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Baxter Street

Experiencing Baxter Street: Then and Now, Reality and Fiction by Cameryn Frost.

Baxter Street in New York City is a unique and interesting place. Located on the edge of Chinatown and formerly part of the dangerous gang area, The 5 Points, Baxter Street is home to a park, a prison and a fearsome reputation. While over the years, Baxter Street has changed immensely, many works of fiction have colored Baxter Street a certain way. But how much of that reputation is truth or fiction?

Then: The Reality

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Baxter Street (then known as Orange Street) was a part of an area known as 5 Points. 5 Points was centered on Collect Pond, which was drained in a 9-year process from 1802 to 1811. A canal was built in its place in 1807 for the pond water, and was covered to use as a sewer in 1821 because of the smell[1].

This area had a large African-American community as early as the 1700s. In 1991, an African burial ground was discovered here with 10,000 to 20,000 burials. It was made a monument because of the historical significance of this find.

In 1838, the land formerly known as Collect Pond was used for a prison called Tombs, formerly known as Manhattan Detention Complex. This prison has a fearsome reputation. The 5 Points area, and Baxter Street in particular, has been a historical part of gang violence and mafia wars[1].

In the 1800s, Baxter Street was home to the Baxter Street Dudes, a teenage gang that ran a theater from the basement of a bar. They were part thieves, part theater. Later, the 5 Points Gang and the mafia played a role in the area. Baxter Street has long been famed for gang related violence. So much so that New York playwright Barbara Kahn wrote a play titled “The Ballad of Baxter Street” that premiered in 2005 [2]. Baxter Street was named after a military leader in the US Mexican War. Baxter Street is at the top of the 5 Points area that has now become Chinatown.

Searching through the New York Times Historical Data base, hundreds of articles came up in my search for Baxter Street information. Yet a surprising amount of them involved violence and murder, specifically in the late 1800s. Baxter Street was a gang-centered area, yet most of what I found indicated behind the various attacks were only petty jealousies and fights. Based on my findings, crimes were not targeting a specific group or by a specific group. The attacks were on men, women and children by men, women and children (3).

I also noticed that the attackers lacked subtlety or intelligence in their attacks. It is possible that the criminals were not concerned with going to jail or perhaps did not realize that is the end result after they stabbed someone in broad daylight on a busy street. This kind of open and unabashed violence is not typical in our country today, and is certainly no longer typical on Baxter Street. While it is not the most wholesome of New York City streets, it is certainly part of the respectable hustle and bustle of everyday New York City. Blatant violence in the street would not be tolerated, especially not when so many cops are abundantly walking the street because of the nearby prison.

It is amazing to see how much the city has changed over the years. The meatpacking district is a hot nightclub spot, artists studios have been replaced with Prada and Lanvin stores in SoHo. Baxter Street and Chinatown are now safe areas. The city is constantly evolving, almost as its own entity, unaffected by everyone within and around it. I have to wonder what it will change into when students are looking at the New York Times Historical Database for the year 2011.

Then: The Fiction

Gangs of New York, a popular 2002 film and the recipient of 30 film awards, tells the story of the gangs located in the 5 Points District of New York City in 1863 [4]. One of these 5 points is Baxter Street. In the film, there are multiple battles of hundreds of men from different gangs fighting in the streets. The battle scene looked like something out of a Wild West movie or perhaps Troy.

While Baxter Street was a dangerous place filled with gang violence, there were no historically documented large-scale battles. There were many fights between gangs, but nothing so large as what the movie suggests. The 5 Points was mainly a very violent place, yet it seems to have been a place where single murders were common for small and irrational reasons. The Director, Martin Scorcese, appears to have created a movie about primal cavemen. Specifically, in a scene with the battle of all of the 5 Points gangs, hundreds of people run at each other and kills each other. One particularly psychotic woman, a member of the Irish gang, Dead Rabbits, puts on fake cat claws and chews off the ear of one of her victims.

While this battle seems to be based on the Dead Rabbits riot, only 8 people were killed in the real riot and others were merely injured, as both Asbury and Delaney discuss in their texts on the subject [5,6]. As they elaborate, the riot was prioritized more on the destruction of property, specifically the Bowery Boys headquarters [5]. Essentially, the movie seems to be painting a completely unrealistic picture of 19th century New York City. The only details that seem remotely accurate from the movie are that they kept some gang names the same and the names of some events, such as the Bowery Boys and Dead Rabbits, and the Draft Riots.

In the movie, Irish gangs were a big part of the area. While this was true, African Americans also played a big role in the area as well, which was not fully illustrated in the movie. Overall, the movie was obviously made for entertainment rather than accuracy. Unfortunately, it is categorized as a “historical film.” If anything, perhaps “historically set fiction” fits the film better.

Another popular historically set tale is Herman Melville’s “Bartelby the Scrivener.” Many of Baxter Street’s stories are centered around the Manhattan Detention Complex, known as the Tombs, that is located on Baxter. As the story goes, Bartelby is a law copyist who, while gifted in the art of copying and transcribing, has a habit of saying “I would prefer not to” when given assignments from his boss. He says it in a polite and simple way, yet never the less, refuses to participate. When later fired, he also ‘preferred’ to not leave the building and remains there. Eventually, the narrator moves out of the building because he is so plagues by Bartelby. Yet Bartelby continues to haunt his thoughts. Bartelby was eventually removed and put in the Tombs prison. The story ends with him dying in the courtyard of the Tombs Prison. His death was unexciting, he simply laid himself down there and passed away [7].

The story accounts for the popularity of the prison in stories and tales, however does not unrealistically portray his time there. In fact, little is said of Bartelby’s time there. I would guess because the prison has such a reputation that it likely did not need much explaining at the time. Most fictional counts would over-emphasize brutality in the prison, but what is interesting about this short story is that it is entirely unexciting. Melville wrote the story to be simple and flat, yet it remains very interesting. Every reader wants to know what made Bartelby tick and why he chose to walk out and die in the prison yard. Yet, the story is very simple in its progression.

Setting this story in New York shows a popular portrayal of New York city: a dark and lonely place. Perhaps Melville chose the Tombs specifically because of its garish reputation and decided to end the story plainly without drama as a contradiction to popular myths about the location. However, my theory is that Melville chose to end his story at the Tombs to show the symmetry of how in life and death, chaos and craziness ensue around the title character while he remains uninterested. Melville also shows the simplicity of a choice and consequence and uses the prison to show an extreme consequence for one’s actions.

 

Now: The Reality

Today, Baxter Street runs along to the US District Court, the Marshalls Service, County Clerk, US Justice Department, the Metropolitan Correctional Center, and the US Prison Bureau. The street is heavily connected to police and the law, yet has a history rife with crime. The New York District Attorney and the New York Criminal Court also inhabit Baxter Street. Moving north, the street is heavily influenced by Chinatown and is populated by various Chinese food restaurants and bail bonds (located directly across from the prison) until Canal Street. After crossing Canal Street, Baxter becomes a cacophonous mixture of care centers, schools, galleries, delis, drugstores and a beautiful church.

The street now seems to be a regular functioning part of New York society, and less a front for organized crime. The tenements that once were the façade for gangs have been replaced with ordinary storefronts, while the gangs have been replaced with the diverse characters of modern New York City.

Walking up Baxter Street, I cannot help but notice the obvious line between two worlds, with only a thread connecting them: North and South Baxter Street. The upper half of Baxter has trees lining the old brick buildings. The lower half of Baxter has trash and scaffolding lining the neon-sign marked buildings. Below you can see the beautiful trees lining upper Baxter, and the sign on the prison of Lower Baxter.

The entire aura of the street changes between the upper and lower halves. The only thread making these seem like they are even in the same part of town is that on most buildings the signs are written in both English and Mandarin. Even the types of people change as you cross the south/north border. The south side features tourist groups waving umbrellas and busy workers, while the north has children getting out of school and a surprising amount of Tibetan Monks walking, alone or in pairs, calmly down the quiet street.  Neighboring the busy streets of Little Italy and Chinatown, the upper half of Baxter Street is like a Zen bubble protected from its hectic surroundings. Certeau discusses in his chapter “Walking in the City” how one can always choose another path through the city, creating his or her own map. Yet it seems like upper Baxter Street remains guarded from the hustle and bustle of walkers through the city, as if almost no one chooses it for their path.

As Morris and Certeau also discuss, the walkers through the city make the environment what it is. The buildings themselves cannot determine an environment. Perhaps upper Baxter would not have seemed so peaceful if not for the lack of people with the presence of only a few Tibetan Monks. Lower Baxter definitely would not have seemed so hectic if not for being surrounded by busy people and tourist groups. The eclectic nature of Baxter Street has not ceased to constantly surprise me.

 

Now: The Fiction

Chinatown is a common location for New York City television shows. Zukin discusses symbolic economy in his article “Whose Culture? Whose City?” discussing how media, along with other categories bring a different kind of economy to a location. Baxter Street has traditional entrepreneurship and small businesses, along with a big symbolic economy brought on by numerous television shows filming and referencing the street [11]. Baxter Street plays a role in many television shows, especially crime related shows, as the area has long been associated with organized crime and other criminal activities. These plots often come into connection with triad gang violence and Chinatown opulence.

One show, ABC’s Castle, has many episodes that bring them to Chinatown In the episode as a whole, Detective Beckett looks for prison and gang connections between a serial killer and Triad family in order to solve the murder of a young woman. In the end, it is discovered that the son of the family was in a relationship with the murder victim. She was killed for trying to help the son leave “the family business”[8]. The episode showed the viewers the traditional mindset of fictional accounts of Chinatown by demonstrating underground workings of the Triad gang in Chinatown.

Castle also had another common representation of the area. The episode has scenes in the family’s palatial townhouse and ornate restaurant (below), both supposedly in Chinatown.  I have never seen anything like either of these decadent locations in Chinatown, which is mostly comprised of small, old and poorly maintained buildings.

Obviously, as an outsider of the ‘Triad Gang,’ I would not be aware of their general location or activities in Chinatown. However, I have never heard or seen anything in Chinatown that I remotely suspect as gang related, especially not on such a grand scale. This episode as a whole represents a common occurrence in movies and television shows as showing Chinatown as a place of underground, illegal wealth. This ‘illegal’ association with Chinatown possibly stems from the long history of illegal business and gang violence, including the modern day fake luxury business that is commonly seen in these areas. It seems that the lengthy history has translated to modern media, whether the hidden Triad “wealth” is reality or myth. Either way, as an outsider, I could not know.

Law and Order, in its many forms, shows Baxter Street and the Tombs Prison as a regular fixture as well. In this show, The Tombs Prison is regularly portrayed as a dark and lonely place designed for punishment. The street has long been associated with both the “crime” and “punishment” parts of the equation and Law and Order shows this nicely. In a recent Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episode, of which I only caught the last few minutes, Detective Benson worked tirelessly to keep a formerly kidnapped woman, accused of murder, out of the prison because she felt that she was innocent, but without the mental capacity to defend herself. She yelled at her partner regarding how she could not let this woman spend a night in The Tombs, of all places, after being cooped up for most of her life in some man’s basement [9]. The Tombs was highlighted in the episode as a terrible and dark place with extreme isolation. This was a place that both Detectives Benson and Stabler hated for people that they saw as innocent, but appreciated for the sick criminals that they put away. This view of the prison casts a shadow on the street as a whole. As previously stated, the lower half of the street’s environment is deeply affected by the prison. Many of the businesses, the people on the street and the general environment all revolve around the prison and its environment. Law and Order: SVU demonstrated how this aura of darkness around the prison lives on today. Sadler and Haskins, in writing “Metonymy and Metropolis” discuss filming in the city, saying “representations of a city always tend to limit”(196). In the case of Baxter Street, media texts have limited it to a dark and lonely place rife with crime [12].

Then in The Now

 Other than the Tombs prison, there are still many historical locations on Baxter Street that are around today. Built in 1897, Columbus Park was built in an effort to destroy the 5 Points lifestyle. Before it was a park, this location was home to former Tammany boss, Big Tim Sullivan. After that, it became home to several saloon locations and was known as “Bottle Alley”[10]. The Whiskey Tavern is also an important location, as it is known to be a rare location that both police and criminals frequent. Located next to the prison and Bail Bond shops, it is the crossing point of New York’s Finest and New York’s seediest.

Most Precious Blood Church is located on Baxter, in between Canal and Hester. This church was founded in 1888 to serve the Italian immigrant community in the area. The titled ‘blood’ refers to that of San Genarro, a Naples Bishop/Martyr. San Genarro festivities are an important part of Little Italy’s traditions. Another especially interesting location on the North side of Baxter Street is Odd Fellows Hall, on the corner of Grand and Baxter. This building was built in 1847 as a home for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a guild for unique workers with skills that traditionally were not a part of mainstream guilds. Today, if you want to see ‘then’ cross with ‘now,’ these are the locations to visit on Baxter Street.

 Sources

1.Chin, RK. “New York City Chinatown > Historical Photos > Canal Street and the Five Points.” New York City Chinatown. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2011. <http://nychinatown.org/history/1800s&gt;.

2.Kahn, Barbara. “Barbara Kahn.” Barbara Kahn. N.p., n.d. Web. 8 Sept. 2011. <http://barbara-kahn.com&gt;.

3.New York Times Historical Database

4. Gangs Of New York. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Daniel Day-Lewis. Miramax Lionsgate, 2002. Film.

5. Asbury, Herbert. The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the New York Underworld. New York: Random House. 1928, pp 100–115

6. Tim Delaney: American Street Gangs, p. 38-60

7.Melville, Herman. “Bartelby the Scrivener.”

8. “Kick The Ballistics.” Castle. ABC. 19 Oct. 2011. Television.

9. “Season 1-13.” Law and Order: SVU. NBC. 1999. Television.

10. Naureckas, Jim. “Baxter Street: A New York Songline.” New York Songlines: Virtual Walking Tours of Manhattan Streets. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Dec. 2011. <http://www.nysonglines.com/baxter.htm&gt;.

11. Zukin, Whose Culture, Whose City?

12. Sadler and Haskins, Metonymy and Metropolis

The Early Days of Baxter Street by Cameryn Frost

In the late 1700s and early 1800s, Baxter Street (then known as Orange Street) was a part of an area known as 5 Points. 5 Points was centered on Collect Pond, which was drained in a 9-year process from 1802 to 1811. A canal was built in its place in 1807 for the pond water, and was covered to use as a sewer in 1821 because of the smell.

This area had a large African-American community as early as the 1700s. In 1991, an African burial ground was discovered here with 10,000 to 20,000 burials. It was made a monument because of the historical significance of this find.

In 1838, the land formerly known as Collect Pond was used for a prison called Tombs. The 5 Points area, and Baxter Street in particular, has been a historical part of gang violence and mafia wars. In the 1800s, Baxter Street was home to the Baxter Street Dudes, a teenage gang that ran a theater from the basement of a bar. They were part thieves, part theater. Later, the 5 Points Gang and the mafia played a role in the area. The area is famed for its gang related violence. So much so that New York playwright Barbara Kahn wrote a play titled “The Ballad of Baxter Street” that premiered in 2005.

Baxter Street, named after a military leader in the US Mexican War, is at the top of the 5 Points area that has now become Chinatown. The street ends runs along to the US District Court, the Marshalls Service, County Clerk, US Justice Department, the Metropolitan Correctional Center, and the US Prison Bureau. The street is heavily connected to police and the law, yet has a history rife with crime. The New York District Attorney and the New York Criminal Court also inhabit Baxter Street. Moving north, the street is heavily influenced by Chinatown and is populated by various Chinese food restaurants and bail bonds until Canal Street. After crossing Canal Street, Baxter becomes a cacophonous mixture of care centers, schools, galleries, delis and drugstores.

The street now seems to be a regular functioning part of New York society, and less a front for organized crime. The tenements that once were the façade for gangs have been replaced with ordinary storefronts, while the gangs have been replaced with the diverse characters of modern New York City.

“The Tombs” by Cameryn Frost

While Baxter Street is home to many curiosities and contradictions, the Manhattan Detention Complex, also known as MDC or “The Tombs,” is central to most. The sign to the left shows the Manhattan Detention Center on the corner of Baxter and White. While I previously mentioned the famous 1800s prison called The Tombs, I did not mention that the prison is alive and well. The MDC is still called The Tombs by many. Of course, the prison has been modified and rebuilt several times in its 200-year history. In the 1800s, The Tombs was just a few blocks over from where it stands today. It was moved to its present location in the 1940s.

The jail has had a fearsome reputation ever since its creation that continues to live today. In its early years, The Tombs was located on the marshland that was a result of draining Collect Pond. Only a few years after its creation, The Tombs began to sink into the marsh. As you can imagine, this did nothing for the health conditions or the ambience. The Tombs was later relocated and rebuilt on sturdier ground.

In its 200+ years, this jail has been home to many celebrities. John Colt, brother of the famed inventor of the revolver, Samuel Colt, was sentenced to death by hanging at the Tombs. P. Diddy was held here and even Herman Melville set part of his short story “Bartelby the Scrivener” at the Tombs. The namesake character of Melville’s short story died in the prison yard of the Tombs.

Manhattan Detention Complex is an important part of the contradiction that is Baxter Street because Baxter Street is known for its mafia ties and other kinds of criminal activity. Yet, as it holds a Detention Complex, police officers end up spending some of their breaks and other free time on the street as well. This street is rare in that it houses bars and restaurants where criminals and cops literally eat and drink together. Baxter Street is not a simple place.

Walking Up Baxter Street

Walking up Baxter Street, I cannot help but notice the obvious line between two worlds, with only a thread connecting them. Below Canal Street, Baxter Street is comprised of a prison, bail bonds and small restaurants. Above Canal Street, it is a peaceful residential area with a school and an old church. The upper half of Baxter has trees lining the old brick buildings. The lower half of Baxter has trash and scaffolding lining the neon-sign marked buildings. The entire aura of the street changes because of the line of Canal Street. The only thread making these seem like they are even in the same part of town is that on most buildings the signs are written in both English and Mandarin.

Even the types of people change as you cross the Canal Street Border. From tourist groups waving umbrellas and busy workers, to children getting out of school and a surprising amount of Tibetan Monks walking, alone or in pairs, calmly down the quiet street.  Neighboring the busy streets of Little Italy and Chinatown, the upper half of Baxter Street is like a Zen bubble protected from its hectic surroundings. Certeau discusses in his chapter “Walking in the City” how one can always choose another path through the city, creating his or her own map. Yet it seems like upper Baxter Street remains guarded from the hustle and bustle of walkers through the city, as if almost no one chooses it for their path.

As Morris and Certeau discuss, the walkers through the city make the environment what it is. The buildings themselves cannot determine an environment. Perhaps upper Baxter would not have seemed so peaceful if not for the lack of people with the presence of only a few Tibetan Monks. Lower Baxter definitely would not have seemed so hectic if not for being surrounded by busy people and tourist groups. The eclectic nature of Baxter Street has not ceased to constantly surprise me.

Historical Baxter Street

Searching through the New York Times Historical Data base provided me with some interesting information. Hundreds of articles came up when I searched for Baxter Street and a surprising amount of them involved violence and murder. Baxter Street used to be in a gang centered area, yet most of what I found indicated petty jealousies and fights to be the reason behind the various attacks.

I also noticed that the attackers either were not concerned with going to jail or perhaps did not realize that is where they would be going after they stabbed someone in broad daylight on a busy street. This kind of violence is not typical in our country today, and is certainly not typical on Baxter Street. While it is not the most wholesome of New York City streets, it is certainly part of the hustle and bustle of everyday New York City. Blatant violence in the street would certainly not be tolerated, especially not when so many cops are abundantly walking the street.

One article of particular interest that I found (above left) regards a man stabbing his mother. The man’s wife claimed to have witnessed it. A blatant act of violence in front of witnesses is nothing like we would ever see on Law & Order and CSI:NY. Everyone on crime shows is clever and tricky, and hides their crimes successfully. The true inhabitants of Baxter Street did nothing of the kind. It seems like open violence was the way of life.
In fact, I only managed to find one boring article in all of the New York Times Database on Baxter Street, regarding the official straightening of the street. All I can say is, I am glad I didn’t live on Baxter.

It is amazing to see how much the city has changed over the years. The meatpacking district is a hot nightclub spot, artists studios have been replaced with Prada and Lanvin stores. Baxter Street and Chinatown are now safe areas. The city is constantly evolving, almost as it’s own entity, unaffected by everyone around it. I have to wonder what it will change into when students are looking at the New York Times Historical Database for the year 2011.

Baxter Street: According to the Cencus

Historically, Chinatown, and Baxter Street specifically, have a reputation as a poor area. However, from 2000 to 2010, the NYC Department of City Planning shows the percent of people on assisted living jumped from 23.4% to 50%. This historically poor area has become considerably more so in the past ten years. Specifically, the medicaid assistance has jumped 47,000 people. Especially taking into consideration that birth rate and death rate have fallen in the last 10 years in the area, it is clear that the area is becoming more impoverished than in the 1990s.

While in the next several posts I will go into the media portrayal of Baxter Street, I thought it interesting to say that the media constantly portrays the area as a center for illegal opulence, a hotbed of criminal activity swarmed into buildings filled with gold statues and silk curtains. Really,

what I find in the area is mostly small ‘mom and pop’ restaurants with plastic menus and a single bamboo plant in the corner.

As shown by the NYC Department of City Planning, the area is on more government assistance than ever. Yet just week on Castle, a popular show about a writer following his muse: a New York City Homicide cop, they went down to Chinatown to Mott Street ( just 2 blocks over from Baxter), where supposedly the wealthiest crime family in the area lived. Their place was filled with gold statues and servants, with high ceilings. Yet anyone who has been to Mott Street knows a very different reality. So the question at hand is: why does the media make this alternative glamorous reality to an impoverished area?

Bartelby the Scrivener by Herman Melville

While Baxter Street is never short on stories, a lot of them are centered around the prison located on that street. For example, in 1851, Herman Melville set a short story “Bartelby the Scrivener” partially at the prison. As the story goes, Bartelby is a law copyist who, while gifted in the art of copying and transcribing, has a habit of saying “I would prefer not to” when given assignments from his boss. He says it in a polite and simple way, yet never the less, refuses to participate. When later fired, he also ‘preferred’ to not leave the building and remains there. Eventually, the narrator moves out of the building because he is so plagues by Bartelby. Yet Bartelby continues to haunt his thoughts. Bartelby was eventually removed and put in the Tombs prison. The story ends with him dying in the courtyard of the Tombs Prison. His death was unexciting, he simply laid himself down there and passed away.

The story relates the popularity of the prison in stories and tales, however does not unrealistically portray his time there. Most fictional counts would over-emphasize brutality in the prison, but what is interesting about this short story is that it is entirely unexcited. It is simple and flat, yet very interesting. Of course, every reader wants to know what made Bartelby tick and why he chose to walk out and die in the prison yard. Yet, the story is very simple in it’s progression. By choosing to end his story at the Tombs prison, I think Melville chose to show the simplicity of a choice and consequence, as it seems to be the main focus of the story.

Perhaps he chose the Tombs because of its garish reputation and decided to end the story plainly without drama as a contradiction to popular myths about the location. However, my theory is that Melville chose to end his story at the Tombs to show the symmetry of how in life and death, chaos and craziness ensue around the title character while he remains uninterested.

Gangs of New York: New York or Wild West? 

From watching Gangs of New York, the inaccuracy is overwhelming. While I’m no historian, with the research I have done on the 5 points area, I can say that I have found no research to back up the movies full on battle of hundreds of men from different gangs fighting it out in the streets. The battle scene looked like something out of a wild west movie or perhaps Troy.

While Baxter street was no where I would want to have been in the 1800s, I have never read a single piece of information about large scale battles. There were obviously fights between gangs, but based on what I read, nothing so large as what the movie suggests. Largely, the 5 Points was a very violent place, yet it seems to have been a place where single murders were common for small and irrational reasons (as discussed above in Historical Baxter Street). People seemed to have been prone to violence as the solution to any problem. Yet, in Gangs of New York, it seemed like Scorcese was trying to create a movie about primal cavemen. Specifically, in a scene with the battle of all of the 5 Points gangs, hundreds of people run at each other and bash each others brains in. One particularly psychotic woman, a member of the Irish gang, Dead Rabbits, that the movie opens on, puts on fake cat claws and chews off the ear of one of her victims.

While this battle seems to be based on the Dead Rabbits riot, only 8 people were killed in that riot and others were only injured. The riot was more about the destruction of property, specifically the Baxter Boys headquarters. Essentially, the movie seems to be painting a completely unrealistic picture of 19th century New York City. Other scenes in the movie feature gangs taking over the Chelsea region and various police stations around the city, none of which are based in fact. The only details that seem remotely accurate from the movie are that they kept some gang names the same, such as the Bowery Boys and Dead Rabbits. Also, as in the movie, Irish gangs were a big part of the area. Although, African Americans played an important role in the area too, which was not fully illustrated in the movie.

Overall, the movie was obviously made for entertainment rather than accuracy. Unfortunately, it is referred to as a “historical film.” If anything, perhaps “historically set fiction” fits the film better. I personally was surprised by the number of Oscar nominations the movie received. It seemed largely to be just inaccurate, senseless violence on film (and I am generally an action movie fan!).

If you’d like to watch the supposed Dead Rabbit Riot scene: click here.

Baxter Street At Night

As with the rest of Chinatown, Baxter Street shuts down at 8 PM. So walking down Baxter Street at 8 PM, it was almost unnervingly quiet. A few police men coming in and out of the prison and one person sitting in front of the prison on their cell phone are all that is to be seen. The Bail Bond neon signs are lit but there are bars over the doors. The lights flicker inside the Thai food and Vietnamese food restaurants, but they are empty. During the day, Baxter Street is busy with all different kinds of people walking on the street, whether to pass through or visit a restaurant. Baxter Street at night looks like a run down New York City that you see in many dystopia movies. Tonight it calls to mind the play and film, Rent. Although the movie takes place in Alphabet City, Baxter Street has a lot of the traits that the movie featured: broken down and empty, on the inside and out. For Rent, it would be perfect that Baxter Street has a prison, which would illustrate the government watching you for a wrong step.

Rosario Dawson and Chris Columbus on the set of Rent.

In other words, night on Baxter Street isn’t the brightly lit hustle-and-bustle you see at night on Friends, where there are lots of people out or they are hanging out on their balcony. On How I Met Your Mother, at night they are often in their busy bar, McClaren’s. But that is only one New York that viewers are seeing. All New York Streets aren’t so busy at night, some are even empty.

So clearly, Baxter Street is much more dystopia than utopia at night. No hustle-and-bustle to be seen, just quiet and empty. Only dimly lit by a few neon signs reflecting off the windowless walls of the prison. The emptiness is depressing, as this street, with it’s many restaurants, could be a busy, thriving place at night. Yet it is empty and quite dead, especially when compared to the busy bar of How I Met Your Mother. No television show depicts this kind of night in New York City, except possibly for the set up of a murder scene. Yet if a show did depict this, who would watch it?

Chinatown on Television

Chinatown is a common location for New York City television shows, especially crime related shows. A personal favorite of mine, Castle, has many episodes that bring them to Chinatown. These plots often come into connection with triad gang violence and, as I have previously discussed, Chinatown opulence. I have personally never seen a restaurant in Chinatown as pictured below on the left. Typically, I see what is pictured below on the right. In fact, the picture below on the right is from an actual restaurant on the same street that the ornate restaurant in Castle claims to be on (Mott Street, several blocks from Baxter Street). Chinatown restaurants are usually small with only enough room for around 10 tables. The tables are typically plexiglass with menus under them. They are not the host of chandeliers, mood lighting and fine linen.

The third picture, below on the left, shows the family suspected of gang dealings. They are all sitting around a table in their restaurant. As you can see on the right, they are exceptionally well dressed. The right is a closeup of the father, with his ornate trimmings, such as his silk tie and pocket square. Typically, when I visit Chinatown, everyone is dressed in jeans and t-shirts, even the people working in the restaurants, but especially the patrons of the restaurants.

In the episode as a whole, Beckett looks for prison and gang connections between a serial killer and this family to figure out which one killed a girl using the serial killer’s former gun. She suspects this family because of the ties to the girl (a son’s tutor) and their ties to the gang world. She quickly realizes that the girl and the son, Ben, were in a relationship and that the family could not have her take Ben away from ‘the family business,’ aka the Triad Gang. They had to kill her to stop Ben from leaving with her and never returning. Obviously, as an outsider of the ‘Triad Gang,’ I would not be aware of their general location or activities in Chinatown. However, I have never heard or seen anything in Chinatown that I remotely suspect as gang related, especially not on such a grand scale.

As I discussed in a previous post, this scene in Castle is far from a normal experience of Chinatown. As I indicated previously, Chinatown residents are quite poor. A great many of them are on government support. The episode as a whole represents a common occurrence in movies and television shows as showing Chinatown as a place of underground, illegal wealth. Movies such as Rush Hour also show the underground gang world images of Chinatown, although they take place in the Los Angeles Chinatown. This ‘illegal’ association with Chinatown possibly stems from the fake luxury business that is commonly seen in these areas. The fake handbag and watch businesses are also often pictured in movies. However, in my experience living near Canal Street, I get asked every day if I want to buy a fake Louis Vuitton or Chanel bag. Perhaps the imagined illegality of the area is based on this lesser reality of criminal activity and simply put on steroids for the media to appear as a complex, wealthy criminal organization.

Noises of Chinatown and Baxter Street

New York City has long been stereotyped as a very busy, noisy place. Baxter Street is no exception. While being one of the less busy streets in Chinatown, Baxter Street is still filled with noises during the day. Tourist groups and locals alike wander the street. People fill the park, being social and creating loud noises. Construction can be heard from a distance. Chinese music is heard faintly coming from inside restaurants and shops. Sometimes, there is traditional music in the park as well, while someone is putting on a show. But today, Baxter Street is filled with voices, tourists speaking English and other European languages, as well as locals speaking Mandarin.

Listen to the sounds of the video below. I chose this video, because although on Canal Street, it exemplifies noises that I found present on my street as well: sounds of busy locals, eager to sell their food or products, tourists commenting in curiosity about the local goods, the sounds of faint Chinese music, as well as the construction and car noises that one hears all around the city. As Corbould says, “The lack of quiet, the constant noise, indicated to Cunard a desire to move forward, to get beyond an endless nostalgia”(881). The noise of the area is an important sign of growth and business. Chinatown is a popular destination for tourists and specifically, tour groups. The hustle and bustle means business and money coming into the businesses of the area. While Chinatown reflects some nostalgia for China, the heritage of many residents, Chinatown also represents local business, great food and great deals. Chinatown is much more than simple nostalgia or an attempt at a miniature China.

Columbus Park, located at the bottom of Baxter Street, is often home to some of the more interesting noises on the street. The home of many Chinese New Year festivities, as well as other cultural holidays, songs and various kinds of drumming often fill the park. Below is a video of a Chinese New Year dance in the street. I chose it for its superior sound quality over other videos of a similar nature that were actually located in the park. This dance is called the lion dance and is performed by many people throughout Chinatown during Chinese New Year. Listen to the song being played, as well as the voices in the street. People stop and gather to watch the dance and listen to the music.

As Corbould says of Harlem, the sounds of a place can give it a specific identity. Corbould specifically says, “Making noise was a way to build community through collective action”(862). In the case of Chinatown, by walking through you can hear that Mandarin is a common language between locals. Corbould also illuminates on the subject of the street being the place where culture is formed and exhibited. In Chinatown, onlookers can see that heritage and Chinese traditions are important to the locals. Chinese New Year is distinctly a large and important part of this. While Chinatown locals have tradition in common, specifically, “sound provided a way to unite disparate individuals”(882). While each Chinatown local has a different story, whether they are 1st generation or 3rd, for example, they all unite in the busy streets. They unite by speaking in Mandarin to each other and they unite through traditional Chinese songs and festivals.

Digital Representations of Baxter Street

Finding a digital representation of Baxter Street is not hard to do. Google Maps has become the infinite source of knowledge for the digital searching of any location. Google Maps, when in Satellite mode, is what Galloway refers to as a “mixed reality environment,” which, as she details, “refer[s] to spaces that combine elements of the physical and virtual worlds”(390). Google maps uses pictures of the physical world on their website to make the website feel  like the viewer is walking the streets on his or her own. Yet Google Maps does not highlight many interesting features of Baxter Street. The lefthand image is the Southern half of Baxter and the righthand image is the northern half of Baxter. As you can see, few businesses or anything of interest are shown on my street. If I were merely glancing at this digital representation of Baxter, I would think it was a fairly residential street, with not much of interest to offer.


Google Maps is clearly trying to demonstrate the modern business locations of the street. However, this representation can be very misleading. On the South Side of Baxter, Google Maps’ digital representation chose to include Columbus Park, Pongsri, Whiskey Tavern, and 210 Canal Street Realty. Locations that I would have been sure to include if I were to create a Digital Representation are The Tombs Prison, the last remaining ‘corner’ of the 5 Points Gangs (the very bottom of Baxter Street), as well as Freedom Bail Bonds, located directly across the street from the prison. I would not have included Pongsri, a less-than-delicious Thai Restaurant, and 210 Canal Street Realty, because these locations have very little significance to the spirit of the street.

Yet, Google Maps’ choices of Columbus Park and Whiskey Tavern are proper and historical. Columbus Park’s location is very important. Built in 1897, Columbus Park was built in an effort to destroy the 5 Points lifestyle. Before it was a park, this location was home to former Tammany boss, Big Tim Sullivan. After that, it became home to several saloon locations and was known as “Bottle Alley.” The Whiskey Tavern is also an important location, as it is known to be a rare location that both police and criminals frequent. Located next to the prison and Bail Bond shops, it is the crossing point of New York’s Finest and New York’s seediest.

The North half of Baxter Street is almost completely blank in Google Maps’ representation. No businesses or shops are represented except for a fast food place, located on a cross street. Yet even though I, like Google Maps, tend to focus on the Southern half of Baxter for my writing, the Northern half of Baxter Street has some very interesting and important landmarks. Most Precious Blood Church is located on Baxter, in between Canal and Hester. This church was founded in 1888 to serve the Italian immigrant community in the area. The titled ‘blood’ refers to that of San Genarro, a Naples Bishop/Martyr. San Genarro festivities are an important part of Little Italy’s traditions. Another especially interesting location on the North side of Baxter Street is Odd Fellows Hall, on the corner of Grand and Baxter. This building was built in 1847 as a home for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a guild for unique workers with skills that traditionally were not a part of mainstream guilds.

Galloway refers to virtual worlds as “immaterial, outside of time, both distant and close,” while referring to the real world as “fixed in place”(390). Yet, this Google Maps mixed-reality representation seems to be more focused on remaining fixed in time, specifically today. Yet when walking up the street, it is hard to remain fixed in time. With buildings from the 1800s and many historical locations surrounding you, it is easy to transcend time to look more closely at the past.

Sources

nychinatown.org

barbara-kahn.com

nycgovparks.org

CNN.com, “History Haunts Manhattan’s Tombs Jail” by Harriet Ryan, December 2002 (Link)

Correctionhistory.org, “The Tombs” by Thomas McCarthy (Link)

Morris, “Walking in the City”

Certeau, “Walking in the City”

New York Times Historical Database

New York City Department of Planning

http://www.bartleby.com/129/

abc.com

Gangs Of New York. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Daniel Day-Lewis. Miramax Lionsgate, 2002. Film.

imdb.com

5 Points by Gregory Christiano, http://urbanography.com/5_points/ 2003

http://www.nychinatown.org/history/1800s.html

Asbury, Herbert. The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the New York Underworld. New York: Random House. 1928, pp 100–115

Tim Delaney: American Street Gangs, p. 38-60

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2003/03/0320_030320_oscars_gangs.html

tvovermind.com

wikia.com/friends

maps.google.com

http://www.nysonglines.com/baxter.htm

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