On Thursday we attended a free NYC Department of Parks & Recreation lecture in Columbus Park, Chinatown, featuring historian Warren Shaw, an excitable New Yorker who seemed to be even more excited that his lecture, linking the old Gangs of New York culture to the culture of today, was taking place on the physical spot where it all happened. Geek-o-licious! But this is a city filled with geeks, especially ones who love their city history, so the newly renovated Columbus Park pavilion was filled to capacity with about 60 New Yorkers who were all ears and eyes on Mr. Shaw’s PowerPoint discussion.
Titled Bums, Slummers and Swells: The Birth of American Popular Culture on the Lower East Side, 1825-1855, the lecture argued that the youth culture of the notorious Five Points neighborhood had a enormous impact on the development of urban street culture, and therefore all of American culture.
The Lower East Side of the day (what would today be roughly everything from Chatham Square to 14th Street, and from the East River to Broadway) was a crime-ridden cesspool, filled with degradation, sin and vice, squalor and disease, Catholics, Blacks, Irish and the working class. But it was also a colorful neighborhood, with local fraternity organizations sporting DIY uniforms and spouting dialects unheard of in other parts of American or the world. There was a forced camaraderie here unseen anywhere else — because although the Irish and the Blacks didn’t necessarily like each other, they were destitute, so they didn’t have much of a choice, and had to live together. This made the old Five Points the first racially integrated neighborhood in the country, as well as the densest.
Mr. Shaw pointed out that with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, connecting the Great Lakes and the Midwest to the Atlantic Ocean, this architectural and engineering marvel cemented New York as the capital of America’s shipping empire. Now grains, livestock, timber and everything else the bountiful Midwest had to export could be sent abroad; the Erie Canal also allowed New York City’s cultural customs and fashions, slang and dance, drinking, drugging, and colorful fighting to be spread to populated areas west of the Hudson. There was no cultural locus point for the country, as there was no common dialect. Now, along with dictating the countries’ economic trade, NYC was mastering the cultural trade as well.
Another interesting point that Mr. Shaw effusively described was the “flash talk” or slang of the gangs. Just as a member of the Crips today wouldn’t want to be caught slinging Bloods slang, the various gangs had their own vernacular, some of which survives today. “Kicking the bucket” and “Coppers” are two of the slang phrases that stick with us today, invented back in the old Five Points. ("Kicking the bucket" was how one helped an enemy off himself, by knocking the victim unconscious, stringing up a suicide noose, tossing the bozo on top of a bucket and through the loop, then kicking aforementioned bucket to leave ‘em dangling. A "Copper" was exactly that — a copper badge worn by volunteer cops, and therefore hardly intimidating or worth any respect.) Along with flash talk, the Gangs had their invented heroes, their larger-than-life characters who were inspirational figures to anyone looking to rise out of the slums. For the youth of the day, it was Mose, a tough-talkin, wise-crackin’, no-nonsense Irish B’hoy (slang for Bowery Boy) with a heart of gold. Mose can certainly be seen in various heroes of today, including Bugs Bunny, Holden Caulfield, Superman, and (this was a stretch, but) RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan.
All in all it was an interesting, exciting, geektastic lecture, not just because the words were happening on the block where these figures fought, drank, drugged, loved, danced and invented American street culture. Even though, as King of the NYC Geeks, we knew most of what Mr. Shaw was extrapolating, regardless it was wonderful to see so many other people geeking out with us.
(originally published on 6/9/8 in www.thelmagazine.com)