Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Mission

This Rotograph depicts Manhattan's Five Points Mission, founded in 1853 just off the complex intersection that gave its name to one of the city's most notorious slums. It does not, however, show the original mission building, which itself had been constructed on the footprint of the squalid Old Brewery tenement that the Police Gazette once proclaimed "the wickedest house on the wickedest street that ever existed in New York, yes, and in all the country and possibly all the world."

Standing across from a tiny triangular plot of land called Paradise Square (later Paradise Park), the Old Brewery, true to is name, had been a working brewery until around 1837. It served as a tenement for only about fifteen years, but that was long enough for it to establish a reputation as a warren of depravity like no other. Tyler Anbinder, the author of the definitive book on the Five Points neighborhood, is understandably skeptical of some of the more lurid accounts of the building, such as Herbert Asbury's "ridiculous" contention that an average of one murder a night occurred there throughout its occupancy, but the important point is that contemporary New Yorkers — or at least some of them — regarded it as an intolerable carbuncle on the body politic. It was demolished in 1852 at the instigation of the New-York Ladies' Home Missionary Society, a Methodist organization that seemed to be at least as interested in converting the Catholic heathen of the neighborhood to Protestantism as it was in helping the poor, and replaced with a four-story complex (shown below) that included a chapel, a parsonage, school rooms, and apartments.

The Five Points Mission remained active throughout the second half of the 19th century, hosting an elaborate annual Thanksgiving dinner for the local poor, but it eventually outgrew its building, which was torn down in 1894 and replaced with the more expansive structure shown in the postcard, which was designed to incorporate, among other things, a choir loft that could accommodate 150 and enough classroom space for 900 children. It would serve its purpose for only one generation, however, before succumbing to the wrecker's ball in 1915 in order to make way for New York City's Civic Center district, which largely obliterated the original topography of the Five Points.