Five Points District, New York City, New York (1830s-1860s)

Five Points (George Catlin, 1827)
Public domain image

Originally the site of New York City’s first free black settlement, by 1850 the Five Points district in lower Manhattan had instead become infamous for its dance halls, bars, gambling houses, prostitution, and for its mixed-race clientele.  To the larger white community, the Five Points was both a warning about the dangers of racial mixing, and a threat to New York’s racial and social order.  To white missionaries and reformers, the area was a mission field.  To most middle class black residents of the city, the Five Points was an embarrassment.  In retrospect, the Five Points simply reflected the changing geography of poverty and race within New York City as working-class Irish immigrants moved into and “whitened” previously all-black residential areas.

Located one block off Broadway in New York’s Sixth Ward and named for its location at the intersection of five different streets, the reputation of the Five Points as a hotbed of crime and vice was engendered, in large part, by a sensationalistic discourse advanced by journalists and travel writers.  The Penny Press of the 1830s, for example, scoured police reports and court cases for evidence of interracial socializing and sex within the Five Points.  Incidents involving prostitution or domestic violence between mixed raced couples received prominent play in the newspapers. Over time, journalists began to link the increasing poverty and crime of New York City to these incidents of “amalgamation” between the races.

Charles Dickens added to existing concerns about the link between poverty and racial mixing when he visited the Five Points during his American tour.  His observations, published in American Notes for General Circulation (1842), placed a black face on poverty within the Five Points and spawned a new genre of “travel” writing aimed at voyeuristic middle-class readers.  Other writers following in Dickens’s footsteps were even more vociferous in establishing the connection between interracial mixing and crime and in laying blame for this racial mixing on blacks despite the fact that black businesses often rented space from white landlords and that black-owned brothels and dance halls catered to middle-class, native-born whites in addition to working class whites and blacks.

White reformers, in turn, took their cues from journalists and travel writers and justified their outreach programs in the Five Points on the basis of the city’s perceived moral decline.  In 1848 the Ladies’ Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church opened its Five Points mission.  Louis Pease, the first missionary hired by the Ladies’ Home Society, later split from this group, opening a job training mission that continued in operation through the Civil War.  Black abolitionists such as Henry Highland Garnet also worked in the Five Points community as part of the American Missionary Association.

In 1991 the area was once again the focus of journalistic inquiry with the discovery of thousands of artifacts dating from the mid-nineteenth century during the construction of the Foley Square Courthouse.  Renamed Foley Square after a Tammany Hall politician, the area now houses buildings such as the U.S. Courthouse and the Foley Square Courthouse.