"Gangs of New York": Fact vs. Fiction

by Ted Chamberlain
for National Geographic News
Updated March 24, 2003

Nominated for the Best Picture Oscar at the 2003 Academy Awards, director Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York brings to life 19th-century Manhattan's Five Points neighborhood. But what was it really like to live in what was once the world's most notorious slum?

View the Photo Gallery: Gangs of New York—Real to Reel>>

Good-time girls swing from rafters in oversize canary cages, sword-slinging mobs rule the streets, and murder lurks in every corner. This is Manhattan's infamous Five Points slum, inhabited by Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, and Daniel Day-Lewis in Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. But is it the real Five Points?

Digging through layers of sediment and stacks of records, archaeologists and historians are unearthing a truer, though no less compelling, picture of the neighborhood Charles Dickens called "a world of vice and misery."

When Dickens reported on Five Points in 1842, the neighborhood was on the edge of an explosion. Spurred on by the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s, waves of threadbare immigrants arrived in New York City with the wherewithal for only the most miserable lodgings—the drooping tenements of Five Points.

For the next two decades, the Irish ruled Five Points, overcrowding a roughly five-square-block area centered on the intersection of Cross Street (today's Park Street), Anthony Street (today's Worth), and Orange Street (today's Baxter). (See an 1859 view.)

In Five Points tenements, families and other groups lived crammed into one or two dark rooms. The outhouses were too few and often overflowing. Sewage and pigs ran in the streets. "The whole neighborhood just stank," says historian Tyler Anbinder, who wrote the book Five Points and reviewed the Gangs script for Scorsese.

Some holding camphor-soaked kerchiefs to their noses to ward off the stench, middle-class tourists would go "slumming" in Five Points—escorted by police—to see if the lurid tales given by reporters and missionaries were true.

"Five Points," wrote one Methodist reformer, had become "the synonym for ignorance the most entire, for misery the most abject, for crime of the darkest dye, for degradation so deep that human nature cannot sink below it."

Much of what was written in newspapers, tracts, and books, says archaeologist Rebecca Yamin, was colored by religious zeal, a desire to sell papers, or plain-old fear. "Middle-class outsiders looked at this neighborhood that was teeming with activity and street people selling food, and it was frightening. They just looked from the outside and assumed it was all very bad."

Exhuming Five Points

Yamin has as clear a view of tenement life as anyone. From 1992 to 1998 she led the team that analyzed 850,000 pieces of the Five Points puzzle—artifacts unearthed during the construction of a federal courthouse in what used to be Five Points. Housed at the World Trade Center, nearly the entire collection was destroyed on 9/11, but not before it had been inventoried for posterity.

Continued on Next Page >>


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