There is something so profoundly moving about mapping the history of a place or a person. Reading about someone’s life and then finding the area where they walked, lived, and toiled sends waves over my heart and fills my eyes with tears. I’m not sure why…perhaps I feel it connects me to that person or persons, and to an artist who often feels disconnected from others this is immeasurably valuable.
So, in this vein, downtown Manhattan is my favorite part of the city and the Five Points/Collect Pond area is one of my favorite places within it. For my Artist Date (I’m going through The Artist’s Way at the moment with a couple of friends), I took myself down those crooked streets and breathed in the salt and the smoke of the American Dream in the frigid winter air.
You may be familiar with this area either through Martin Scorsese’s fantastical Gangs of New York, or through Jacob Riis’ harrowing book “How the Other Half Lives”, but even if you’re not familiar, you may have walked through the area numerous times and not known it carries the history that it does. The landscape has almost completely changed, commemorated only with street signs and plaques. The curve of Mulberry’s Bend is still there, as are two of the “Five Points” (named for the five streets that met there), but the infamous slum that rested in the Mulberry Bend block was razed in 1896. Mulberry Bend Park replaced it and today carries the name Columbus Park. Other surrounding tenements and buildings such as the Old Church Tenement and Five Points Mission (formerly The Old Brewery) have been replaced by the towering structures of the New York City’s justice system.
The first time I walked south from Canal on Mulberry street in search of the infamous Five Points district, some eight or nine years ago, my heart began to race. What would I see there? What ghosts would I find lingering in those tenement bricks? What tales would whisper from those oft-wandered alleyways? I expected to see renovated tenements carrying a plaque of some sort commemorating the great suffering and societal abandonment that took place there. I hadn’t Googled the area because at the time, “Googling” something was not the force of habit then as it is now. Had I done so, I would have learned that the entire area had all been razed years ago. It had grown into a breeding ground for crime, pestilence, and disease and the city had deemed it an eyesore. As I approached, a beautiful, newly updated park greeted me and my heart sank. This forsaken society created by the lure of the American Dream and our ongoing social inequality had been forgotten. They’d been reduced to a smudge on our nation’s mirror we’d wiped off to see ourselves more, or less, clearly. The moment I saw history erased was a moment ripe with disappointment and I longed for those people to be remembered…until the sound of children playing brought me back to reality. I realized that the little ones who lived in that squalid block of apartments would probably be delighted to see that the darkness they lived in had been replaced by the brightness of Columbus Park. They might be thrilled to know that no child would ever have to live in the conditions they were familiar with. Or perhaps they would also mourn their forgotten struggle to survive. In any case, the Five Points now exists only in books and hard-luck stories passed down from generation to generation. In its place is weathered hope.
If you’re interested in reading more about the history of this area, here are some of my favorite links:
“How the Other Half Lives” excerpt on AuthenticHistory.com
Columbus Park history on NYC parks website
Five Points “then and now” photos on Scientopia.org
“The Five Points” commentary by Gregory Christiano on Urbanography.com
Archaeological site on The Five Points area
Great historical blog on the LES