.  And beyond the subway ditch was a one-block street that began at Flatbush Avenue and ended at the subway ditch.  This was a special street – one that I never visited.  Because…

One morning as I was sitting at the kitchen table working with a manuscript, I began to hear gun fire.  I don’t know that I’d ever heard gunfire before that in Brooklyn, but I’d heard it many times as I passed the shooting range on Lamar Blvd. and Koenig Lane in Austin, Texas.  It sounds a bit like firecrackers, a bit like a car backfiring, all depending on caliber, but it is distinctive. 

The shots I heard that morning were not sporadic and then stopping – like someone was committing a crime.  The shooter shoots and then runs.  No, this was consistent for quite a while – maybe 30 minutes.  This was target practice.  I couldn’t see who was firing because of the trees and the concrete walls on either side of the ditch, but it seemed there were two pistols – two shooters just having a nice morning without having to pay to go to a shooting range.  Note to self, avoid this block.

Later on in the summer, when the nights were muggy and hot, this same block had a block party (every year).  Someone put a few 6-foot speakers on the sidewalks and blared hiphop music joyously until 3 or 4 a.m.  I know my landlord called the police to complain and I’m sure plenty of other neighbors called as well.  But the NYPD did not respond to the noise complaints.  It seemed that, for some reason, this block was untouchable.  Perhaps a politician lived on it – a city council member or someone on the mayor’s staff. Or it was gang controlled.

Admittedly, I could not hear the party at the front of the house where I slept and where there was traffic noise to deal with so I didn’t call about that noise.  My torture was the hiphop circus that arrived every June for three weeks.  Pitching a plastic “big top” in the park directly across the street, they held 3 performances a day that could be heard on the moon.  The night-time performances were supposed to end at 10pm, but ended whenever they were finished.  It was awful, and thankfully, new construction in the park put an end to that.