In recent months, the stately civic buildings and courthouses near Foley Square have been the scene of regular protests against the administration of President Donald Trump and the Dakota Access Pipeline, among other issues. But before that, in the 19th century, the area would gain notoriety as the disease- and crime-filled slum of Five Points.
Five Points was a mostly Irish and free black neighborhood in Lower Manhattan, which was one of the most impoverished parts of the city.
“Charles Dickens said he hadn’t seen such bad slums in Christendom,” said attorney James Kaplan, who serves as president of the Lower Manhattan Historical Society.
“This is the place: these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth,” Dickens wrote of Five Points in “American Notes,” a book which recounted his 1842 trip to America. “Here too are lanes and alleys, paved with mud knee-deep, underground chambers, where they dance and game; the walls bedecked with rough designs of ships, and forts, and flags, and American eagles out of number: ruined houses, open to the street, whence, through wide gaps in the walls, other ruins loom upon the eye, as though the world of vice and misery had nothing else to show: hideous tenements which take their name from robbery and murder: all that is loathsome, drooping, and decayed is here.”
Five Points was built upon the remains of Collect Pond, which provided much of Manhattan’s water until the early 18th century.
“It was this gorgeous, freshwater pond that we jokingly call ‘The Hamptons of 17th century New Amsterdam.’” said Seth Kamil, who runs Big Onion Walking Tours, which provides tours of the city’s historic districts and ethnic neighborhoods. “There were farms and summer cottages.
“It was this 60-foot deep lake, and then it was drained and became Five Points,” Kamil said.
By the late 1800s, the city acquired and razed many of Five Points’ worst buildings. Urban planning resulted in the construction of city, state and federal buildings over the early to mid-1900s.
“The cynical way of interpreting [the end of Five Points and building of Civic Center] is it put a physical barrier between the politically-charged immigrant neighborhoods of the Lower East Side from City Hall and the Financial District,” Kamil said. “A less cynical way of looking at it, is it was perfectly situated to serve both city government and the people of New York.”
In 1926, the square was named to honor Thomas F. Foley, a Tammany Hall district leader from the Lower East Side.
Foley owned a saloon in the area that is now Foley Square and was the mentor of New York Gov. Al Smith, Kamil said. Foley died in 1925 and the square was given its name the following year.
The Foley Square of today, which is bordered by Worth, Centre and Lafayette streets, took its shape in 2000, after several smaller intersections were consolidated into one open area.
In 1991, construction in the area by the federal government led to the discovery of the remains of 400 people at the African Burial Ground.
“The federal government was building on Reade Street to make an office building,” said Jonathan Kuhn, director of arts and antiquities at the parks department. “They hit human remains, quite close to the surface.”
After an archeological study, the area from the southern portion of Foley Square to the northern precinct of City Hall Park was designated the New York City African Burial Ground and Commons District.