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

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