New York Challenged
The Citys Response to Crisis and Change from Colonial Times
Documents C & D - Five Points
Document C - New
York Magdelen Society, First Annual Report. Instituted January
In 1831, John R. McDowell, a missionary working in the Five Points for
the American Tract Society, published a report claiming there were ten
thousand prostitutes in the city. With the patronage of several wealthy
women he began the New York Magdalen Society to construct "houses
of refuge" for redeeming "abandoned women" who had turned
to prostitution. For McDowall and the Magdalens, the object of reform
was the individual, whose fall from grace was the result of moral weakness,
not poverty. Redemption was to be accomplished through strict obedience
to scriptural proscriptions, but the Magdalens were the first moral reformers
in the Five Points to identify the complicity of the slum environment
in encouraging, if not causing, immoral behavior.
The exorbitant rent of houses, compels them [European immigrants] to occupy
a narrow space of house room for their families. One or two rooms is generally
as much as one family can afford; thus boys and girls lodge in the bedchamber
with their parents, and one room serves for cooking and eating; the children
are driven off as early as possible into the streets to run like wild
colts. Thus they grow up ignorant, idle, and disobedient to their parents.
They make bad apprentices and worse citizens. Money is the only object
they ever desire to obtain, and for that object nothing is too mean and
scarcely any thing dishonest if the can evade the laws... The girls grow
up thus, associating with their depraved brothers, ignorant, vain and
idle. Conscious of no other distinctions in society than externals, they
look with envy on their wealthy neighbors, and essay every art to equal
them in dress and expense. This lays the basis of their ruin, and at and
early age makes them easy prey to the profligate libertine. Nay, many
of these girls assist their parents with the wages of their shame....
Another source of this horrid crime arises in the custom of requiring
security for house rent. this compels women to resort to some means of
obliging a friend to obtain a roof to shelter her family. men are not
generally willing to risk their money for pure friendship; yet security
must be had...
Document D - Petition to Have the Five Points Opened," Board of
Assistant Aldermen documents, October 24, 1831
The first calls for demolishing the Five Points came in 1829, in a petition
signed by several merchants, predominantly owners of property along western
Anthony Street. The petition called for widening Anthony and Cross Streets,
and extending Anthony to Chatham Square, thus destroying all of the buildings
on the narrow triangle of land just west of the intersection of Anthony,
Cross, and Orange, formed by Anthony, Cross and Little Water Streets.
(see figures 3 and 5) By the time the Common Council approved the widening
of Anthony and Cross in 1831, nearly two-hundred "owners and occupants
of property in the vicinity of Five points" had signed
memorials "pleading" for the widenings as a means of eliminating
the buildings on this triangle of land, to be "appropriated to public
purposes." But it is important to note that the moral tone of the
introduction gives way to practical concerns in the conclusion. The real
problem was that the Five Points was not just a den of iniquity, but a
den with propinquity.
That the place known as "Five points" has long been notorious...as
being the nursery where every species of vice is conceived and matured;
that it is infested by a class of the most abandoned and desperate character...
are abridged from enjoying themselves in their sports, from the apprehension...
that they may be enticed from the path of rectitude, by being familiarized
with vice; and thus advancing step by step, be at last swallowed up in
this sink of pollution, this vortex of irremediable infamy."
In conclusion your Committee remark, that this hot-bed of infamy, this
modern Sodom, is situated in the very heart of your City, and near the
centre of business and of respectable population... Remove this nucleus-
scatter its present population over a larger surface- throw open this
part of your city to the enterprise of active and respectable men, and
you will have effected much for which good men will be grateful.
to return to the course syllabus.