The Newtown Pentacle

Altissima quaeque flumina minimo sono labi

vital principles

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- photo by Mitch Waxman

This is Mosco Street, corner of Mulberry. Once upon a time, this was one of the Five Points.

from forgotten-ny.com

The notorious Old Brewery was located on Cross Street just southwest of Five Points at Anthony (now Baxter) and Orange (now Worth) Streets. It was renamed Park Street in the late 1800s. The city replaced the crowded tenements in the area partially due to the pleas of reformer Jacob Riis; the street was named for Columbus Park, which replaced the slums.

Today, Cross/Park Street, which in the 1840s had run continuously from Reade Street near Elm (now Lafayette) to Mott, has been mostly wiped out, first by Columbus Park and then by the New York County Courthouse in 1926. The last remaining section, between Mulberry and Mott Streets, was renamed Mosco Street in 1982 for Lower East Side community activist Frank Mosco.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Fascinated by the municipal powers that were, this is where the other half lived, and the reason that grandparents all over Brooklyn and Queens admonished their successors to avoid “downtown”. A shudder would rifle through my own grandfather whenever the subject of dining in Chinatown or Little Italy would come up, and he wanted nothing to do with the Lower East Side. There was a reason that he settled the family in the then tony city of Brooklyn, with its vast oceanic skies and its convention of siting structures in the center of a “lot” to facilitate and provide yard space.

from r2.gsa.gov

Named for the points created by the intersection of Park, Worth, and Baxter streets, the neighborhood was known as a center of vice and debauchery throughout the nineteenth century. Outsiders found Five Points threatening and fodder for lurid prose. Describing a visit in 1842, Charles Dickens wrote: “This is the place: these narrow ways diverging to the right and left, and reeking every where with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruit here as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home and all the wide world over. Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays. Many of these pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright in lieu of going on all-fours? and why they talk instead of grunting?”

- photo by Mitch Waxman

Despite the reputation and hazards of Manhattan’s immigrant neighborhoods, it was still a difficult endeavor to get my Grandmother and her sisters to leave the city for the “country”.

The grand nature of early 20th century architecture in the outer boroughs, as extensively commented on by our friends at Forgotten-ny and other antiquarian blogs, was necessitated by the reluctance felt by a generation of immigrants to leave “the city”. The reason that apartment houses in old LIC, and the entire East River coast of Brooklyn in fact, are so wonderfully appointed and decorated was to overcome this notion.

Migration south and east toward the Jamaica Bay, and points north and due east were also marked by distinctive and monumental structures- look at Ocean Parkway or the Grand Concourse for existing contemporaneous parables- compare with Long Island’s Sunrise Highway and the New Jersey Turnpike for modernity’s version.

from urbanography.com

When the landfill started to decay in the 1820’s the wood frame houses began to tilt over and sink. It became infested with mosquitoes and disease; the decent residents moved out, those who remained became impoverished and victims of slum lords, gangs and ruthless politicians looking for easy votes.  Personal safety was compromised and a person was in constant threat of being robbed or worse.  Beginning with the “Old Brewery” – a building that was converted to an apartment house, the floors were partitioned into small flats, rented to the poor and seedy characters.  Each room had whole families, cooking, eating, and sleeping in this one room.  It was a ghastly sight with squalid living conditions.  The same situation prevailed throughout the district – the lower floors usually for drinking, dancing, gambling, and riotous behavior.  Many people were robbed, beaten or shanghaied. In the cellars (they were called “cellar dwellers”) were the “oyster saloons,” which were kept open all night luring fresh, unsuspecting victims.  This neighborhood was a dangerous place to live in and visit.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

This court house, to the best of my ability to scry the past, was pretty close to the site of the famous Five Points House of Industry, which should have stood in the spot where the small tree at the center of the shot stands.

A work house in the Dickensian caste and set piece for the movie and broadway adaptations of “Lil Orphan Annie“, it was a bleached presbyterian home for wastrel children who were called “Street Arabs” by the monied middle class which was horrified by the depravity of the early capitalist system. Simply put, it was an orphanage with a built in factory wherein the kids would earn their supper. Stories of the sometimes nefarious methods used by the kids otherwise, whether street performance, or joining a gang, made such institutions seem like the only hope for the children of Five Points. Despite the denominational nature of the institution, it was operated in a non sectarian manner due to the largely catholic population it served.

from How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis at wikisource

Two powerful agents that were among the pioneers in this work of moral and physical regeneration stand in Paradise Park to-day as milestones on the rocky, uphill road. The handful of noble women, who braved the foul depravity of the Old Brewery to rescue its child victims, rolled away the first and heaviest bowlder; which legislatures and city councils had tackled in vain. The Five Points Mission and the Five Points House of Industry have accomplished what no machinery of government availed to do. Sixty thousand children have been rescued by them from the streets and had their little feet set in the better way. Their work still goes on, increasing and gathering in the waifs, instructing and feeding them, and helping their parents with advice and more substantial aid. Their charity knows not creed or nationality. The House of Industry is an enormous nursery-school with an average of more than four hundred day scholars and constant boarders–“outsiders” and “insiders.” Its influence is felt for many blocks around in that crowded part of the city. It is one of the most touching sights in the world to see a score of babies, rescued from homes of brutality and desolation, where no other blessing than a drunken curse was ever heard, saying their prayers in the nursery at bedtime. Too often their white night-gowns hide tortured little bodies and limbs cruelly bruised by inhuman hands. In the shelter of this fold they are safe, and a happier little group one may seek long and far in vain.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

You’ll really need to click through to the larger incarnation of this and the following shot. These are stitched panoramas, meaning that I took a series of photos from a single point, and used photoshop to blend them together into something that would normally require an extremely wide angle lens to capture otherwise. At flickr, you can view the “all sizes” versions and see the gargantuan originals. The above image is composed of 13 fifteen megapixel images, for instance.

You’re looking at the complex of courthouses and municipal buildings which the City erected over its shame, which is referred to as Foley Square or the Civic Center in modernity. Dead center of the shot is what I believe to be the actual Five Points.

also from How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis at wikisource

. . . Blocks were rented of real estate owners, or ‘purchased on time,’ or taken in charge at a percentage, and held for under-letting.” With the appearance of the middleman, wholly irresponsible, and utterly reckless and unrestrained, began the era of tenement building which turned out such blocks as Gotham Court, where, in one cholera epidemic that scarcely touched the clean wards, the tenants died at the rate of one hundred and ninety-five to the thousand of population; which forced the general mortality of the city up front l in 41.83 in 1815, to 1 in 27.33 in 1855, a year of unusual freedom from epidemic disease, and which wrung from the early organizers of the Health Department this wail: “There are numerous examples of tenement-houses in which are lodged several hundred people that have a pro rata allotment of ground area scarcely equal to two-square yards upon the city lot, court-yards and all included.” The tenement-house population had swelled to half a million souls by that time, and on the East Side, in what is still the most densely populated district in all the world, China not excluded, it was packed at the rate of 290,000 to the square mile, a state of affairs wholly unexampled.

- photo by Mitch Waxman

This stitched panorama, which accomplishes something beyond the scope of the human visual range, is a complete circle of my vantage point on the corner of Baxter and Worth streets. Worth is at the left and far right of the composition, Baxter at the center and Columbus Park in the mid right.

from wikipedia

Foley Square is a green space in lower Manhattan, New York City. The space is formed by the intersection of Duane Street, Lafayette Street, Centre Street and Pearl Street, and — by extension — the surrounding area in lower Manhattan on the site of the historic Five Points neighborhood and is named after a prominent Tammany Hall district leader and local saloon owner, Thomas F. “Big Tom” Foley (1852-1925). Originally, the land that forms Foley Square was in the middle of Collect Pond, which was one of the original fresh water sources for the City of New York, but was drained and filled-in in 1811, by which time it had become severely polluted and implicated in typhus and cholera outbreaks.

Foley Square is dominated by its surrounding civic buildings, including the classic facades and colonnaded entrances of the 1933-built United States Courthouse, fronted by the Triumph of the Human Spirit Memorial by award-winning artist Lorenzo Pace, the New York County Supreme Court, the Church of St. Andrew, the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse (known before 2003 as the Foley Square Courthouse), where the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is based, the New York County Municipal Building, the Foley Square Federal Office Building and the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building and Court of International Trade.

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Written by Mitch Waxman

July 22, 2010 at 12:05 am

2 Responses

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  1. [...] dangerous tenements of “The City”- especially the warren which was known as the “Five Points“. Additionally, Calvary Cemetery (of particular interest to me, and perhaps, to you) was [...]

  2. [...] percentage of those colorful characters who populated the “Bloody Sixth Ward” of the Five Points in 19th century New York. Here lies the Newsboy Governor, the “Original Gangster“, and [...]


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