In Gangs of New York, directed by Martin Scorsese, the young Amsterdam Vallon, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is taken away for his own safety after seeing his father killed in a major gang fight in New York City. Years later, he returns to the notorious Five Points district in New York, which is the scene of his father’s death. It is the year 1863, and lower Manhattan is run by gangs. The most powerful is the Natives, headed by Bill “The Butcher” Cutting. He believes that America should belong to native-born Americans and opposes the waves of immigrants, mostly Irish, entering the city. It’s also the time of the Civil War, and riots are common. Vallon tries to establish himself in the area and also seek revenge over his father’s death.
Leonardo DiCaprio has starred in numerous blockbusters, including Titanic, one of his most famous roles. He is also known for The Aviator, The Beach, Romeo + Juliet, Blood Diamond, The Departed, Catch Me if You Can, and The Basketball Diaries. He has been nominated for three Oscars. Other main characters of Gangs of New York are played by Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson, and John C. Reilly.
Although all sets were built completely on the exterior stages of Cinecittà Studios in Rome, you can explore lower Manhattan to see the real Five Points where this story takes place. The Five Points neighborhood took form around 1820. At Five Points’ “height,” it was almost unrivaled for sheer population density, disease, infant and child mortality, unemployment, prostitution, violent crime, and other classic ills of the destitute. However, it can be considered the original American melting pot, at first consisting primarily of newly-emancipated African Americans, and newly arrived Irish in the 1840s due to the Irish Potato Famine. Although the tensions between the African Americans and the Irish were legendary, their cohabitation in Five Points was the first large-scale instance of volitional racial integration in American history. In the end, the Five Points African American community moved to Manhattan’s West Side and to the then-undeveloped north of the island.
In the twentieth century, the Five Points Gang recruited members from the toughest gangs in the city. Five Points mobsters included Paul Kelly, Giovanni “Johnny” Torrio and Frankie Yale. Recruits included Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Al Capone. Capone received his nickname “scarface” from a knife fight at The Harvard Inn, on Governor’s Island. When Capone was finally convicted for tax evasion in 1931, he was quoted in newspapers saying, “I shoulda never left Five Points.”
What was Five Points is today covered mostly by large city and state administration buildings known collectively as Foley Square, plus Columbus Park, Collect Pond Park and various facilities of the New York City Department of Corrections clustering around lower Centre Street. The corrections facilities are the most direct link to the neighborhood’s past, as the infamous Tombs Prison, which housed many a Five Points marauder from 1838 on, stood near the site of the current “City Prison Manhattan” at 125 White St. The exact location of the former “Five Points” intersection itself is currently the intersection of Worth and Baxter.
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