The Newtown Pentacle

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Archive for July 19th, 2010

Mulberry Streets

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

Note: The series of posts you’re about to see, over the next few days, are offered as a notebook- sort of a work in progress. When I get something wrong, please let me know, as this is a learning experience for your humble narrator.

The “Bloody Sixth” provides a certain context, in my mind, for why the vast numbers of people left Manhattan for points east and populated Brooklyn, Long Island City, and Newtown. In many ways, we live in the wreckage of their utopia… here in the Newtown Pentacle.

This is an image of a Mulberry Street Tenement from the

Harper’s Weekly of September 13, 1873, from the Library of Congress:

A familiar illustration, it’s linked to by many people, and is provided for context- although it is difficult to read the actual text- even in the larger version attained by clicking the image. It describes a visit to a Mulberry Street Tenement and it’s “back house” in the upper drawing, and an inspection of a fruit market set up along the sidewalk in the lower.

This is a short post, but likely interesting to long time readers and antiquarians…

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Exiting from St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, I noticed a surprising relict of the ancient sixth ward. The bloody sixth, as it was called by sensationalist and muckraker alike, was famous for the smaller structures that landlords would erect in their back yards in order to maximize their real estate. So called “back houses” were once a common sight, but were the worst places to live- as they shared their living space with the outhouses and privy drains of the larger structure and the enormous population housed therein and most were in perpetual shadow.


The worst thing in New-York from a sanitary point of view is the rear tenement. It kills more people than war or famine in proportion to its opportunities. It is a sure lurking place for dirt, disease, and death.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

For some reason, the progressives of the 19th century were horrified by open air markets set up along the sidewalk. On modern day Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, one can observe similar merchant activity to that described by Jacob Riis and others- little shops set up in hallways and along the sidewalk, any hole in the wall- by an insular people loathe to let go of their customs and language.

Other Riis terminologies like “Tramp Burrows”, “Jewtown”, and “Heathen Temples” trample upon modern political corrrectness, however, and will most likely be trimmed from future discourse.

Moving about the sixth ward in 2010, one might happen across a Chinese grocer offering alien vegetables of unknown specie, who barely hides her umbrage when the Gwai Lo tourists ask “What’s that?”. Many sidewalk vendors were noticed to have displayed signs that say “photos $2”.

from wikipedia

Gwai Lo (鬼佬) literally means “ghost man” (the word “ghost” refers to the paler complexions of stereotypical Caucasians). The term is sometimes translated into English as foreign devil. The term arose when the first group of Europeans appeared in China as they were associated with barbarians . For several thousand years, Chinese people had the image of its borders continuously breached by “uncivilized tribes” given to mayhem and destruction. The term was popularised during the Opium Wars in response to the Unequal Treaties. In Southern parts of China, the term gwai lo was used. In Northern parts of China, the term (Western) ocean ghost ((西)洋鬼子 (Xi) Yangguizi) was used, Europe being West of China.

Also of interest, this is a digitally retouched and colored image found in the Public Domain over at Wikimedia Commons, representing Mulberry Street in 1900:

My belief – if the signage displayed in the above photo is accurate and 88 Mulberry Street means the same thing now as it did 110 years ago- is that this is the corner of Mulberry and Bayard Streets, looking uptown from below Canal Street with Five Points behind the camera. Obviously, the photographer had someone watching his back.

from wikipedia

The street was named after the mulberry trees that once lined Mulberry Bend, the slight bend in Mulberry Street. “Mulberry Bend is a narrow bend in Mulberry Street, a tortuous ravine of tall tenement-houses… so full of people that the throngs going and coming spread off the sidewalk nearly to the middle of the street… The crowds are in the street because much of the sidewalk and all of the gutter is taken up with vendors’ stands”.”  For the urban reformer Jacob Riis, Mulberry Bend epitomized the worst of the city’s slums.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

My 2010 shot looks downtown toward Five Points from the far end of the scene above, at Mulberry and Grand Streets in modern Little Italy’s “main street” restaurant row, and at the infamous “Mulberry Bend”.

from wikipedia

Much of the neighborhood has been absorbed and engulfed by Chinatown, as immigrants from China moved to the area. What was once Little Italy has essentially shrunk into a single street which serves as a tourist area and maintains few Italian residents. The northern reaches of Little Italy, near Houston Street, ceased to be recognizably Italian, and eventually became the neighborhood known today as NoLIta, an abbreviation for North of Little Italy. Today, the section of Mulberry Street between Broome and Canal Streets, is all that is left of the old Italian neighborhood. The street is lined with some two-dozen Italian restaurants popular with tourists, and seemingly very few locals. Unlike Chinatown, which continues to expand in all directions with newer Chinese immigrants, little remains of the original Little Italy.

Written by Mitch Waxman

July 19, 2010 at 12:05 am

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