Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Five Points Of an 'Irish City'


In the 1963 study of immigrant succession in New York City, "Beyond the Melting Pot," Nathan Glazer and Daniel Moynihan wrote that "New York used to be an Irish city." Irish had lived in New York from its earliest days. But not until the famine migrations, beginning in the late 1840s, did New York become "an Irish city."

By 1855, nearly one-third of all New York City residents were Irish-born. William Tweed (of Scottish Protestant descent), "boss" of the Tammany Hall Democratic machine in the 1860s, and formerly an anti-Catholic nativist, rose to power by recognizing the political strength latent among the new Irish. To win them over, he placed Irish in key positions in the Tammany hierarchy. When Tweed's corrupt tenure abruptly ended in 1872, Honest John Kelly, an Irish Catholic immigrant, was poised to take the Tammany reins. For several decades, the Irish dominated New York politics — and for several decades the stereotypical New Yorker spoke with a brogue.

That it's hard to pick a spot in New York where some tangible sense of Irish history may be had is a measure of how thoroughly the Irish assimilated into the American mainstream. Yet Irishness imbues much of New York life. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, who was not struck by how many of the fallen firefighters and police had Irish surnames? It seemed as though the names might not have been much different in 1901. And New York has not, to this day, had a Catholic archbishop not of Irish descent.

The approach of St. Patrick's Day makes one ponder the remarkable role of the Irish in the building of New York City. A brief stroll through New York's Irish history might begin in front of one of the city's grandest edifices, the old Police Headquarters building on Centre Street, between Broome and Grand streets (pictured). This Hoppin & Koen building opened in 1909, when Irish utterly dominated the police force. The subsistence farmers of Ireland arrived in New York with apparently no urban skills. Irishmen therefore took heavy-lifting jobs, such as dock, warehouse, and construction work. But their seemingly alien skills — for oral storytelling (the "gift of gab"), or clandestine organizing (a necessity amid repressive British rule) — suited the Irish for success in organizational life, and they succeeded wildly in politics, in the church, in the police and fire departments, and in the public school system. The glorious, great-domed building on Centre Street was a monument to a force just a bit more than 60 years old, and one dominated for half that time by the Irish. (The department moved to the new One Police Plaza in the 1970s, and the old headquarters is now apartments.)

On Centre between White and Leonard streets stand "the Tombs," officially the Criminal Courts Building, a striking Art Deco design by Charles B. Meyers and Harvey Wiley Corbett from 1939. The original prison on the site went up in 1837. Its Egyptian style apparently led to the nickname "the Tombs." The building was adjacent to the filled-in Collect Pond, a freshwater lake (bounded roughly by Lafayette, White, Duane, and Baxter streets) that had become so polluted that the city drained it, along with the marshes that occupied much of what has become TriBeCa, via a drainage ditch constructed along what is now Canal Street. The drained hollow was filled by 1811, and a new neighborhood of respectable homes emerged in due course. The fill, however, proved unstable. Houses began to sink — as did "the Tombs."

The abandoned houses and other buildings of the neighborhood came to be occupied by the city's worst-off residents, many Irish immigrants among them. Sizable numbers of the native working class, German immigrants, and African-Americans also lived in Five Points, as the area was known for its five points at the intersection of Baxter, Worth, and the demapped Park Street. When the Irish arrived amid the famine migrations of the 1840s and 1850s, there were as yet few tenements — or purpose-built multiple-family dwellings. The poor were crammed into abandoned houses, with several families occupying space intended for one family. Others lived in cellars and squatters' shacks. Martin Scorsese's 2002 film "Gangs of New York" offers a vivid depiction of Five Points's physical conditions. An excellent historical book, dealing not only with the miseries but with the remarkable cultural synergies of the neighborhood where African-American and Irish folk dances blended into the new form called tap dancing, is Tyler Anbinder's "Five Points" (2002).

Today, nothing of Five Points remains. Columbus Park (bounded by Worth, Mulberry, Bayard, and Baxter streets) occupies much of it. Built as Mulberry Bend Park in 1897, the park came in response to calls from the crusading photojournalist Jacob Riis and others for the reform of the slums, and reminds us that urban renewal didn't begin with Robert Moses. The park took its current name in 1911, by which time the neighborhood had become heavily Italian. Between Worth and Pearl streets, to the east of Centre Street, a passageway runs behind the New York County Courthouse to an alley called Cardinal Hayes Place. In 1867, Patrick Hayes was born on this street, then called City Hall Place. His parents were from Killarney, Ireland, and he went on to become one of New York's most successful archbishops, presiding in the 1920s and 1930s when seminaries had to turn away prospective priests in droves. A founder of Catholic Charities, he was made a cardinal in 1924. New Yorkers deeply mourned his death in 1938. At the end of Cardinal Hayes Place stands the lovely Georgian Revival St. Andrew's Church, commissioned by Hayes, though not opened until 1939. It replaced an earlier church where Hayes had served as an altar boy. At that earlier church, services were held every midnight for the night-shift pressmen from the newspapers of Printing House Square, not least those from The New York Sun.

The Irish, one of history's immemorially poor people, at first suffered, and then thrived in New York. The economist Thomas Sowell calls it "Historically … one of the great social transformations of a people."

1 comment:

  1. I don't think the Irish should be stereo typed in the wrong light .My dad was a trdesman his whole life. The Irish are some of the harest working emigrants to ever reach our shore.


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