In the 19th century, New York City became a center for immigrants that had come to the city looking for a better life. Most of them settled on or near ‘Five Points,’ the intersection of five streets in Lower Manhattan. This area became associated with some of the deepest levels of poverty in the entire United States. The list of crimes committed daily included stealing, quarrels and assaults. Shopkeepers sold questionable products, and the area was crammed with crumbling buildings, whorehouses and starving residents, struggling to survive.
Between the years of 1830 and 1900, the area went through great economic and social changes. The gap between middle and lower class citizens began to widen, and the higher levels of society strived to come up with ways to fix the slums. Originally people of Irish, German and African American descent all lived in blocks together, and they were joined by Chinese, Italians and other nations over the years. Even though there were many skilled workers among the residents, employment was seasonal and they were significantly underpaid for their labor. The number of unskilled people in the NY slums doubled that of other cities, and this continued to increase.
The area was a breeding ground for rats, pigs and other scavengers and the closely packed living conditions meant that there was a high level of disease among inhabitants. About 25% of the children were orphans and, as more people migrated, living conditions became worse and crimes escalated.
Five Points Fights
Some of the rivalry in the area turned into full-fledged criminal activities and fights became a regular part of life in Five Points. There were two main reasons that people fought:
Politics – Even though most of them were ethnically based, street gangs developed in the area partially due to their political association. These gangs initiated free-for-all fights for ballot boxes, or to drive away rival voters. They ‘belonged’ to politicians and maintained strongholds by ‘cracking heads.’ This was done using the ‘sling shot,’ a homemade weapon which consisted of a ball of lead shot from a sling.
Entertainment – Bare-knuckled prize fighting, illegal animal fights and minstrel shows (also known as blood and thunder plays) were popular forms of fighting for entertainment. The levels of the plays varied and many could be viewed in saloons or in The Bowery, the theater reserved for the working class.