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'Gangs of New York' Neighborhood Echoes with History - 2003-03-26

Gangs of New York was one of the most seen and talked-about films of the year, garnering 10 Oscar nominations. The movie focuses on clashes between Irish immigrants and so-called "nativists" in the volatile "Five Points" neighborhood of New York City.

Today, the intersection near the site of the World Trade Center suggests nothing of the poverty and violence that reigned here in the 19th century. Even the street names have changed.

Kathleen Hulser of the New York Historical Society says it was a neighborhood the city was eager to forget. "The buildings were still built of wood then, and they did not have indoor sanitation, they had outdoor "privies," she explained. "It was already low-lying, so the smell in the area was absolutely terrifying."

Now clustered with courthouses and government buildings, the Five Points was part of a larger area known as the Sixth Ward. Tyler Anbinder, author of the book, Five Points, said that although nothing is left of the Points as depicted in the film, much of the Sixth Ward is still intact. "Pretty much the southwestern half of the neighborhood is gone, but the other half, the north and east is still all there," he said. "Virtually every building there is 150 years old."

Residents of the Sixth Ward included freed slaves and the largest Irish population outside of Dublin. Over the years, poor immigrants who flooding in included Italians, Jews, and Chinese. Much of the area today is part of New York's flourishing Chinatown. The film Gangs of New York centers on street fights between Protestant Irish born in America, the so-called "nativists," and new Irish Catholic immigrants. But Professor Anbinder says that clashes like the one staged in the film's climax were not really about birthplace or religion, but about territorial control.

"That riot actually took place between the so-called Dead Rabbits and this other gang, the Bowery Boys," he explained. "But in real life it was a riot between two Irish American gangs fighting over Five Points turf, not a riot between nativist Protestants, on the one hand, and Catholic immigrants on the other. That is the kind of thing that I think could have been portrayed more accurately."

Over the years, artifacts from the Five Points section have helped historians understand its history. Historian Kathleen Hulser says that rich textiles and beautiful china and glassware found there indicate that not all residents of the Sixth Ward were necessarily poor. But she said the artifacts that remain foremost in her mind hint at the very worst living conditions.

"They also found something that is rather moving, and portrayed in the film, and that is a few skeletons of tiny infants who were probably the children of prostitutes working in a brothel located on that site," said Ms. Hulser. "Prostitutes working in the Five Points region could not afford to have babies. They would either have had a late term abortion when they figured out they were pregnant or, if they bore the child, they would have to destroy it."

Unfortunately, very few of these artifacts still exist. Peter Sneed, a project manager for the federal government, oversaw one of the few archeological digs conducted in the neighborhood, at a site now home to a new courthouse. He said the fruits of the project met an untimely end on September 11, 2001. "They catalogued about 900,000 individual items. And of that 900,000, all but 18 were lost in the destruction of the World Trade Center."

The Gangs of New York soundtrack includes a song, The Hands That Built America, by the Irish band U2. The song is about the role Irish immigrants played in American history. According to Professor Anbinder, the song and the film make an important point that is often neglected, that Irish Americans have achieved financial and political clout. "The Irish immigrants really had to fight for their fair share of what America had to offer," he said, "and that is a really important lesson."

By the 1920s, when Herbert Asner wrote the book that inspired Gangs of New York, the Sixth Ward had changed. The swampy land on which the Five Points was built was filled in. Homes had indoor plumbing. People had steady jobs. And the Irish gangs were gone, replaced by another of film director Martin Scorsese's favorite subjects, the Italian Mafia.