If ever there was a good year to read , 2016 is it. A meticulous social history, Five Points documents the impact of immigration and racism as they impact a New York neighborhood in the mid-19th Century. From nativism to the spectre of African-American equality to looking for the perfect “outsider” in local politics, Tyler Anbinder's Five Points is a distant mirror to our own times. Much of the early history centers on the Irish, on the growing influence of Tammany Hall, and the path to political power through the fire and police forces - of it playing out in the kind of squalor that can only seem somewhat preferable through comparison with life on the Ould Sod.
The overcrowding in Five Points boardinghouses was terrible… 'as thickly covered with bodies as a field of battle could be with the slain.’ In many of these establishments, lodgers slept on two-tiered bunks, which often consisted of canvas stretched between two wooden rails. When business was brisk, proprietors created a third tier by placing other customers on the floor underneath the lowest bunk. Others slept on bed frames covered with straw. Cellar lodging rooms were both crowded and, with so many dirty lodgers squeezing into windowless bedrooms, filthy and smelly as well. ‘Without air, without light, filled with damp vapor from the mildewed walls, and with vermin in ratio to the dirtiness of the inhabitants …they are the most repulsive holes that ever a human being was forced to sleep in.’
Walt Whitman, in his post as editor of a Democratic organ called The Aurora, militated against Catholic immigrants in words that presage Donald Trump’s drug-peddling, raping Mexicans:
Democrats should not submit to a ‘coarse, unshaven, filthy Irish rabble…’ Describing Catholic priests, Whitman asked, ‘shall these dregs of foreign filth – refuse of convents – scullions from Austrian monasteries – be permitted to dictate what Tammany must do?’ …No…because if Democrats yielded to ‘the foreign riffraff…there will be no end to their demands and their insolence.’
There are early instances of Irish Americans protesting emancipation on the grounds that “equality as soldiers means equality at the ballot-box, equality everywhere,” resulting in the Irish being “degraded to a level with negroes.
The level of corruption, fraud, and even violence in elections make Citizens United appear deceptively benign.
It’s not all bad. There are interesting sections outlining the beginnings of the settlement house movement, programs and legislation designed to force landlords to provide better housing, or at least to prevent them from dangerously overcrowding their tenements. As in all social change, advance was glacial. It’s a miracle that so many of our early immigrants, those who came in hope and those who came in chains, survived this rough initiation.
Five Points is a good introduction to the American history that has little to do with great men or battles or even congressional floor fights. It’s a story of people who became Americans, and whose concerns and prejudices were annealed in one of the steamiest cauldrons of the melting pot. No wonder so many of their descendants retain these early lessons in survival. That so many others survived to see better days and to learn better of their neighbors is a tribute to the promise of an America where anything can happen. The Five Points is a case study in where we have been, and a warning of where, if we aren’t careful, we could find ourselves once more.