The Newtown Pentacle

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Bandits Roost, 2010

with 4 comments

- photo by Jacob Riis (or one of his associates) found in the public domain at wikipedia, of Bandits Roost- 59 1/2 Mulberry Street, 1888

This is one of those iconic images from the dawn of the photographic era, the sort upon which entire scholastic careers and political memes are based. It purports to show a group of street toughs at the Mulberry Bend, which Riis described as the very heart of the manifest evil that was Five Points. The part of the Lower East Side described in the 1980′s as “Alphabet City” was similarly described as hell on earth by politicians and journalists, but it was actually an ok place- which makes me wonder…

For the purposes of this post though, it is one of those truly rare historical captures that lists a street address, so I headed down to Mulberry and Bayard Streets to see if I could find the spot… however… Riis and his allies in the municipality oversaw the obliteration of Five Points and its wonders, and there is no 59 1/2 Mulberry street in modernity (entire streets were demapped, or had their names changed- the actual Mulberry Bend is now Columbus Park), so I was forced to get a little “batman” on this one…

from nycgovparks.org

Columbus Park was named in 1911 after Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), the Italian explorer credited with discovering America, or at least with awakening Europe to the opportunities there.  Bounded by Baxter (formerly Orange), Worth (formerly Anthony), Bayard, and Mulberry Streets, the site has alternatively been named Mulberry Bend Park, Five Points Park, and Paradise Park.  Columbus Park is situated in the heart of one of the oldest residential areas in Manhattan, adjacent to the infamous “Five Points” and “The Bend”.

Until 1808 the site for the park was a swampy area near the Collect Pond (now Foley Square) and hosted a set of tanneries.  In 1808 the pond was filled and became Pearl Street. When the filling began to sink, a foul odor emerged which depressed the living conditions of that neighborhood. As a consequence, the area became host to one of the world’s most notorious tenements, known for its wretched living conditions and rampant crime, earning such names as “murderer’s alley” and “den of thieves.”

- photo by Mitch Waxman

The east side of Mulberry Street still exists, and as evidenced above- this is 62 Mulberry- a modern day parking lot.

also from nycgovparks.org

Mulberry Bend Park was planned in the 1880’s by Calvert Vaux, co-designer of Central Park.  Vaux saw this park as an opportunity to bring new life and order into the depressed neighborhood.  Riis remarked of Vaux’s newly designed park that it is “little less than a revolution” to see the slum housing replaced by trees and grass and flowers, and its dark hovels infused with light and sunshine and air.  The park opened in the summer of 1897, with bench-lined curved walkways and an expansive, open grassy area.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Just next door- this is 60 Mulberry-

from focpny.org

We have a growing “RAT” problem at Columbus Park and the surrounding neighborhood. The Health Dept. has been doing “RAT” Indexing (research) and hear is what they are saying…

“Columbus Park after years remains a challenging situation………..

  • There is an extraordinary amount of food trash left in baskets each day and night;
  • abundance of litter within the park that does not get collected on a regular basis;
  • many restaurants along Mulberry Street place out their trash each night and the rats have easy access;
  • and the park is located over very old subterranean lines of sewer, and even old streams. These subsurface areas no doubt serve as partial replenishes for rat control achieved at surface level. Many of the restaurants on Mulberry have failed for having rats on their premises; and thus there is likely a back and forth swapping of the rats from Columbus Park to Mulberry Street basements.
  1. Baiting alone will NOT get this done. In fact, long term, it exacerbates it.
  2. There also appears to be a hawk which is using the park for easy pickings of the rats; and so the Parks Dept will need to weigh in on “the risk to the hawk” if any large scale baiting is done. They will need to make the call.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Just next door- this is 58 Mulberry- so, spinning on my heels at that point equidistant between 58 and 60 Mulberry…

Coincidentally, 58 Mulberry has a back house, according to the NYCDOB, and is an “old law” tenement. Check out this nytimes.com article from 1881 which describes Mayor Grace’s tour of the block and includes a description of #56 Mulberry as “a tenement house of the worst class”. And also- this one which discusses the mortality rate on this block in 1884.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

This is 56 Mulberry today, but I’m uncertain as to whether this is the original structure which Grace visited.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

This entrance to Columbus Park must be 59 1/2 Mulberry Street, Bandits Roost.

from wikipedia

Old Law Tenements are tenements built in New York City after the Tenement House Act of 1879 and before the so-called “New Law” of 1901.

The 1879 law required that every inhabitable room have a window opening to plain air, a requirement that was met by including air shafts between adjacent buildings. Old Law Tenements are commonly called “dumbbell tenements” after the shape of the building footprint: the air shaft gives each tenement the narrow-waisted shape of a dumbbell, wide facing the street and backyard, narrowed in between to create the air corridor. They were built in great numbers to accommodate waves of immigrating Europeans from troubled nations. The side streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side are lined with dumbbell structures.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

I ask myself, how would Riis have described this 21st century gathering of amiable asiatic card players at 59 1/2 Mulberry Street?

from wikisource.org, “How the other half lives, by Jacob Riis”

Abuse is the normal condition of “the Bend,” murder its everyday crop, with the tenants not always the criminals. In this block between Bayard, Park, Mulberry, and Baxter Streets, “the Bend” proper, the late Tenement House Commission counted 155 deaths of children in a specimen year (1882). Their per centage of the total mortality in the block was 68.28, while for the whole city the proportion was only 46.20. The infant mortality in any city or place as compared with the whole number of deaths is justly considered a good barometer of its general sanitary condition. Here, in this tenement, No. 59 1/2, next to Bandits’ Roost, fourteen persons died that year, and eleven of them were children; in No. 61 eleven, and eight of them not yet five years old. According to the records in the Bureau of Vital Statistics only thirty-nine people lived in No. 59 1/2 in the year 1888, nine of them little children. There were five baby funerals in that house the same year. Out of the alley itself, No. 59, nine dead were carried in 1888, five in baby coffins.

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Written by Mitch Waxman

July 20, 2010 at 12:05 am

4 Responses

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  1. [...] Ideal source material for the textural and societal milieu of the Five Points is the admittedly biased “How the Other Half Lives” by 19th century do-gooder Jacob Riis. Speaking the truth that power wants to hear is always a sound move if one considers fiscal realities and historical reputation. Attempts were made to find the modern locale in which Riis shot some of his more famous shots, such as this visit to “Bandits Roost 2010“. [...]

  2. [...] Read about his search for the site–and the long history of the Bend–here. [...]

  3. Thanks so much for doing all that investigation and sharing it. My Great-Great-Grandfather lived at 53 Mulberry Street prior to moving to Brooklyn approximately 1879. It was quite a treat to read all that material. He lived there with his wife and daughters. They were Irish emigrants from County Mayo.

    Liz

    June 26, 2011 at 8:40 pm

  4. [...] Act of 1848, but the majority of the dead coming to Queens were from a sausage grinder called the Five Points and the Tenth Street Ferry was how you got from points A to B for the [...]


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