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BBC America’s “Copper” - in search of New York’s Five Points

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A still from BBC America's 'Copper'

Irish Americans shouldn’t need Hollywood or the BBC to tell them where one of the most famous Irish neighborhoods in New York used to be.

I was thinking about this last month, when I paid a visit to the great Old Town bar on East 18th Street, owned for the longest time by the Meagher family.  It is a stalwart bar in an ever-changing city, and one of the few places you can still find an Al Smith campaign poster.

I was joined by writer and historian Kevin Baker, author of several excellent novels, including Paradise Alley, set among Irish immigrants in the old Five Points section of downtown Manhattan. Inevitably we began talking about the new BBC America series Copper, about an Irish immigrant cop, set in the Five Points.

There was also an angry, hand-written sign in the window of the Old Town that made this topic impossible to ignore.

“The Brits are at it again,” the sign read.  “BBC has produced a series on New York during the Civil War when half the metropolis was peopled by Irish driven from their homes by Victoria, a dowager so homely they could only marry her off to a first cousin, Albert, a German midget who couldn’t speak English.  It is indeed ironic that the Irish starved as Victoria, a fat slob, stuffed her mouth with groceries.”

The sign continued, “As usual, BBC depicts the New York Irish as a collection of tramps, idlers and thieves.  They even have the main character, an Irish copper, portrayed by a Welshman.  (Irish actors need not apply.)  As part of a New York Irish family since the 1820s that established successful businesses before the Civil War, we reject the Brits’ cartoon. 

“Ya gotta give it to the Brits.  They are consistent.”

I will respectfully disagree with the Old Town’s house TV critic, at least about the quality of the show Copper, if not necessarily about the rotundity of Queen Victoria. 

However, the airing of Copper does represent an important opportunity to address another matter of interest to Irish New Yorkers.

Just where were the Five Points located?

The Five Points have got to be the hottest piece of real estate no one can find on a map.  They are a notorious slice of hell that have been the subject of fascination going all the way back to 1842 when none other than Charles Dickens toured the area and declared, “Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays.”

History books will tell you that the Five Points name derives from the intersection of today’s Baxter and Worth Streets.  But that’s not what the streets were named in the 1860s. 

The real problem is that if you stand today at the intersection of Baxter and Worth Streets, northeast of City Hall, there is nothing to tell you that this, in fact, is where the notorious Five Points once stood.

Perhaps there is no point in erecting something like a memorial to the Five Points.  Life there was harsh, and it’s probably best for all involved that the slum is so more. 

Nevertheless, there is much to be learned from the Five Points about the Irish, immigration, poverty and perseverance.  So there should be something to let tourists as well as native New Yorkers know where the Points once stood.

I recommend the Collect Pond Park, a block north and west from the original Five Points, on Leonard Street, between Centre and Lafayette.  Collect Pond was a body of water actually used for drinking until the early 1800s, when the area was solidly middle class. 

Bungled municipal efforts to fill the pond created a festering swamp which bred disease - hence, middle class New Yorkers fled, leaving the Five Points to become an impoverished immigrant enclave.

The New York City Parks Department, which is currently renovating Collect Pond Park, should include efforts to explain what and where the Five Points were before the park reopens this fall. 

I think even the Old Town bar TV critic would agree that New Yorkers should know at least as much about the Five Points as Hollywood and the BBC.

(Contact “Sidewalks” at tdeignan.blogspot.com or tomdeignan@earthlink.net)

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