Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Africatown, Irishtown, Italiantown, Chinatown

Chinatown where things can be bought cheaply has one of the richest histories in New York.

When the city walls only extended to Wall Street, the area north of today’s City Hall was the city’s first Hamptons. There was a beautiful spring fed lake surrounded by hills called The Collect Pond. (from the Dutch Kalach) It’s the area where all the courts stand today in Foley Square. Eventually it became the place where cattle were watered and then slaughtered. The pond was contaminated and quickly became a Colonial Superfund Cleanup site.

By the time of the American Revolution the northern boundary of the city was where City Hall stands today. North of that in the undesirable area “outside” the city was where Little Africa was situated. Today just 3 blocks north of City Hall you can find the African-American Burial grounds. The site was uncovered, literally, when the Government Services Administration was digging the foundation for a new office building. To learn its history go to

It’s a physical reminder that New York played a major part in the slave trade. And that parts of the area that is today called Chinatown was once Little Africa.

The story of Manhattan is all about real estate. (After all, it originated with a “$24” real estate deal.) It wasn’t long before speculators got the idea to drain the pond, level the hills and dump them as fill. Guess what the name of the street is that marks the location of the old canal? Yup that’s where Canal Street got its name.

A veritable Levittown of 2 story homes was built stretching all the way up past Mott Street. One problem, the springs that fed the Collect Pond were still flowing. The houses began sinking. And so with them the asking price. Presto, chango instant slum.

In the 1840’s waves of Irish fleeing the Potato Famine began landing down at Battery Park. (This was pre-Ellis Island.) They’d simply walk up Broadway behind City Hall and find Little Ireland. They’d find lodgings in basements or cram 8 and 10 to a room. A building and its outhouse meant to service a family of 8, now had 30 or 40 inhabitants.

The Irish lived amongst the Africans. And the sight of Irish women living with Black men became a must-see for the Upper Crust who went slumming on Sunday to see how the other half lived. Abraham Lincoln and Davey Crockett both took the Five Points tour. Crockett cracked he felt safer with Injuns.

The center of the neighborhood was at a spot where five streets converged and thus the name Five Points came into being. The modern street grid has eliminated one of the streets but if you stand on the south side of Columbus Park you’ll be at the spot that New Yorker Martin Scorsese tried to replicate in his film Gangs of New York. By the way you’ll find the church that was attacked up in Nolita at Prince and Elizabeth. Old St. Patricks. It gives you an idea of how big Little Ireland was. And the movie was correct in depicting nativist gangs from over by the Bowery, "The Bowery Boys" making bloody forays into the Points.

Where the park stands today there originally stood ramshackle 2 story houses with grog shops in the basement. When Charles Dickens visited the US he took the obligatory slum tour. He walked away with two things. One was he said he found the inspiration for Jacob Marley’s ghost from the wailing of an emaciated prisoner in the Tombs, a nearby prison. The other thing he was impressed with was a show that he witnessed in one of those basement dives. He saw black men performing a strange dance. When the Irish moved into the hood, the African-Americans saw the micks doing a jig and from that invented Tap dance.

Eventually these small buildings would all be replaced by 6 story tenement buildings. The plot where Columbus Park is situated was packed with them and was once called the most densely populated area in the world. They were torn down in an urban renewal project and since by the 1930’s the area was Italian it was named Columbus Park.

One block to your left is Baxter Street. In the 20th Century archeologists were examining the site of an old outhouse. There you could determine the diet of the inhabitants, whether they ate beef, chicken etc. They were perplexed when they came across monkey bones. Did the Five Pointers consume monkeys? Historians set them straight and explained that when this was Little Italy this was the street where you could rent an organ and a monkey and hit the streets for spare change. Here’s an interesting article from 1889 about Organ Grinders:

And here’s an interesting blog post about the subject:

If you walk across Columbus park to Mulberry street and look at the shop signs you’ll notice behind the Chinese signs you can still make out the Italian names underneath when Mulberry Street was the Wall Street of Little Italy full of Italian banks. One of those banks is still open the Stabile bank at Mulberry and Grand. It’s the site of the Italian-American museum and it’s right around the corner from the Museum of the Chinese in America, which gives wonderful walking tours of Chinatown.

The story of the area is an old one; the Irish drove the African-Americans out,the Italians followed the Irish into this new Catholic area, the Irish left for Hell’s Kitchen and the Chinese wound up around Mott Street in the late 1800’s. When they were finished building the railroads The Chinese Exclusionary Act was passed which forbade any more Chinese from entering the country. Which was why Chinatown was quite tiny until the 1970’s when immigration laws were loosened.

Now Chinatown has spread North, East, South and West and is about to devour Little Italy. And in Chinatown itself, you’ll find pockets of Little Saigon and Little Malaysia that are growing.

It’s an old story that echoes down the sidewalks of New York, New York, New York.

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