The Bowery and the Notorious Five Points Neighborhood

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The Bowery and the Notorious Five Points Neighborhood


By: Anonymous

Date: circa 1845

Source: The Bowery and the Notorious Five Points Neighborhood.

About the Illustrator: The author of the illustration is unknown.


Five Points was an area of Manhattan built upon an infilled, pollution-plagued collect pond. Named for the intersection of Orange, Anthony, and Park streets, the land proved ill-suited for building, and soon gained a reputation as a haven for disease and vermin. As residents fled the once middle-class neighborhoods surrounding the pond, Five Points disintegrated into sordid, crime-ridden tenement slums.

The area began as a mixture of Irish, American, and African cultures, but the neighborhood's ethnic character shifted with subsequent waves of immigration. After 1820, Five Points residents were largely recent immigrants or free blacks. In the 1870s, Five Points and its environs had large Jewish, Eastern European, Chinese, and Italian populations. Though regarded today as one of America's first successful multiethnic neighborhoods, contemporary observers viewed the area's immigrant population as the root of its crime and social problems.

At its infamous height, Five Points rivaled the slums of London's East End as a notorious example of urban destitution, disease, unemployment, sweat-shops, child mortality, and filth that was synonymous with crime and prostitution. The Bowery, on the eastern edge of Five Points, featured taverns, dance halls, oyster bars, and gambling establishments, and was known for its routine and brutal murders. Ethnic and neighborhood tensions were often played out in the violence of street gangs that controlled parts of Five Points, especially the Bowery area.

Given its poverty and violence, the area was a place of unrest. Riots in 1834, 1857, and 1862 originated there before spreading to other parts of New York. In addition, Five Points seated some of the most corrupt politicians of the nineteenth century, but also set trends for putting ethnic Americans in office at a time of high anti-immigrant, nativist sentiment.



See primary source image.


Certainly poverty, hard labor, disease, and a lack of sanitation were endemic to Five Points, which attracted the attention of prominent literary figures and social reformers of the era. In 1842, Charles Dickens fueled the area's reputation as place of violence and drunkenness: "[D]ebauchery 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." Five Points was the subject of news articles and editorial cartoons, most of which focused on the neighborhood's penchant for vice. Illustrations, such as the one here, gave way to the camera. In 1890, Danish-born reformer Jacob Riis published How the Other Half Lives, a photographic essay of life in Five Points and other slum neighborhoods.

By the 1870s, Five Points had lost its reputation for hardened political corruption and gang activity, although it kept its reputation for crime, poverty, suffering, and squalor. New tenement laws in 1880 helped rid Five Points of some of its worst housing. Its limitations on renting sleeping space in cellars and attics largely went ignored, but new tenement housing required brick construction and at least minimal ventilation and light.

Five Points is no longer part of present-day New York, but perhaps in fitting tribute to the area's past, it is now home to several court buildings and one of New York's largest jails.



Anbinder, Tyler. Five Points: The 19th Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World's Most Notorious Slum. New York: Plume Books, 2002.

Web sites

The Five Points Site. "Archaeologists and Historians Rediscover a Famous Nineteenth-Century New York Neighborhood" 〈〉 (accessed March 9, 2006).