by Tyler Anbinder

New York City lore is something I know a bit of but couldn’t care much about otherwise — this is because I’m a horrible person, of course — but more to the point it’s generally alien to my experience. I have my exceptions, though, and sometimes a good book comes along to illustrate some instances. George Chauncey’s Gay New York is a fine example of recent work while this one is even more recent, and vaguely timely given the flirtation of attention with the history of the Five Points neighborhood thanks to Scorcese’s last attempt to get an Academy Award (and also make a movie, apparently).

What’s nice about Anbinder’s study of the locale that informs both the book and movie Gangs of New York, not to mention one of my favorite novels of all time, Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, is that it (self-consciously, to be sure) aims to ‘tell the story right’ — the opening section wants to overturn both the perception of the area as complete sinkhole and the counterperception of it as being not that bad or suffering from exaggerated horror reports. This is hardly a new rhetorical move in any area but Anbinder often — not always, but often — finds just the right way to advance his theses, tying together hard figures and anecdotal tales, review of records and notes where the testimony fails or is nonexistent, to study what in the nineteenth century was practically a byword for poverty, desperation, sin, the whole lot.

And that’s perhaps the best part of the book, that it studies the construction of the image of Five Points, looking at how those perceptions were created and what drove them, how certain elements were exaggerated or reported or more. It’s often smart social criticism in its own way — again, not a revelatory approach but here a well-handled one. There’s enough to give you the creeping horrors (the descriptions of the stifling, stinking tenements are gut-wrenching) and to help you refocus on the place and time (such as the fact that many Irish immigrants absolutely thought that for all of Five Points’ obvious flaws it was still a vast improvement over their situation where they came from).