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Neighborhood or Slum? Snapshots of Five Points, 1827-1867

In this activity, students look at census records from antebellum Five Points and compare them to depictions of the neighborhood and its residents. Students will evaluate whether observers described Five Points as a neighborhood or slum. The activity includes a Smartboard file, but can be completed without this technology.


  • Students will evaluate the bias and accuracy of depictions of Five Points and its residents.

This activity supports the following Common Core Literacy Standards in History/Social Studies:

  • RHSS.6-8.7. Integrate visual information with other information in print and digital texts.

  • RHSS.6-8.8. Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.

  • RHSS.6-8.6. Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author's point of view or purpose.


Note: Each of the primary sources in this activity includes an analysis worksheet. The teacher can differentiate the activity by giving the analysis worksheets only to lower level students, or by giving higher-level students versions of the text documents without text supports. 

Step 1: Tell students that in this activity they will consider how different types of evidence produce different views of the same event or place. They will look at images, census records, and travel narratives about the Five Points in the 19th century. Then students will decide whether the evidence shows Five Points as a neighborhood or a slum. In this activity, they will look at the immigrant neighborhood Five Points and how it was portrayed in various 19th century images and texts. 

Pass out and/or project "New York State Census Page of Five Points, 1855." Discuss

  • What impression of the Five Points neighborhood do you get from this census page?

  • Is this an insider or outsider point of view?

Step 2: Tell students that they will now look at how different visitors and observers of the Five Points depicted it during the 19th century.

Divide students into pairs or groups of three. To each group, pass out the four additional documents and analysis worksheets (if using). Ask each group to choose one text and one image to focus on. They should carefully examine the document and complete the analysis worksheet. 

Before moving onto the next step, the teacher may want to go through documents as a whole, asking groups to share out what they noticed from the documents they chose. 

Step 3: If using Smartboard, project Slide 6 "Neighborhood or Slum?". Ask for volunteers to slide each document to one side or the other, depending on how it depicts the neighborhood, or somewhere in between if it presents evidence of Five Points as both slum and neighborhood. 

If not using Smartboard, replicate by making a "spectrum" on the board by drawing a horizontal line and writing "neighborhood" on one end and "slum" on the other. Have students tape printouts of the documents along the line.  

Conclude by discussing what kinds of biases the different sources include (or do not include). Ask students what additional sources can help us understand Five Points better (census records, archaeological evidence, first-person accounts from people who lived in the neighborhood). 

Historical Context

In general, the only work in the New World open to Irish men was unskilled, temporary, and often heavy. After the mid 1840s, Irish immigrants dominated day labor in most coastal towns and cities and formed the majority of workers on canals, railroads, and other construction projects. A visiting Irish journalist remarked in 1860, "There are several sorts of power working at the fabric of this Republic: water-power, steam-power, horse-power, Irish-power. The last works hardest of all."

Young Irish women did more than their share of heavy work. With more Irish women than men arriving in the United States and most families needing the labor of all their members, few women arriving from Ireland could afford the luxury of leisure. 

Economic hardship was widespread among Irish immigrants. Extreme poverty sometimes forced immigrants to turn to petty crime to survive. Families lived in increasingly crowded and decaying neighborhoods. Boston's North End was one such place. New York's Five Points was another. Middle class observers, who often toured such neighborhoods to gape in wonder at the lower classes or sought to deliver relief in the form of charity or religious sermons, were shocked and offended by life in Five Points. Many conflated the terrible conditions of poverty with moral failings on the part of the neighborhood's residents. 

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2011.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning , “Neighborhood or Slum? Snapshots of Five Points, 1827-1867,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 24, 2023,

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