Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

Special Introductory Offer!
New York's Mythic Slum Volume 50 Number 2, March/April 1997
by Rebecca Yamin

[image] Artist's conception of the Five Points intersection in 1827, teeming with activity and lined with nefarious haunts, appeared in Valentine's Manual of Old New York 1855. [LARGER IMAGE]

Ninteenth century writers such as Charles Dickens and George Foster, a reporter for Horace Greeley's New York Tribune, described the lower Manhattan neighborhood of Five Points as a "nest of vipers." Their tales of saloons, brothels, street gangs, poverty, and crime made Five Points a place to be avoided and feared by the middle class. This titillating perception of Five Points has endured, creating the backdrop to best selling novels such as The Alienist by Caleb Carr and Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin. Recent archaeological work at the site of a new federal courthouse in Foley Square uncovered foundation walls, courtyards, cellar floors, backyard features, and nearly one million artifacts, including Staffordshire and French China teasets, children's toys, scraps of rags from rug making, and food remains. These meager possessions speak of the determination of newly arrived Irish, Eastern European, and Italian immigrants to maintain repectability no matter how difficult the circumstances of life in the crowded, unsanitary Five Points tenements.

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America