While walking across the LIRR bridge to Citi Field last week, I noticed something in the train yard that made me pause. Amongst the sleeping 7 trains and an errant redbird or two, a green sign glimmered in the light of the setting sun. Sure enough, it was a subway car with a green numbered rollover—a number 12 train of all things!
Archive for: April, 2010
For such a small area, the Five Points really has a great deal of history connected to it. Walking through present day Chinatown, I was really struck by how various elements of the Five Points have persisted through time, and have managed to impart some of the old character into the neighborhood. The streets bustle with throngs of Asian residents, reminiscent of the earlier immigrant settlers who called the Five Points home. The streets themselves, crowded with buildings, narrow and winding, hearken back to a time when you might have gone out of your way to avoid Mulberry Bend, Mosco, or Pell Streets for fear of harassment, robbery, or worse. Many of the buildings that line these streets are tenements that date back 100 years or more, and are still very much in use by immigrants seeking affordable housing, as is the case with the building at 65 Mott Street. Residents of these buildings often shared commodes and other facilities—and while some of these buildings may have been updated, the structure and layout remain. So has life really changed in the former Sixth Ward? Let's take a look at living conditions in the Five Points through the ages and find out.
The story of the Collect Pond is integral to the story of the Five Points itself, and it is a prime example of the how the relationship we have with our landscapes can impact our social order.
The landmarks of the Five Points were not artistic and architectural triumphs, but rather tenements, prisons, and churches. Using maps found here, I plotted the locations of sites that loomed largest in the history of the Five Points. Stick close—the streets are dark and possibly a little dangerous.
Recent mob outbreaks in Times Square have people concerned about rising levels of violence in the city. For some it evokes the city's reputation from the 1970s. But New York City has always held a bit of a reputation:
In small clusters, the world began coming to North America via this island nestled in its inviting harbor. And while the West India Company had a firm Calvinist stamp to it, which it tried to impress on its colony, the makeup of the settlement—itself a result of the mix of peoples welcomed to its parent city of Amsterdam—helped to ensure a raggedness, a social looseness ... Days got livelier; with nightfall, the soft slap of waves along the shore was drowned out by drinking songs and angry curses (Shorto 2005: 61).
My suspicion is that the concerns about New York City today echo sentiments about New York City in the 1970s, which echo the sentiments expressed about New York City in the 1830s—when New York City was home to one of the most notorious slums in the world, the Five Points.
In other words, the time of present memory is almost always the most dire circumstance. I invite you to journey back in time with me to walk the streets of the Five Points, and draw your own conclusions about the intersection of the city's past and present. But before you secure your valuables and venture into the alleys and tenements of the area, let's look a bit at the history.