“Do you remember back in the Five Points
When the fire was in the air
The streets were hot as the hob of hell
The bodies was everywhere
Old Johnny jumped up on a burnin’ plank
And roared out to the sky
I didn’t come here to America to give up the ghost and die…”
The Five Points was the original melting pot – the first claw grip on the new world for many Irish immigrants. Already a force in downtown Manhattan by the 1830’s, they poured into its dismal streets during the years of the Great Hunger.
Set in the heart of the “Ould Sixth Ward,” the Five Points got its name from a confluence of three streets and five corners. You can even stand on the exact site at the intersection of Worth and Baxter but it would be hard to summon up the old throbbing vitality of life, for most of its seedy lanes and alleys are now covered by the courthouses of Foley Square and Chinatown’s Columbus Park.
But the spirit and influence of the Five Points live on. One could argue that the area spawned the election of our first black president, for it was in the Five Points that the newly arrived Irish cohabited with the entrenched African-American population - the first voluntary large-scale racial integration in American history.
Common law marriages between Africans and Irish were far from a rarity in the Points. This, allied with the general squalor, alcoholism and poverty greatly appalled Charles Dickens on his visit to the “world’s most dangerous slum.”
The great novelist and reformer, however, was enchanted by the music and dancing that he encountered in Pete William’s saloon where he witnessed the precursor of tap dancing as Irish jiggers competed with African shufflers. In fact, Master Juba, the first internationally recognized tap-dancer honed his chops in the Points during “challenge dances” with Irish John Diamond. Eventually, each man would receive the astronomical fee of $500 for their contests at the nearby Bowery and Chatham Theatres.
The music created by African and Irish players who performed for integrated audiences in Five Points’ saloons has been cited as a root of Jazz and Rock & Roll. That doesn’t surprise me for while forming Black 47 we were aware of Dickens’ account of Irish/African music collaboration – one of the reasons we set jigs and reels to hip-hop rhythms. Songs like Funky Ceili and Rockin’ The Bronx were echoes of those dancing days and carousing Five Points’ nights.
Dickens made much of the area’s poverty and turmoil, yet he overlooked the industriousness of its inhabitants. From child match-sellers and corn-on-the-cob hawkers, to mothers taking in washing and sowing, and fathers day jobbing, the Irish dragged themselves up from near destitution. One only has to check the records of The Emigrant Savings Bank to find that recently arrived Five Pointers saved diligently for eventual escape and a better life for their children.
As in every group there were good and bad, and the rioting that spread from the Points during the anti-Draft Riots of 1863 will always be a stain on our heritage. History however, is rarely black and white, and one should always factor in the prevailing conditions that led to such outbursts.
Within a generation, the Irish had organized and taken political control of the Sixth Ward and in 1880 they helped elect the first Irish Catholic Mayor of New York, William R. Grace.
There is no particular monument to the Five Points or its inhabitants, but on this coming Friday, June 12th in a night that will be “more Paddy than Patrick,” Shilelagh Law and Black 47 will celebrate these forgotten people during the Five Points Féile at the Knitting Factory on nearby Leonard Street (www.knittingfactory.com). Amidst a raucous hooley, if you listen closely enough you may hear this echo from across the years:
“I didn’t come here to America across the raging foam
To die like a slave in a pigsty, I came here to find a home
Where I could live in dignity, hold me head up high
So don’t go messin’ with me or me family
Or I’ll blow these Five Points to the sky.”