Black Gotham Stories

The Five Points

Five Points 1827, Intersection of Cross, Anthony and Orange Streets

The Five Points in 1827

In 1820 New York’s population counted approximately 120,000 whites and 10,300 free blacks; in addition, about 500 slaves still lived in the city, many of whom did not gain their freedom until slavery was abolished in 1827.   Most blacks—both the well-to-do and the lower classes—congregated in an area just to the east of Center Street commonly referred to as the Five Points; it was formed by the intersection of five streets—Mulberry, Anthony (now Worth), Cross (now Park), Orange (now Baxter), and Little Water (no longer in existence).   It was here that black New Yorkers lived, worked, and established their community institutions. 

Living conditions in the Five Points were appalling. Families crowded together in narrow streets filled with standing water, contaminated by uncollected garbage and open sewers, and lacking free circulation of air. They huddled in ramshackle dwellings, several families often occupying a single structure. The more fortunate lived on the upper floors, the less fortunate in cellars.  Both levels, but especially the cellars, suffered from dampness and poor ventilation. Given such unsanitary conditions, the Five Points became a fertile breeding ground for disease, especially tuberculosis, yellow fever, and cholera.

The Five Points was also home to poor whites, especially Irish immigrants.  To many outside observers, the place was a den of moral inequity where prostitution, thievery, murder, and perhaps worst of all miscegenation were rampant.   Visitors to the city, like Charles Dickens and Frances Trollope, made regular pilgrimages to the Five Points, decrying its slum conditions while at the same time sensationalizing its night life.

Dickens, Charles. American Notes for General Circulation. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1890 (Original edition, 1842).

Trollope, Frances. Domestic Manners of the Americans, 1832.