December 2002

Michael Farrelly

nonfiction

Five Points: The Nineteenth-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections and Became the Worlds Most Notorious Slum by Tyler Anbinder

Years ago historian Howard Zinn dropped an intellectual acid tab into the academic water supply with his book A People's History of the United States. The book re-examined the concept of American history as a long, glorious pageant and refocused attention away from the rich dead white men and onto the "common" people who shaped everyday life. Tyler Anbinder's Five Points is a direct descendant of this shift in historical perspective.

It's odd that Americans are more comfortable defining their history by wars than by periods of peace. The Revolutionary War begins American history, the Civil War redefines the nation and the World Wars of this century bring about the modern era. Five Points is about the peaceful times of the 19th century, and how peaceful they actually weren't. Anbinder paints a portrait of a rough and ready slum where immigrants from all over Europe, and later from Asia, made their homes. This was a place of commerce, both of a legal and an illegal variety. It was a place where cultures clashed and political dreams were birthed into reality.

Five Points is, as the extended title boasts, "The 19th century New York neighborhood that invented tap dance, stole elections and became the world's most notorious slum." Unlike most subtitles that promise all by the moon and the stars, all these statements and more are absolutely true. The Five Points neighborhood quite literally defines the term melting pot, a mixture of cultures, faiths and political ideologies that was at one time volatile but also a source of amazing creativity. The cultural resonance of Five Points is something that is almost imperceptible. Consider that one of the most vicious of Five Points' many political or religious gangs was named the Bowery Boys, a name that was later given to a series of 1940's films featuring the capers of some good old boys from Five Points.

Being a lifelong Chicagoan, my mental map of New York City is not exactly reliable. It was a relief then to open the first page of the book and find a map of the region. Even after plumbing the depths of this book I still think I'd have a hard time finding some of the locales. Unlike Chicago, New York is more of a multi-layered metro-archeology than a city. Five Points peals back a hundred years of rewritten history to reveal the seedy brawling side of life in the 19th century.

Tammany Hall - the popular name for the democratic 'machine' that ran New York City - is perhaps the most immediate touchstone for the casual reader. In the late 19th century Tammany came under the thrall of one Boss Tweed who used political and just plain brute force to keep the machine in power. For most, the scandal is merely a dim memory from grade school history classes, but Anbinder takes the usually rather dull subject and enlivens it with details about the thuggery and street violence that allowed for political bosses like Tweed and street gangs to hold complete control over the city up to the highest levels of power.

The organization of the book is interesting in that it is not linear like most historical monographs. Anbinder instead uses key questions to subhead the chapters, such as "Why They Came" which explains why, with all the strum and drang about how awful a place Five Points could be, a new immigrant would bother to come at all. Anbinder also uses short prologues that describe key historical persons that are featured in the next chapter.

The best of theses prologue is Chapter Nine's "He Never Knew He Was Beaten" which discusses how a politician named 'Fatty' Walsh used his Mulberry Boys gang to start a notorious riot that left over a dozen dead, an act which as Anbinder writes, "Inciting one of the deadliest riots in New York history would doom the political careers of most men, but Five Pointers did not judge their leaders by the same standards as other New Yorkers."

The most overwhelming tone in the book is that of near utter despair at the sheer poverty in which most of the residents of Five Points lived. Even by 19th century standards (which allowed for open sewers and intermittent personal hygiene) Five Points was a morass. Further church-leaders decried the decadence and wickedness of the area. Some go so far as to call Five Points "a hell-mouth." Anbinder tries to get at the real motivations behind these attitudes. While today Italians, Irish and Eastern Europeans make up much of the privileged class, at the time they were considered the very bottom of the social ladder. In fact the job of policing immigrant areas was so undesirable that the immigrants had to police themselves. A trend, which can be, felt to this day in major urban areas across the country but especially in New York.

The colorful characters and situations that dot the book are charming, but Anbinder weighs down the text with a great deal of divergent and not nearly as interesting sidebars. The book is also somewhat strangely organized for a history, seeming more a sort of anthropological study of Five Points than a linear story. While this might not be a problem for more academically inclined readers, a casual history buff might find the text a bit cumbersome.

Five Points is a book that will definitely increase in profile with the forth-coming opus by Martin Scorcese The Gangs of New York which covers much of the same era and topic. When the book of the same name has vanished off the shelves, Five Points could make for an excellent stand-in, if not replacement.



For more information on Five Points, including recent archeological digs in the area, click to http://r2.gsa.gov/fivept/fphome.htm

Five Points: The Nineteenth-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections and Became the Worlds Most Notorious Slum by Tyler Anbinder
Free Press
ISBN: 0684859955
532 pages