Hot Spots: Columbus Park. From a Lenape village, to the African Burial Ground. From Paradise Park, to Murderer's Alley and The Tombs. From Mulberry Lane, to Chinatown and a 40-story jail.

Contemporary relevance: As part of a plan to build 4 new jails at a cost of $8.7 billion to taxpayers, Mayor DeBlasio is on the verge of tearing down Chinatown’s existing Metropolitan Detention Complex (MDC) only to erect a 40-storey jail. MDC is the site of New York City's first-ever jail complex, known originally as The Tombs. It is no accident that The Tombs was constructed directly adjacent to what was known, at the time of construction, as Five Points, a historically black neighborhood that came to be heavily stigmatized as a black and Irish mixed community. As a result of race riots during the Civil War, a major portion of Manhattan's African American population fled from the area surrounding Columbus Park, finding refuge in Weeksville and other free black communities.
Columbus Park in Chinatown, 1975 [Nick DeWolf]
Chinatown, 1975 [Nick DeWolf]
Columbus did not find his way to India or China any more than he discovered America, which makes it all the more ironic that when Italian immigrants named this park after him, they had not a clue that Little Italy would become Chinatown.

Columbus went in search of China and India, did not in fact find China or India but arrived in the Western hemisphere and called the indigenous people here, what? Indians.

Columbus Park. An excruciatingly ironic name indeed, since this was a place where Native Americans lived, this place now called Columbus Park, in Chinatown. Let's go well beyond Columbus, and Hudson, and back about 400 years.

It's 1619, and the family group (within the Lenape nation) who live on the island are called the Manhattas. 3,000 people live in longhouses right around here. This park is a pond, fringed with thatch houses, corn fields, people at work husking and smoking oysters and fish. The Dutch arrive in 1609 and come to call the pond the Collect (a British transliteration from the Dutch Kalck Hoek, or "Chalk Hook") after the chalky oyster shells piled around the rim of the pond. These shells, sometimes thigh-high, are evidence of thousands of years of Lenape presence. The area around the pond must have been a peaceful place for all to fish and farm and walk around, because there is evidence that the Dutch came here to recreate as early as the 1630s.

But several decades after the Dutch take the tip of Manhattan, they wall themselves off from the Lenape, at the site of today's Wall Street, which means that to come up here, the Europeans have to cross through their own self-imposed border. But after the Dutch Governor try to "tax" the Lenape against their will, and then send colonists to massacre 120 people in order to force compliance, a state of war is established in 1643. First, the Lenape send a warning by skillfully setting all of New Amsterdam ablaze without killing a soul. When the Dutch West India Company doesn't get the message, 1,200 Algonquin invade. Most Dutch West India Company workers who had previously engaged in trapping and agriculture beyond the wall retreat into an increasingly crowded and polluted Fort Amsterdam. Barred from their farmlands and the principal sources of freshwater, the Dutch colony grows hungry and demoralized.
Re-imagining of the 1664 Castello Plan of New Amsterdam. [New York Historical Society]
In the crisis facing their captors, several Africans enslaved by the Dutch West India Company see an opportunity. First they ask for their freedom, and then they ask for land beyond the wall. Governor Willem Kieft sees the use of such an arrangement: The formerly enslaved Africans can act as a buffer, and grow food for the colony. They are no longer slaves, but they aren't exactly free, however -- the arrangement is based on the condition that the African landowners will grow a certain amount of food for the colonists and fight the Lenape in defense of the Dutch West India Company; if they fail to do so, they will be re-enslaved. In the 1660s, Peter Stuyvesant requests more slaves for the purpose of fighting Lenape: “They ought to be stout and strong fellows fit for immediate employment on this fortress [Fort Amsterdam] and other works; also, if required, in war against the wild barbarians, either to pursue them when retreating, or else to carry some of the soldiers’ baggage." It’s thought that rather than fighting the Lenape on behalf of their former kidnappers, some instead choose to settle here, close to the village of Werpoes.
1667 land grant to an African-American woman named Christina. The signature on the deed is of General Richard Nicolls, the first British governor of New York. [Mark Mitchell; History Detectives, PBS]
At first the British continue the practice of manumission paired with land grants, until around 30 land grants comprising 300 acres are owned by Africans. Thus the frontier beyond the wall comes to be known as The Land of the Blacks. Even after the black population finds their land deeds stripped, losing the right to land ownership following the first African revolt in 1712, the historic black presence in this area continues. Since their dead are not permitted inside the colony, the Africans bury their loved ones between here and the colony to the South. What was Werpoes, becomes the African Burial Ground.

(This is only discovered in when a municipal office building at 290 Broadway is about to go up. Thanks to the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979 -- for which Native Americans fight long and hard -- an archaeological dig is required first. 

By the way, 290 Broadway is the backside of 26 Federal Plaza, which houses the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. It also houses the USCIS - United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, and its 12th floor is full of courtrooms where deportation proceedings take place every day, all day long. Which brings us back to the question, Who is an immigrant? And who is native?, all over again.)
The Maerschalck Map of 1754 [Wikimedia Commons]

The Maerschalck Map of 1754
After the Dutch colony collapses, the English are able to easily take over, drive out the Lenape residents, and turn what had once been Werpoes and the Land of the Blacks, into a promenade ground. When America comes to be, the colony starts to grow northward. Settlers build a brewery here on the pond's edge, a tannery, there, and since at the time trash disposal consists of taking your garbage to water's edge and dumping it, it's no surprise that the lovely pond starts to stink. The solution is to fill up such a rank body of water with crates of garbage and rock, and to build a park and structures atop that "landfill".

1798 watercolor of Bayard's Mount, a 110-foot hillock at the Collect Pond, located near the current intersection of Mott and Grand Streets prior to its leveling in 1811. [Wikimedia Commons]
But the attempt to transform the Collect Pond into a park surrounded by buildings, fails. It is too deep to landfill properly, and the park becomes more of a swamp. The first calls to raze the area and start over come in 1831, on the part of business owners, just before the city is stricken with a cholera outbreak. The cholera epidemic happens to coincide with the arrival of mass waves of Irish refugees who emerge off the boat destitute, famished and no doubt, a bit sickly after such a dreadful experience at sea. The “founders” of the country flee north, abandoning Lower Manhattan to epidemics blamed on the arrival of the new immigrants. This area, still swampy and rank, becomes an "undesirable area".

Quickly it becomes an Irish and black neighborhood known as Five Points, and most notoriously, Murderer’s Alley. But is the way Five Points is seen, what it actually is? Do its inhabitants see themselves as they are seen? The neighborhood is also a place of exchange. Africans spill out from bars doing the Hustle, Irish spill out of bars doing the Jig, and out of that combination, right here, the legendary Master Juba invented tap dancing in the mix between the bars. Well to us that might sound like the kind of thing that distinguishes American culture, the kind of thing that makes America great, if you don't hate 3/4 of its population.

Only six years after the cholera epidemic, the city builds its first enclosed prison and gallows right in the heart of the neighborhood. Murderer's Alley leads straight to the building known as the “The Tombs”. The Tombs, built in the stink of the former Collect Pond, almost immediately sinks. And who does it house? Ask Dickens:

"What is this dismal-fronted pile of bastard Egyptian, like an enchanter's palace in a melodrama! - a famous prison, called The Tombs. Shall we go in?

...A man with keys appears, to show us round. A good-looking fellow, and, in his way, civil and obliging.

'Are those black doors the cells?'

'Are they all full?'
'Well, they're pretty nigh full, and that's a fact, and no two ways about it.'
'Those at the bottom are unwholesome, surely?'

'Why, we DO only put coloured people in 'em. That's the truth.'

...'Pray, why do they call this place The Tombs?'

...'Some suicides happened here, when it was first built. I expect it come about from that.'

'I saw just now, that that man's clothes were scattered about the floor of his cell. Don't you oblige the prisoners to be orderly, and put such things away?'

'Where should they put 'em?'

'Not on the ground surely. What do you say to hanging them up?'

He stops and looks round to emphasise his answer:

'Why, I say that's just it. When they had hooks they WOULD hang themselves, so they're taken out of every cell, and there's only the marks left where they used to be!'

The prison-yard in which he pauses now, has been the scene of terrible performances. Into this narrow, grave-like place, men are brought out to die. The wretched creature stands beneath the gibbet on the ground; the rope about his neck; and when the sign is given, a weight at its other end comes running down, and swings him up into the air - a corpse.

The law requires that there be present at this dismal spectacle, the judge, the jury, and citizens to the amount of twenty-five. From the community it is hidden. To the dissolute and bad, the thing remains a frightful mystery. Between the criminal and them, the prison-wall is interposed as a thick gloomy veil. It is the curtain to his bed of death, his winding-sheet, and grave. From him it shuts out life, and all the motives to unrepenting hardihood in that last hour, which its mere sight and presence is often all- sufficient to sustain. There are no bold eyes to make him bold; no ruffians to uphold a ruffian's name before. All beyond the pitiless stone wall, is unknown space.

Let us go forth again into the cheerful streets.

Once more in Broadway! Here are the same ladies in bright colours, walking to and fro, in pairs and singly; yonder the very same light blue parasol which passed and repassed the hotel-window twenty times while we were sitting there....

But how quiet the streets are! Are there no itinerant bands; no wind or stringed instruments? No, not, not so much as a white mouse in a twirling cage.

Are there no amusements?

Let us go on again; and passing this wilderness of an hotel with stores about its base, like some Continental theatre, or the London Opera House shorn of its colonnade, plunge into the Five Points. But it is needful, first, that we take as our escort these two heads of the police..."

"Doing the Slums," Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 1885.

Those who flee the lower tip of Manhattan, like Dickens, seem to find Five Points a source of fascination, such that the term "slumming" comes into being. But while some come down to "do the slums", others come to undo them. There is particular concern about prostitution, particularly in the Old Brewery. The Old Brewery built in the 1790s, has become a boardinghouse and supposed brothel by 1837, where blacks and whites are known to mingle and intermarry. It is known as the "Rookery," a racist reference to the place where crows roost. At the time, outsiders to the neighborhood presume that inter-racial couples and multi-racial children must be products of the sex trade. Women of the Methodist group Home Mission purchase the Old Brewery in 1851, demolish it, and replace it with a missionary building. Just a year earlier, in 1850, the racial category “mulatto” had been added to the census.

And just a year after a massive race riot presumably emerges from Five Points, during the 1864 democratic part campaign, the word “miscegenation” is invented by two NYC dems. (Fears of intermingling may even go back to a riot that happened in 1741, blamed on Irish/African collaboration. For that, check out the previous post on Liberty Square.)

Up to that point, the Civil War has left New York mostly untouched. In 1863, the war comes home in the form of the Draft. There's a 300$ loophole that will let you out of the draft - for those who have it.

New York City is home to 805,658 souls, just over half of whom are native born. By the war’s outbreak, almost 90% of the city's laborers and almost 75% of its domestic servants are Irish-born, along with more than half the city’s blacksmiths, weavers, masons, bricklayers, plasterers, stonecutters, and polishers. We're talking about a law allowing a draftee to buy their way out of service by providing a substitute or paying a $300 commutation fee, at a time when a New York laborer might make no more than $6 a week.

Newcomer Irish, fleeing famine, penniless, are drafted in the droves, and literally off the boat, at that. Black people are not allowed into the army, not even to fight to end slavery. Only the well-established residents with wealth, in other words, the "Founders," the Protestants, can afford to buy their way out.

Resentments are easily stoked among the Irish newcomers. If slavery is abolished, where will four million freed black people look for work? In southern plantations, working for former slavemasters, or in the industrial north where the better paying jobs are? James Gordon Bennett Sr., publisher of The New York Herald, the city’s largest newspaper writes: “...if Lincoln is elected, you will have to compete with the labor of four million emancipated negroes.” Against who will the Irish vent their outrage? Whose property will they destroy? Who is less dangerous to kill, a black person, or a white Protestant?

The result is 3 days of rioting in July. 10,000-person gangs. 80,000 in the streets. 100-1000 are killed, no one really knows. Only 100 are counted. Most are black. After the Draft Riots of 1863, 250 years into living there, just over 150 years ago, the African American population is not able to live in safety in their communities. The bulk of the black population leaves Manhattan, a place their ancestors physically built under the Dutch and English, in a mass exodus. They find refuge in free African settlements in places such as Weeksville, in today's Crown Heights.

One of the households that makes Weeksville their home, is the Lyons family. They leave behind an important stop on the Underground Railroad, a boardinghouse for sailors called The Colored Sailors’ Home, started in 1839 by William Powell. At a time when one in five sailors is black, the black sailor community that converges here is likely already politicized upon arrival, part of a network of anti-slavery messengers bringing information on free black communities in the north, to slaves in the south and Caribbean. Mary Joseph and Albro Lyons pick up the work where Powell leaves off, and under their care, the home acts as an informal school with a reading room and library. No alcohol is allowed, and the home is viewed as a place to shape people into the “worker-scholar ideal” upheld by black reformers like Frederick Douglass. In addition to holding abolitionist meetings at the home, their daughter Maritcha estimates that in the decade before the Draft Riots they manage to hide away, feed, and give disguises to about a thousand fugitives fleeing slavery.

This story is not over, by any means. More to come soon....


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