Five Points District the location of New York City’s first free Black settlement

By greatbritton

Five points district was originally the location of New York City’s first free Black settlement. By the 1850 the Five Points district in lower Manhattan was known for its bars, dance halls, gambling houses, prostitution and mixed race clientele. However, to the white community, the Five Points was a threat to the dangers of race mixing, racial and social order.

To white missionaries and reformers, the area was a mission field, but to most middle class Black residents of the city, the Five Points was an embarrassment.  In retrospect, the Five Points simply reflected the changing geography of poverty and race within New York City as working-class Irish immigrants moved into and “whitened” previously all-black areas.

The area located one block off Broadway in New York’s Sixth Ward and named for its location at the intersection of five different streets. The area was a hotbed of crime and engendered, in large part, by a sensationalistic discourse advanced by journalists and travel writers.  The Penny Press of the 1830s, for example, scoured police reports and court cases for evidence of interracial socializing and sex within the Five Points. Reporting on prostitution or domestic violence between mixed raced couples received prominent play in the newspapers. Over time, journalists started to link the increasing poverty and crime of New York City to these incidents of “amalgamation” between the races.

Charles Dickens added to existing concerns about the connection between poverty and racial mixing when he visited the Five Points during his American tour.  Dickens observations, published in American Notes for General Circulation (1842), put a black face on poverty within the Five Points and created a new genre of “travel” writing aimed at voyeuristic middle-class readers.  Other writers following in Dickens’s path were even more vociferous in establishing the connection between interracial mixing and crime and in laying blame for this racial mixing on Black people despite the fact that black businesses often rented space from white landlords and that black-owned brothels and dance halls catered to middle-class, native-born whites in addition to working class whites and blacks.

White reformers, in turn, took their cues from journalists and travel writers and justified their outreach programs in the Five Points on the basis of the city’s perceived moral decline.  In 1991 the area was once again the focus of journalistic inquiry with the discovery of thousands of artifacts dating from the mid-nineteenth century during the construction of the Foley Square Courthouse.  Renamed Foley Square after a Tammany Hall politician, the area now houses buildings such as the U.S. Courthouse and the Foley Square Courthouse.


McNally, D. (2007, December 02). Five Points District, New York City, New York (1830s-1860s).

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