From Famine to Five Point
Five Points is, as the extended title boasts, "The 19th century New York neighborhood that invented tap dance, stole elections and became the world's most notorious slum." Unlike most subtitles that promise all by the moon and the stars, all these statements and more are absolutely true. The Five Points neighborhood quite literally defines the term melting pot, a mixture of cultures, faiths and political ideologies that was at one time volatile but also a source of amazing creativity. The cultural resonance of Five Points is something that is almost imperceptible. Consider that one of the most vicious of Five Points' many political or religious gangs was named the Bowery Boys, a name that was later given to a series of 1940's films featuring the capers of some good old boys from Five Points.
Being a lifelong Chicagoan, my mental map of New York City is not exactly reliable. It was a relief then to open the first page of the book and find a map of the region. Even after plumbing the depths of this book I still think I'd have a hard time finding some of the locales. Unlike Chicago, New York is more of a multi-layered metro-archeology than a city. Five Points peals back a hundred years of rewritten history to reveal the seedy brawling side of life in the 19th century.
Tammany Hall - the popular name for the democratic 'machine' that ran New York City - is perhaps the most immediate touchstone for the casual reader. In the late 19th century Tammany came under the thrall of one Boss Tweed who used political and just plain brute force to keep the machine in power. For most, the scandal is merely a dim memory from grade school history classes, but Anbinder takes the usually rather dull subject and enlivens it with details about the thuggery and street violence that allowed for political bosses like Tweed and street gangs to hold complete control over the city up to the highest levels of power.
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