Sunday, June 06, 2010

some residents of Five Points

In the litter of the internet, in our daily interactions with each other, and in much that we read in print, we may be dismayed but are not surprised to encounter ethnic, racial, and social stereotyping, are we? It's so common that examples are hardly needed — people of Hispanic appearance as wetbacks, aliens, illegal immigrants; young black men as street dealers, brawlers, amoral murderers; people who live in low-cost housing as a class who are unable or, probably, unwilling to do much to help themselves improve their lot in life. Legal protection against unjust discrimination may seem a poor weapon against these prejudices, but the problem is much less serious in this time and place than time past and elsewhere. Genocide, holy war, tribal violence, blanket anti-immigration policies are all extreme forms of intolerance which persist in much of the world and the past is splashed over with examples of even greater extremes (think only of the Nazi Holocaust and the millions killed in the name of Communism). The United States is hardly exempt. Until 1865 its constitution legitimated slavery and until the mid-20th century racial discrimination against African Americans was, generally, neither improper nor illegal. The annihilation of Native Americans may have come mostly in an indirect way by means of European disease, but it came about also by the direct actions of white Americans. Only in the 20th century have women gained legal equality with men.

Still, it's surprising to see the boldness with which 19th-century writers condemned whole broad swatches of their communities by their ethnicity, race, or impoverished condition.

Here are four examples from New York by gas-light: with here and there a streak of sunshine by George G. Foster (Dewitt & Davenport, 1850). They concern residents of New York's Five Points district about which I've been writing lately.[1]

1. Women characterized as prostitutes — persons of disreputable character and vile habits: "It is no unusual thing for a mother and her two or three daughters &mdash all of course prostitutes — to receive their 'men' at the same time and in the same room — passing in and out and going through all the transactions of their hellish intercourse, with a sang froid at which devils would stand aghast and struck with horror." Foster describes the women of Five Points taverns as "bare-headed, bare-armed, and bare-bosomed ... painted Jezebels."

2. Men of Five Points characterized as nothing but predators and their prey: Foster says this generalization "is mostly true of all the inhabitants in this region." To him, the prey are "sailors, negroes, and the worst loafers and vagabonds," they who "dance and drink to stupefying intoxication" and give themselves over to "paroxysms of drunken lust," leaving themselves vulnerable to be completely robbed of any money or valuables. Foster's predator class "burrow in secret holes and dens all day. ... They are the obscene night-birds who flit and howl and hoot by night, and whose crimes and abominations make them shun the light of day — nor merely because they fear detection, but because day is hateful to them." These are the pickpockets, prowlers, robbers, burglars, and arsonists, men who use games of chance to pluck pigeons, who "being plucked to the last feather, are most likely left bleeding and senseless in the street."

3. The African Americans of Five Points characterized as beastly, violent, misogynists : Foster says these residents are "savage, sullen, reckless dogs, ... continually promoting some 'muss' or other, which not infrequently leads to absolute riot," and who are more able than whites to tolerate the area's "constantly pouring stream of mephitic air" and sustain their existence amid "all their filth and degradation." He credits police with the power to keep "the wooly-heads in tolerable subjection"

4. The Jews of Five Points are slimy, underhanded, cheating merchants: Foster calls Jewish residents "the human kite, formed to be feared, hated and despised, yet to prey upon mankind" He describes the "'fences' or shops for the reception and purchase of stolen goods. ... kept entirely by Jews." These shops are a "squalid undercrust, ... beggarly little shanties." He says Jews raise large families, "the descendants of Israel being as celebrated for fecundity as cats or Irish women." And he describes their appearance, including "glittering eye-sparkle ... hook of nose."

5. Undeserving poor: This fifth example comes from the author of a report about Five Points residents. The reporter begins by saying "It is a common boast that in our free and plentyful land the alternative of want or crime is presented to none, except through their voluntary rejection of the paths of industry and virtue."
-- THE OUTCAST POOR; A Report by the Directors of the Five Points House of Industry, under the charge of Rev. L.M. Pease. New York Times, October 15, 1853, Wednesday, Page 3, 5778 words

6. Unbelievers: Many writers characterized Five Points as home ground to depraved sinners, a heathen people who daily reap the evil fruits of their rejection of Christianity. One says, in this "region of wickedness, filth, and woe, children are born in sorrow, and raised in reeking vice and bestiality, that no heathen degradation can exceed."
-- Sunshine and shadow in New York, Volume 289 of American culture series by Matthew Hale Smith (J. B. Burr and company, 1869)
Another writer quotes a local minister on the "reformatory influences" of missionary efforts in Five Points.[2]

7. A people invisible but always present: This final example lumps together the people of Five Points into a regrettable but inevitable concomitant of civilized progress. The author says, "The Five Points presents the other side of life, the unpleasant and painful side, which we think to banish by ignoring. Going there, we are brought face to face with the sternest and most revolting facts of civilization, and compelled to admit, much as we may wish it otherwise, that education and advancement can never be more than partial. How vice always creeps under the hedge where virtue blossoms fragrantly! The Five Points is merely a background to Broadway and Fifth avenue—a background most of us are unwilling to see, but which exists, nevertheless, in all its hideousness."

These accounts are not exceptional and could be multiplied many times over. Fewer are the writers who see a complex and vibrant society, a city within a city in which for every stereotype can be found a polar opposite and many between. As, for example:

1. Of women: In 1852 a reporter visited with two Five Points women who were impoverished and vulnerable, yet industrious, hard-working, and poised. They both prefer their independent, though extremely precarious, existence to the oppressive religious regimen of the local missionary workhouse. I've copied this article in full below.

2. Of men and women in working families: The same article very briefly counters the stereotype of dysfunctional families, and, obliquely, of men seen only as predators and prey. Notice how in this description a family of quiet working people can be found in a room next door to two a pair of prostitutes and to "some desperate-looking men:" "Our next visit was to a needle-woman of rather better class. The house was in an alley leading out of Pearl-street. We entered it by a stairway on the back-side, and, it seemed to me, wound about through some half-dozen passages and up and down some half-dozen stairways before we reached the room. Each room that we passed appeared to have a separate family in it — in one, quiet working people, cooking their supper; in another, a company of coarsely-talking women, putting on their finery for their evening walks through the streets; in another, some desperate-looking men, whom one would rather not meet in a lonely alley of a dark night, and who glance at us suspiciously as we pass by. In general, however, we are not noticed."

3. Of African Americans Foster recognizes that at least some of the African American residents are not impoverished savages but, to the contrary they "have done well for themselves." He says, "They manage, many of them, to become house-keepers and landlords, and in one way and another scrape together a good deal of money. They associate upon at least equal terms with the men and women of the parish, and many of them are regarded as desirable companions and lovers: by the 'girls.' They most of them have either white wives or white mistresses."

4. Of crushing poverty, filth, and degradation, which none survive: In a photo essay on Five Points called Urban Woes, a curator at the New York Public Library points out: "In spite of the neighborhood's terrible poverty and reputation, artifacts of domestic life — tea sets, pins and thimbles, and fabric swatches — uncovered recently during construction of a new federal courthouse on Foley Square, suggest that many of the area's residents clearly were hard-working citizens."
-- Urban Woes NYPL Humanities and Social Sciences Library > Collections & Reading Rooms > Print Collection > MOVING UPTOWN Section VI

Contemporary writers were wrong in giving oversimplified, distorted, and prejudiced descriptions of the people of Five Points. They certainly also exaggerated some of the worst aspects of the place. But that's not to say it wasn't horrible. As the author of a recent book says: "Much of what was written by contemporaries was simply not true. Yet in their well-intentioned efforts to identify prejudice, [some modern writers] have lost sight of some unpleasant truths. Even if one considers only the statements of Five Pointers themselves, rather than the biased views of outsiders, one finds a neighborhood rife with vice, crime, and misery. Brothels were everywhere. Alcoholism was omnipresent. Habitually drunken men beat their wives and children. The neighborhood's many female alcoholics neglected their sons and daughters, producing some of the Five Points' most heart-rending tales of abuse and suffering. Upwards of 1,000 Five Pointers at any given time lived in filthy, overcrowded, disease-ridden, tumbledown tenements whose conditions are unimaginable to modern Americans. Previous generations of writers may have exaggerated certain aspects of life in Five Points, but the truth is that conditions there were quite wretched."[3]


{Five Points in 1859}


Here is the New York Times article mentioned above. As you begin to read it, you recognize a familiar story pattern: the stories of two women, briefly told, who are pure, virtuous, and untainted by the decrepit environment in which they're forced to live and work. They are true to the highest moral values of their culture. They are uncomplaining, work hard, and show not bitterness at the hardships and heartbreak that fate has brought them. One has a fresh, healthy optimism and youthful charm; the other has a quiet dignity and refinement; she refuses to be crushed by loss of financial support and disappointment in love. Both show pluck in insisting upon their own independence and mistrusting offers of work that pays more by that also requires their subjection to a religious discipline. The reader expects good things to come to these earnest and well-meaning heroines, but the reporter and missionary who is his guide crush this wishful thinking.
Walks among the New-York Poor

We started in one of the streets leading from the Five Points, and after winding about all manner of strange alleys and dark courts, entered a low passage in a house back of the "Old Brewery." My companion was Mr. Pease, the Missionary, and he knew the ground better, I let him lead, keeping as close behind him as possible and, it must be confessed, grasping my cane with a feeling of some satisfaction. As we groped along the dark passage, a door opened occasionally and lights gleamed out, and haggard, filthy faces looked at us, but with no especial curiosity, no one knows or cares for anyone else in the great rookeries. At length, as we turned an angle, we found ourselves in more light, and an open door showed a crowd of low women in a small dirty room gathered in great glee around some poor fellow they were plucking. Scarce glancing in, we passed, and in the next room, the door, there stood two or three dirty children. Something in the expression of one — perhaps a look of such sad want — struck me, that I involuntarily stopped and the children rushed forward, recognizing Mr. Pease, and clung to his arm most affectionately. Hardly stopping, we turned down another stairway, led me into a cellar of the old building, then going on steps, knocked at the door of a room. It was opened at once, and we were welcomed by a nice young Irish girl. The place looked neat and there was a table-cloth on the table, with a candle burning in the centre — and the floor was well swept. In one corner, was a large bed with three children in it. The air was very damp in the room, and rank with the odors from without. This young girl and her mother occupied the room. Her mother was out. Mr. P. fell at once into conversation with her. After some talk, he asked her, "What she was working at now?" "Plain check shirts, sir," she said showing them to us. "What did she get for them?" "Ten cents apiece," she replied. "How many can you do in a day?" "Two, and sometimes three, if I begin at six and work till late at night." "You do other work?" "Oh yes sir, pantaloons — and I can get two shillings form them, and sometimes three and six by the day; and dress making beside — though I don't often get that. When I do, I can earn a dollar a day. You know it won't do to wait for work &mdash I must take what comes, and ladies don't like to put fine work in such places, and so I takes them shirts."

"So all you make with them is twenty to thirty cents a day?"

"Yes, sir."

"Ain't you afraid of falling behind — with your rent and everything?"

"Oh no, sir — I always comes out right."

"You did much better with me, Jane — what did you use to earn at my work?"

"About six shillings, sir."

"Well, come over to the house to-morrow, and I can give you some more work!" And after a little further talk we bid her good night.

The girl was not more than twenty-two years old — with a fresh, cheerful, healthful face, which it did one good to look upon. I can not in any way convey the healthy, hopeful tone, with which she spoke or her meagre wages, and the chances of work; though none knew better than she in that foul neighborhood the terrible alternative, if she did fall behind. She was not of the best class of seamstresses; yet there was to me in her clear, hearty look and her neat dress, and her whole bearing, a purity which contrasted singularly with her vile quarters. Mr. Pease says he has known her for years and that there is not a more virtuous girl in the city. As I made my way out of the filthy den, I could not but think of how differently she might be living if she had chosen anything but on honest life. The virtue that holds out in such places, must be worth something.

Our next visit was to a needle-woman of rather better class. The house was in an alley leading out of Pearl-street. We entered it by a stairway on the back-side, and, it seemed to me, wound about through some half-dozen passages and up and down some half-dozen stairways before we reached the room. Each room that we passed appeared to have a separate family in it — in one, quiet working people, cooking their supper; in another, a company of coarsely-talking women, putting on their finery for their evening walks through the streets; in another, some desperate-looking men, whom one would rather not meet in a lonely alley of a dark night, and who glance at us suspiciously as we pass by. In general, however, we are not noticed.

The seamstress opens the door at our rap, and meets Mr. P. in a very friendly manner. We are invited in, and chairs placed for us, and she introduces her aunt, with whom she occupies the room — all done as quietly and easily as any lady would do it.

This sewing woman Mr. P. had known in better days. She was the daughter of a religious, educated man, and by his sudden death had been left to support herself with her needle.

There were some other sad things about her life which I did not enquire particularly into — a love and promised marriage, and then the affair broken off, which had all left a gloom upon her.

She seemed about twenty-eight years old, in full womanhood — a striking, noble face, with black waving hair, a rich complexion, and a full, dark eye — which no lively talk seemed for a moment to relieve of its sad, wearied expression. She is one of the best shirt-sewers in the City. She works from six in the morning till eleven at night. Sometimes at stitching five shirts a-day, and earning usually $3.50 a-week; her board and washing costing her from $2 to $2.50 per week.

We asked how she could bear such steady work. She said she had not lost a day for two years and a half.

Her aunt added to us, that she would very often sew and then go to bed because she was so weak, and then get up and sew; but "sometimes she could hardly work for crying so!"

She laughed, and said "she very often pulled herself up in her bed to work; and at one time her eyes had suffered so that she could not see a person across the street, but they were better now."

I do not knew, but I believe our eyes were a little dimmed, as we thought of the weary hours of toil, which must have blurred such bright eyes as hers.

Mr. Pease was trying to induce her to go into an, establishment he could procure her, where she could earn just much as she earned now, without working in the evenings, and on easy, plain work.

She feared to change. There was always so much risk in changing. He assured her there would be no risk; and here, if she wanted a spare day occasionally, she could have it. No, she never wanted spare days; she would think of it and thanked him much.

Before we went, she told Mr. P. of an employer to whom she had lately been, who doubted the testimonials of character which Mr. Pease had procured her.

Her cheek flushed, and the dark eye gleamed as she spoke of the suspecting questions of the man, "until at last," said she, "I told him I would do no work for him at any price, after such impertinent questions."

You do not know it — ye in the City, who pay the scanty wages and squeeze the enormous profits from the needle woman's toil — that often her honor is as sensitive, her reputation as dearly bought and as carefully cherished as that of your own wives and sisters. It is easy to drop the base, insinuating word, which shall rankle in her heart more than all your legalized exactions and oppressions.

As we went out, she lighted us down through the winding stairways. "What would you do way up here in case or a fire?" said Mr. P.; for it seemed almost impossible for anyone to find his way out in case of any confusion. "There is a passage over to the next roof," she answered.

As we worked our way out into the cheerful, lighted, streets again, I felt a sensation of relief.

"You see how a religious woman works," said Mr. P. "She knows what is behind her; and yet she probably never saves more than fifty cents a week, and always has the tremendous chance of sickness before her."

"But what becomes of such women?" said I.

"God only knows," he replied. "Sometimes they marry, though usually men much lower and coarser than themselves; generally they work on. Many die young; others you find sometimes the last destitution, in the lowest haunts of the City; and, alas! very many end in the brothel and the syphilitic hospital. They disappear from all knowledge of any one. God help them!"

"GOD HELP THEM!" say I, from my heart, for Man seldom will.

-- C. L. B.

Walks among the New-York Poor, New York Times, October 11, 1852, Wednesday, Page 1, 1593 words


[1] Two posts so far: Collect Pond and the origins of Five Points and an office on Reade Street.

[2] This is the Reverend Dr. De Witt in an address given during the dedication of the "Old Brewery" Methodist Mission at Five Points:
Here a spring of life will be opened, with its purifying influences. There are buildings in other parts of the city — for the rich; but have we not been neglecting the masses? Have we not been too much, like the Priests and Levites, avoiding the degraded classes? This effort in this locality seems to have originated in the spirit which actuated the Saviour, and thus far to have been crowned with His blessing. May this be the origin of a reviving spirit in the Churches!

The gospel applies to all, but to the poor and wretched of this world it is especially adapted. The impression that those residing in this locality were too degraded to be benefitted has tended to paralyze Christian effort. The gospel is for the poor, and it will be deteriorating to the higher classes if reformatory influences are neglected among the lower classes.
-- The old brewery, and the new mission house at the Five Points (Stringer & Townsend, 1854)
[3[Five Points: the 19th-century New York City neighborhood that invented tap dance, stole elections, and became the world's most notorious slum by Tyler Anbinder (Simon and Schuster, 2001). Tyler Anbinder teaches history at George Washington University.

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