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Visitors Describe the Five Points Neighborhood

Many visitors—journalists, reformers, middle-class tourists hoping to brush up against the masses—traveled through the Five Points neighborhood in Manhattan in the nineteenth century. They left these observations.

Charles Dickens’s account of his visit in 1841 published in American Notes:

…Poverty, wretchedness, and vice are rife enough.…Here, too are lanes and alleys, paved with mud knee deep; underground chambers where they dance and game…hideous tenements which take their name from robbery and murder, all that is loathsome, drooping and decay is here.


Writer and literary critic Nathaniel P. Willis after visiting the Five Points in the mid 1840s:

I had never before any adequate idea of poverty in cities... I did not dream that human beings, within reach of human aid, could be abandoned to the wretchedness which there I saw.


Writer, abolitionist, and reformer Lydia Maria Child toured the Five Points in about 1844 and wrote about her visit in Letters from New York:

Morally and physically, the breathing air was like an open tomb! How souls or bodies could live here I could not imagine….There you will see nearly every form of human misery, every sign of human degradation. The leer of the licentious, the dull sensualism of the drunkard, the sly glance of the thief-oh, it made my heart ache for days.


Scandinavian writer, Frederika Bremer, saw that conditions varied within Five Points, sometimes even within a single tenement, but concluded that:

…lower than to the Five Points it is not possible for human nature to sink.

Five Points’ Methodist missionaries on the Old Brewery, home to poor and criminal residents of the Five Points:

No language can exaggerate its filth or the degradation of its inmates.


National Police Gazette on the Old Brewery:

Here is vice at its lowest ebb, a crawling and fetid vice, a vice of rags and filth….the wickedest house on the wickedest street that ever existed in New York, yes, and in all the country and possibly all the world.

Solon Robinson, a reporter for the New York Tribune on the Old Brewery:

…every room was a brothel or a den of thieves, or both combined.

Source | Tyler Anbinder, Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections and Became the World's Most Notorious Slum (New York: Free Press, 2001) 32-33, 34, 67.
Creator | Various
Item Type | Book (excerpt)
Cite This document | Various, “Visitors Describe the Five Points Neighborhood,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed July 21, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/604.

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