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Five Points, Manhattan

Five Points (or The Five Points) was a notorious slum centered on the intersection of Worth St. (originally Anthony St.), Baxter St. (originally Orange St.) and a now demolished stretch of Park St. on Manhattan island, New York City, USA. The name Five Points derived from the five corners at this intersection. The neighborhood took form by about 1820 next to the site of the former Collect Pond, which had been drained due to a severe pollution problem. The landfill job on the Collect was a poor one, and surface seepage to the southeast created swampy, insect ridden conditions resulting in a precipitous drop in land value. Most middle and upper-middle class inhabitants fled, leaving the neighborhood open to the influx of poor immigrants that started in the early 1820s and reached a torrent in the 1840s.

At Five Points' height only certain areas of London's East End vied with it in sheer population density, disease, infant and child mortality, unemployment, violent crime and other classic ills of the destitute. But to characterize Five Points as a pure wasteland would be misleading, for it had a certain rough vibrancy that gave rise to some of the more admirable aspects of modern American life. It was the original melting pot, at first consisting primarily of newly emancipated African Americans and newly immigrated Irish. The confluence of African, Irish, Anglo and, later, Jewish and Italian culture, seen first in Five Points, would be an important leavening in the growth of America.

The fusion of the Irish jig with the basically African shuffle gave rise in the short term to Tap Dance and in the long term to a music hall genre that was a major precursor to American Jazz and Rock and Roll. This fusion occurred in Five Points, almost certainly at Almack's dance hall (also known as "Pete Williams's Place") on the east side of Orange St. (today's Baxter St.) just south of its intersection with Bayard St., circa 1840. This ground is today occupied by Columbus Park, used primarily by residents of modern Chinatown.

The rough and tumble local politics of "the ould Sixth ward" (Manhattan was at the time divided into "wards", with most of Five Points in the Sixth), while not free of corruption, set important precedents for the election of non-Anglo-Saxons to key offices.

Although the tensions between the African Americans and the Irish were legendary, their cohabitation in Five Points was perhaps the first large scale example of grassroots racial integration in history, with the possible exception of the integration of Spanish 'caucasians' with the people they conquered in Cuba, Mexico and Peru in the 16th century. In the end, the Five Points African American community moved to Manhattan's West Side and to the then undeveloped north of the island, but the years spent pursuing daily life alongside the Irish in Five Points and, later, alongside Jews and Italians in the same neighborhood, helped create a sense of common purpose among these minorities which even today manifests itself in the liberal wing of the American political spectrum, especially the Democratic Party.

About 1880, slum clearance efforts succeeded in razing Five Points and re-purposing the land-- a pyrrhic victory in that the masses of the indigent simply moved to the nearby Lower East Side.

The neighborhood was featured in Martin Scorsese's 2002 film Gangs of New York. The definitive history of Five Points is Professor Tyler Anbinder's "Five Points: The Nineteenth-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections and Became the Worlds Most Notorious Slum", ISBN 0684859955.

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