New York is a city composed of five Boroughs that include dozens of neighborhoods with histories often unrecognized by their modern residents. As the city grew from its origins on the southern tip of Manhattan Island over several centuries, it enveloped and altered what had been separate communities and erased the reasons for their original names.

For example, when I was first married, I lived in Morningside Heights, an innocent community name for the site of Columbia University and several related academic institutions; Union Theological Seminary, the National Council of Churches headquarters, Riverside Church, and two more major cathedrals; and — incongruously — the tomb of Civil War general and President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant.

What was incongruous about Grant’s Tomb was that Morningside Heights was not involved in the Civil War, but was, however, an actual battlefield in a different war when Morningside Heights had a different name. During the American Revolution, the Battle of Harlem Heights took place there, and Washington’s victory in that battle allowed the Colonial Army to escape across the Hudson from its failed defense of New York against the British. Entrapment there probably would have ended the Revolution almost before it started.

Harlem Heights was changed to Morningside Heights, I suspect, because the racial public relations connections of the earlier name of Harlem Heights were problematic even at the start of the Twentieth Century when the so-called “academic acropolis” of the city was taking shape there.

The name change certainly fooled me, and my only excuse is that it’s hard to see the obvious importance of terrain when you mostly travel through it underground in a subway. Still, in the months before my marriage I lived in an apartment building whose rooftop garden looked out over the edge of the plateau a block east of the Columbia campus. It was the plateau that made the Heights a defensible place for Washington to make his stand, but I never related my home to the battle maps I’d seen.

Even more obliviously, I walked through the Barnard College campus from the 116th Street #1 subway stop to our apartment for almost three years after our marriage, and I never realized the campus was once the wheat field sloping down toward the Hudson that had been the scene of the heaviest fighting of the battle. That’s how quickly history gets forgotten.

Several weeks ago I was introduced to another forgotten part of New York:  the Five Points neighborhood of the city.  The local cable movie network was showing the 2002 Martin Scorsese film that was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, Gangs of New York. Since memories of New York were still too painful for me in 2002, I’d avoided the movie in its theatrical release, but I decided to watch it now when it appeared on the channel guide. I wasn’t sure until near the end of the movie whether Five Points was a real place, since some of the actual historical characters appearing in the movie seemed almost caricatures. And if Five Points was real, I was pretty sure it must have been somewhere on the East River or near the harbor where Manhattan is closest to other complex shorelines that might be considered “points”.

Again, I had been fooled by the city’s changing geography. There hadn’t been water involved with Five Points for a couple of hundred years. When the city had been established, there had been some fairly high hills in the central portion of the southern end of the island, north of the new settlement. In a low area between the hills, a fresh water “collect pond” existed — although its size and depth would have led anyone who grew up in Michigan as I did to call it a “lake” instead — that became a major source of drinking water for the city during colonial times.

The “collect pond” also became the fresh water source for the industry of the era (which was mostly agricultural-processing related), and the place where the industrial waste from the processing was dumped. Not a good idea!

Unsurprisingly, the pollution gradually overwhelmed the lake’s outlets to the East River and the Hudson and turned the area into a health hazard. By the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, the collect pond had to go, and so the hills around it were leveled and used to fill in the lake. Just like some modern middle class residential home development, the collect pond became the equivalent of a Nineteenth Century New York suburb, even if it was still in Lower Manhattan. However, because the lake boundary had originally served as a termination point for roads running from both southern and northwestern lake shores,  one simply couldn’t impose a single, consistent rectangular grid of streets throughout Lower Manhattan. An extra road running into the central intersection of the area became the “fifth point”.

By 1811, the project was completed, and hardworking, upwardly mobile American families profiting from the city’s wealth moved into the area. It seemed like a success story, until the old lake bed began to reassert itself. Although not appreciated at the time of the fill, if you bury acres of agricultural wastes under dirt in a moist environment, those wastes are going to rot. You’re going to get methane production and release, and those hardworking American families are going to find their homes subsiding, cracking, and shifting underneath them. Quite literally, there goes the neighborhood.

Families retaining the financial means to do so sold out and moved elsewhere. Those left behind saw their upward mobility blocked by events for which they could not be blamed and probably didn’t understand. Then, in addition to local geography turning against them, great social movements both in the United States and in Europe conspired to magnify their pain. With property values collapsed, the Five Points became a magnet for both the honest poor and for those who saw opportunity to prey upon them. As slavery was ended in New York by1827, newly liberated African-Americans flocked there. They were joined by a growing number of Irish emigrants in a wave that reached its peak in the 1840’s during the Great Potato Famine that killed a million Irish and led a million more to flee Ireland.

Even by 1832, population density, poverty, and lack of sanitation had made the Five Points a source of a cholera epidemic. Not understanding the disease’s connection to sanitation, cholera was attributed in the popular mind largely to vice. And the vice certainly became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Violence within the “community” became unimaginably savage as it splintered into anti-Catholic “nativist”, Irish immigrant, and African-American factions of competing agendas and shifting alliances. Gangs formed around strongmen who could offer some protection because of their capacity to organize violence or deliver voting blocs to political machines such as that of Boss Tweed. The machines, in turn, were seeking control of the larger city and even drew power from the state and the national agendas.

In 1834, anti-abolitionist riots began in resentment by those in the burgeoning slum who felt they were paying the price — and the only ones in the North paying the price — for the causes being advocated by well-intentioned Protestant civic leaders. (As early as 1831, there had been calls to raze the Five Points, but with precious little thought to the question of “then, what?”; people had already forgotten the lesson of filling in the collect pond!) The rioters targeted specific well-to-do reformers, but the demands expressed were for the deportation of former slaves back to Africa, and their fury ended up being directed in burning African American churches. The riots ended after four days only with a show of force by armed militia.

But worse was to come. In 1857, rampant corruption under Mayor Wood led to charges that appointment to head the city’s police force had been purchased through a huge bribe (it being taken for granted that corruption within the police force offered such opportunity for wealth as to make even a huge bribe worth the price). The state government passed laws replacing the old police force with a new one, and the two police forces promptly began rioting against each other.

With the “city’s finest” otherwise engaged, competing gangs in the Five Points took the opportunity to settle scores with each other. That lit the spark for a more general spree of looting in the area as the Five Point gangs were joined by independent criminals from many areas of the city.  The looting again could only be stopped when military forces were brought in.

By 1861, of course, the country had plenty of employment for individuals with a capacity for violence. People coming into New York from Ireland could bypass places like the Five Points and go directly into the Army. However, that was very much a case of the proverbial “out of the frying pan and into the fire”.

The Civil War was a situation where defensive military technology trumped offensive military technology. Rail and telegraph permitted the Confederacy with interior lines to move reserve troops strategically much faster than battlefield breakthroughs could be seriously exploited by Union soldiers marching by foot. Increasingly accurate rifle and artillery fire at long range, and the lack of armor to shield advancing troops turned even low stone walls and small rivers into formidable defensive positions. That kind of warfare chews up soldiers, and tends to inhibit volunteering from among those with neither ideological nor personal stake in the war’s outcome.

As the War’s economic and human costs mounted, and it turned into ever more of a grinding war of attrition (and then into a total war of economic destruction), people in the Five Points became more and more resentful of the attention going into preserving a Union in which they did not benefit, or in freeing more slaves whom they saw only as more future competitors for the Union’s crumbs.

The old abolitionists found a voice in the brand new Republican Party, leaving the city’s Democratic machine and the nativists scrambling to jettison those parts of their former constituencies they could no longer afford to support without having their former national power base. The machine leaders were on the wrong side of history — but they weren’t going to be the ones to pay if they could help it.

In 1863, in connection with the Emancipation Proclamation, a mandatory draft law was passed that directly affected even those in the Five Points whose political connections had previously protected them. Only the rich (and African Americans, who were still not citizens) could avoid the draft, but it was relatively easy for those groups to do so.

The Five Points erupted again in July, and again the violence quickly was turned toward African Americans who were considered the cause of the war and toward Republican institutions among the city’s well-off that opposed slavery. African Americans caught by the rioters were beaten, lynched, and burned.

Inequality in paying the costs of obtaining equality trumped the idealism of equality itself and brought forth violence as the rioting spread to more and more areas of the city over four days. Again, military units were called in, but these were hardened troops just back from Gettysburg. They were in no mood for a mere show of force, and far too disciplined to retreat under any attacks by a mob opposed to what they’s just been through hell on earth to fight for. Not only rifles, but Gattling guns and artillery were used against the rioters in the city to put down the largest insurrection in US history save the American Revolution and the Civil War itself. It is certain that the number of civilian wounded were in the thousands; civilian deaths were certainly in excess of one hundred, with Herbert Asbury, who wrote the book Gangs of New York from researching newspaper reports from the time, suggesting the death toll itself was about 2000.

Eventually, after the War, African Americans in the city separated themselves from the Irish and began to concentrate on the Upper West Side and on the north end of Manhattan Island — for example, in a place that was known as Harlem. And that brings us back, full circle, to the explanation of why I used to live in a place called Morningside Heights instead of Harlem Heights, and maybe even why the Civil War’s most famous Union commander is buried closer to Harlem than to the heart of the city.


The night after seeing the movie, which culminates in the Draft Riots, my wife and I met a couple from Texas for a dinner related to my wife’s music studio. The conversation turned to immigration because the Texan wife had once been an armed Border Patrol employee who had some opinions on illegal immigration I had not expected. When it also turned out that the husband had watched Gangs of New York at the same time I had, the movie became the framework for some interesting discussion of the similarities with current problems on both America’s southern border and in the Mid East.

In both cases great geopolitical events have sent populations fleeing into lands peopled by other, very different cultures unprepared to absorb them into existing social and economic structures. There is a justice to the demands of the refugees, and an injustice in the cultures from which they are fleeing, that appeals to the better ideals of those in power over the lands of refuge.

But addressing this particular injustice is only one of the interests of powerful people. There are always other ideals, and often other very non-idealistic motives competing for their attention. The rot in the lake bed of the collect pond begins to reassert itself, and economic resources move away from the problems of integrating the refugees. The problems snowball, while many of the idealists move to save someone else, and the malignant see opportunity to exploit the situation for personal gain. Both refugees and existing inhabitants find themselves in competition, and then in conflict, as they are left to pay so much of the cost of the integration, while the most malignant do everything possible to maintain the antagonism that keeps them in power.

Do you see the similarities of roles between Nineteenth Century New York and the world of the Twenty First Century? Do you see ways to turn the situation on the US Southern border into a “win-win” before it becomes a “win-lose” or, worse, a “lose-lose” scenario? What about the evolution of the Arab spring, a situation that is already drawing in the agendas of many more parties than in Mexico? Are we fated to see the Gangs of New York coming to life again and again, or can we be far-sighted enough to avoid the remake?