Category Archives: Five Points

An Introduction to the Criminal Neighborhoods Map

I. Introduction

New York City Below 14th Street, 1893
New York City Below 14th Street, 1893

Location is primary and immediate in identifying crime. The format of a news alert makes essential the “what” and “where” for citizens’ precaution and for the attention of authorities. Outside of their primary functions, criminal reporting, as well as perhaps a separate perception of crime, have seldom appeared to be homogeneously distributed in space in socio-political theory. As early as 1833, in the first American translation of Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville’s book, On the Penitentiary System in the United States and Its Application in France, New Yorker Francis Lieber claimed simply in his introduction that “cities produced more crime than rural regions”. The theories of influence Lieber accounts, including those that population “size equaled deviance” were questioned since American Urban Analyst Adna F. Weber in The Growth of Cities.  Weber’s analysis went beyond sheer measures of population to refine theories of crime’s causality, relating nefarious activity to the number of saloons and bars per capita, to public anxieties and infrastructural decay from overcrowding, and to the development of shared ideology in packed spaces, with basis in German Analyst Dr. George Hansen. Though these theories held some clout during the 19th and turn of the 20th centuries, many are objectively fallacious (Erik H. Monkkonnen counted the conflation of a greater sample size in a populated city with more crime per capita). In his study on homicide cases in New York City in the late 19th into the turn of the 20th century, Eric H. Monkkonen asserts that Lieber’s and Weber’s analyses are empty abstract logic. Though their theories are unfounded, independent of actual observation and analysis of urban populations, some social clout was falsely created when observable realities were rationalized in academic work to fit the theory. Of Webner’s analysis in 1833, as well as the mistake of conflating sample size with inflated crime per capita, Monkkonnen finds that “if this was popular perception, which then was reinforced by sociological theory, and then, after the mid twentieth century, even came to be true, these confluences may be the source of our misconceptions. By the mid twentieth century, the association of big cites with crime had changed to conform to the theory [that] big cities did tend to have more crime per capita.”

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The Five Points Neighborhood and the Emergence of the Criminal Class in 19th Century NYC

The “criminal class” in late 19th Century, as defined by Timothy J. Gilfoyle, consisted of “professional criminals whose livelihoods derived exclusively from illegal activity.”[1] Yet, this label did not apply to wealthy professional criminal figures such as Boss Tweed, whose crimes were “an open secret in political circles.”[2] Instead, the low-life “‘rats, ‘gamins’, ‘Arabs’, ‘urchins’, and ‘gutter-snipes’” were actively sought and incarcerated in prisons such as the Sing Sing Penitentiary.[3] The distinction between these two types of “professional criminals” was not based on the magnitude of the crime, but the power and background of the criminals themselves. Since making an honest living “was predicated on access to certain social networks,” the impoverished were significantly more likely than others to resort to a life of crime.[4] For example, pickpocket George Appo grew up in “probably America’s most impoverished urban neighborhood”, Donovan’s Lane — part of the infamous Five Points ghetto.[5] The neighborhood of Five Points, throughout the 19th century, was “rife with vice, crime, and misery” and hence served as a neighborhood harboring the “criminal class” — that is, poor, desperate youths who engage in criminal activity to make a living as a result of both limited resources and early exposure to an environment in which other criminals exist.[6]

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Crafting Criminal Community: The Rise of Gangs in the Five Points Neighborhood

The deplorable conditions of the Five Points neighborhood in 1829, the low-life impoverished criminals which resided in it, and the increasingly powerful corrupt figures seeking to take advantage of that situation coincided in the 19th century, thereby expediting the formation of gangs at that time.[1] In a sense, the “criminal underworld” as described in Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York was a self-sustaining machine: the Five Points neighborhood fostered criminality, the low-level criminals sought asylum in one form or another from corrupt officials, and the corrupt officials utilized the low-level criminals to achieve their own ends, thereby solidifying the criminality of the Five Points neighborhood.[2] This environment of structurally supported crime allowed for the development and advancement of formalized gangs in the Five Points neighborhood. The dynamic served to help the gang bosses both to profit more extensively from crime, and distance themselves from the actual acts, for which the lowest-status criminals tended to be prosecuted.

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