18th-century Manhattan was a decidedly beautiful and peaceful place. Home to roughly 30,000 people in the years just after the Revolutionary War, New York was a far cry from the glass-and-cement jungle of 8 million it has become today. It was a relatively pristine utopia of rolling hills, old-growth trees, and babbling brooks ambling into a series of small ponds.
One of the more notable of these ponds, which was actually fed by an underground spring, became known as “Collect Pond.” For nearly two centuries after the Dutch first settled Manhattan Island, Collect Pond was the bustling village’s main source of water. It covered approximately 50 acres and was up to 60 feet deep in places. For a growing town, nothing was more important than a constant supply of clean, drinkable water, and the Collect Pond provided just that. And, as an interesting note, it was n Collect Pond that, in 1796, Connecticut inventor John Fitch tested the first successful steam-powered paddle boat. Later iterations of this invention would revolutionize American industry.
The success provided to the city by the pond would actually lead to its own degradation, however. As New York grew and sprawled northward, various forms of less-than-reputable industry began to spring up around Collect Pond and its adjacent streams. Various factories and breweries dumped their garbage and waste into the pond, and tanneries and slaughterhouses used it as a repository for their unwanted carcasses and animal by-products. By 1800, the formerly tranquil pond, on whose banks New York’s residents strolled and socialized, was a mar on the urban landscape: a stinking, festering cesspool of disease and death.
Just north of the pond stood the 110-foot-tall Bayard’s Hill, the highest point in lower Manhattan. The hill and surrounding land had, for generations, belonged to the Bayard family, who had hollowed the hill out to be their family crypt. Some time in the 1790s, however, the family correctly foresaw the changing nature of their once-peaceful patch of earth, and moved their deceased loved ones to burial plots elsewhere in the city. When, in the first years of the 19th century, engineers began flattening Bayard’s Hill to prepare it for development, it was discovered that a “rag man” had moved into the empty crypt and made it his macabre home. Feared by most, misanthropic and odd-looking as he was, he was left to live out his days beneath the hill. He was found dead in his bed: the last resident of the Bayard family crypt.
By 1811, Bayard’s Hill had been completely leveled, its dirt dumped into Collect Pond. Where once was New York’s main source of water and lower Manhattan’s highest point, there now sprawled dozens of acres of newly-developable land. The city had tripled in size from 1790-1810, growing from 33,000 to nearly 100,000 in just 20 years, and developers were quick to snap up the new plots. Streets were paved sirectly over the old pond, and tenements went up, into which thousands of new and impoverished immigrants poured.
But the filling-in of Collect Pond had been done shoddily at best; the spring which once fed it continued to flow below ground, creating a soggy, mosquito-plagued neighborhood that only New York’s most desperate and destitute would inhabit. Misery begets misery, and in due time, this area, known as “Five Points” due to the five-pronged intersection which lay at its center, became one of the most notorious slums in the history of New York. Vegetation from Bayard’s Hill buried in the former bond began to rot, releasing methane gas and causing the ground to settle over time. Buildings shifted and fell crooked, streets became muddy and uneven, and without an adequate drainage or sewage system, the gutters and sidewalked flowed freely with human and animal excrement.
Five Points was America’s first “melting pot,” and the phrase was coined to describe its unprecedented mix of Irish, German, Jewish, and Italian immigrants living side-by-side with a community of newly-emancipated African-Americans (their descendants would eventually move uptown, ultimately settling in what is now Harlem). But with so many people from so many backgrounds living in such squalid conditions with such little police oversight, it was inevitable that Five Points would become riddled with crime on a scale previously unfathomable.
The Old Brewery, an infamous tenement just east of what was the Collect Pond, was rumored to have housed roughly “1,000 debauched poor,” and averaged “a murder a night for 15 years.” While these numbers may be flagrant exaggerations, they serve to underscore the fact that nothing about life in Five Points was pleasant. A more verifiable story to tug at your heartstrings was that of a little girl who lived in the basement of the Old Brewery along with about 25 other beggars and vagrants. She was stabbed to death in her sleep over a penny she had earned through begging. Her body remained slumped in a puddle of blood for five days before her mother finally dug a shallow pit in the basement floor and buried her in it.
Charles Dickens described Five Points in his 1842 travelogue, “American Notes for General Circulation:
“What place is this, to which the squalid street conducts us? A kind of square of leprous houses, some of which are attainable only by crazy wooden stairs without. What lies behind this tottering flight of steps? Let us go on again, and plunge into the Five Points. This is the place; these narrow ways diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruit as elsewhere. The coarse and bloated faces at the doors have counterparts at home and all the world over. Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken forays. Many of these pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright instead of going on all fours, and why they talk instead of grunting?”
New York’s melting pot continued to increase in tension along racial and nationalistic lines. Roving bands of men and boys from various backgrounds fought for turf and superiority. They would become immortalized in Herbert Asbury’s 1928 book The Gangs of New York, which was later adapted into a film by Martin Scorcese. The Bowery Boys, the Roach Guards, and the Dead Rabbits made their livings through robbery and extortion, and they frequently collided violently with one another as they battled over territory and influence. According to Asbury, roughly 82,000 people were arrested in 1862 alone: more than 10% of the city’s entire population.
In 1863, as the Civil War raged across the nation, anger at new draft laws forcing mostly poor men, who couldn’t pay their way out of service, to the front lines came to a head in Five Points. The Draft Riots, as they’d come to be known, evolved over several days into an all-out race riot, with white men attacking black men and black-owned institutions at will. All told, multiple thousands of people were wounded and more than 100 were killed, including at least 11 lynched black men. Damage to property stretched into the many millions, and at long last, the city was given the final push it needed to root out the problems plaguing the long-beleaguered district.
In the 1880s, Danish-American photojournalist Jacob Riis began publishing articles which would eventually become his landmark book, How the Other Half Lives. Riis brought photographic equipment into the darkest, most depressed blocks and buildings of the Five Points district, and exposed their plight to the ignorant, wealthier population of New York. Shocked and embarrassed into meaningful action, the city demolished scores of unsafe and dilapidated tenements, including the infamous Old Brewery, and turned many of them into parks and open spaces.
The neighborhood’s fortunes gradually improved. Later generations of immigrants fled to better lives in other districts, and much of what was once Five Points was split between Manhattan’s industrious Chinatown to the east and the city’s imposing governmental buildings to the west. In 1960, a portion was what was once the Collect Pond was turned into a pocket park by the city, and is today known as “Collect Pond Park.” I doubt many people passing it on an average day over the following decades had any idea of its rich history.
In the early years of the 21st century, plans were drawn up to revamp the depressed and uninspiring little park. It is currently under construction, but once finished, will be fully landscaped, and include a small pond, evocative of its original tranquility. In 2012, after two long centuries, a Collect Pond will return to lower Manhattan.