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What Gangs of New York Misses
City Journal ^ | January 14, 2003 | William J. Stern

Posted on 01/14/2003 3:57:12 PM PST by aculeus

Director Martin Scorcese’s violent tale of gang warfare in nineteenth-century New York ignores the dramatic transformation of the city’s Irish underclass into mainstream citizens. | 14 January 2003

In 1842, accompanied by two policemen to ensure his safety, Charles Dickens visited Gotham’s Five Points slum, at the corner of what today are Worth, Baxter, and Park Streets behind Manhattan’s Supreme Court building, and found it “loathsome, drooping, and decayed” (see “A Traveller’s New York, 1842,” Autumn 1994). The area boasted some 17 brothels and countless saloons; for dark-side amusement and thrills, Five Points was the place. Davy Crockett remarked after a trip through the neighborhood that he would rather venture into Indian Country than ever return there. Irish-born John Hughes, the first Catholic Archbishop of New York, described Five Points’ predominantly Irish residents as “the poorest and most wretched population that can be found in the world—the scattered debris of the Irish nation.” In addition to the Irish, residents included blacks, Chinese, French, Germans, Poles, and Spaniards. It is this troubled neighborhood and its people, the beginning of the New York melting pot, that director Martin Scorcese seeks to bring back to life in his major new movie Gangs of New York, a chronicle of gang warfare between Irish immigrants and anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant natives, or “nativists.”

... The big problem with Gangs of New York, however, is not DiCaprio’s weak performance. It’s that Scorcese, by concentrating solely on nineteenth-century gangbanging—and turning it into grand guignol theater of violence—missed a wonderful opportunity to show what was actually taking place in mid-nineteenth century New York. The hordes of immigrant Irish had by then become the nation’s first underclass, of which gangs like that headed by Neeson were symptoms—as were the 1863 draft riots depicted in the movie, a disgraceful, Irish-led, anti-black pogrom, sparked by opposition to the draft instituted during the Civil War. Over a century later, the association of an urban underclass with urban riots became even more familiar.

While Scorcese has Butcher Cutting express some of the period’s nativist sentiment, the movie makes no effort to show who the nativists really were. They weren’t simply an early version of the twentieth century’s Ku Klux Klan. Unlike the Klan, whose ranks consisted overwhelmingly of uneducated, low-income whites (like Cutting), the nativists included among their number some of America’s elite leaders and thinkers. Indeed, the nativists’ anti-Catholicism had a long history among American elites. Some of the country’s founders believed that Anglo-Saxon culture was basically identical with Western Civilization. Catholicism, in their view, was incompatible with democracy and religious freedom. As a delegate drafting the New York State Constitution, for example, John Jay successfully pushed for an amendment forbidding practitioners of religions with leaders located beyond American shores—like, say, the pope in Rome—from becoming U.S. citizens (the federal government eventually took over the responsibility of granting citizenship, rendering such state restrictions void). Fear that the pope was telling American Catholics what to do and think characterized the opinions of elite figures like John Quincy Adams, Samuel Morse, and P. T. Barnum, and continued right up to the presidential election of John Kennedy, who during his campaign had to promise a group of Protestant ministers that he would be faithful to the U.S. Constitution.

On the lowbrow side, some nativist Protestants believed that the Catholic Church was the “Whore of Babylon,” an instrument of Satan, and that the pope was an anti-Christ. Protestant minister John S. Orr, known as “Angel Gabriel” to his followers, spoke to crowds of thousands in front of City Hall, advocating the casting of the Irish and the Catholic Church out of the city and into the Atlantic.

In addition to anti-Catholicism, many nativists also believed in Aryan supremacy—and the Irish weren’t Aryans. Famed cartoonist Thomas Nast regularly depicted the Irish as subhuman apes. In 1851, Harper’s Magazine described the Irish physiognomy in the same unflattering terms. A few years later, the brothers Orson and Lorenzo Fowler published a New Illustrated Self Instructor in Phrenology and Physiology that reinforced ideas about Irish genetic inferiority. This pseudoscientific view of the Irish was influential right through the end of the nineteenth century.

Many Americans fell prey to this destructive, racist form of thinking because of what they were seeing of the Irish underclass in mid-nineteenth century New York. Prostitution was rampant. The Irish immigration of the 1840s was some 60 percent female, most of them single, and many of these newcomers soon found themselves on the street. Ronald H. Baylor and Timothy J. Meagher report in their book, The New York Irish, that the prostitute population jumped from 11,000 in 1839 to 50,000 ten years later, and these “nymphs of the pave,” as people called them, were mostly young Irish girls. But it wasn’t just prostitution: venereal disease, alcoholism, opium addiction, child abandonment, infanticide—the New York Irish suffered crippling levels of social pathology.

The criminals of the city were almost all Irishmen—and they were far from the strapping, well-fed, hard-partying swells that Scorcese depicts as his gang members. The police cart that hauled away prisoners became the “paddy wagon” because it invariably transported Irish hoodlums. Irish gangs consisted mainly of tattered, hungry, dirty, abandoned Irish boys—many of them the offspring of nymphs of the pave like that played in the film by Cameron Diaz. Their lives were short, as Scorcese shows—and also, as he does not show, nasty and brutish. Faced with these grim realities, much grimmer than Scorcese’s fairytale fantasy, it should surprise no one that many wanted the Irish out of the city—and the country. In 1854, the anti-immigration Know Nothing Party captured 75 seats in Congress.

In a vicious circle, religious and ethnic discrimination was causing growing problems for New York’s Irish, while the destructive behavior of New York’s Irish fed growing religious and ethnic discrimination.

It took a charismatic religious leader to lead the Irish—and the nation—out of this destructive circle. “Dagger” John Hughes, an Irish immigrant gardener who became the first Catholic archbishop of New York, makes only a silent cameo appearance in Gangs of New York, looking like a refugee from The Godfather; but in the real world, he catalyzed a remarkable cultural change that would liberate Gotham’s Irish from their self-destructive underclass behavior, so that within a generation they began flooding into the American mainstream (see “How Dagger John Saved New York’s Irish,” Spring 1997). It’s a shame that Scorcese didn’t find a bigger part in his film for this brilliant, complex, and extremely effective man. (Given Hollywood’s usual hostility to religion, however, Scorcese’s treatment of religion in the film is surprisingly sympathetic.)

Hughes emerged as an aggressive champion of Irish and Catholic civil rights. Confronting a Methodist minister who’d been detailing the history of Catholic Church misdeeds in Europe, he charged: “Yours sir, is a young religion; there are no misdeeds in your past, but no glories either.” He never tired of telling Protestants that it was the Catholic Church that had given the world the modern university, organized philanthropy, the hospital, and the West’s greatest music and art. He reminded listeners that it was Protestant England that crushed religious liberty in Ireland—oppression that had victimized his family, who had come to America for its freedom of conscience. Hughes remained enthralled with America’s great potential to be a land of pluralism and tolerance. As a 19-year-old manual laborer in 1819, shortly after arriving in the U.S., Hughes had written a poem attacking slavery as out of keeping with America’s true greatness. (This is a point Scorcese’s film, with its failure of historical imagination, misses: the Civil War was not simply an occasion for the WASP power structure to draft poor Irishmen to die on the battlefield but an intensely moral struggle to free the slaves, in which Americans of all backgrounds gave their lives.)

Yet if Hughes attacked religious and ethnic bigotry, he also recognized that the dysfunctional behavior of New York’s Irish was more destructive than the discrimination against them. After all, he knew that German immigrants, 40 percent of whom were also Catholic (the majority was Protestant, with a small minority of Jews), were almost immediately successful upon arriving in the country, even though most had come to America with no more money than their Irish counterparts—though they did arrive as intact families to a much greater degree than the Irish. German Catholic immigrants did not experience anything akin to the troubles of Irish Catholics, proving that the source of Irish difficulties was not simply their religion or that their ancestors weren’t English. Tellingly, there are almost no reports of German gangs in the historical period that Gangs of New York—both the movie and the 1928 book by Herbert Asbury on which it is based—portrays.

The Irish badly needed rescue, then, and Hughes set out to be their rescuer. Religious renewal would be his chosen means of salvation. When asked what he was going to do about the Irish problem, Hughes replied curtly, “We are going to teach them their religion.” England had sharply curtailed the teaching of Catholicism in Ireland, so the rural Irish who came to America had almost no religious training. Scorcese accurately shows the dominant Catholicism of the New York Irish as a kind of ritualistic superstition; St. Thomas would not have recognized it. This degraded Catholicism could not long resist the worldly temptations of Five Points.

Hughes was fortunate to have more than his own considerable talent to rely on in reforming the New York Irish. The Oxford movement in England had resulted in the conversion to the Catholic Church of a number of brilliant and talented individuals, most famously John Henry Cardinal Newman. In New York, the movement had an even greater influence, leading several highly educated Protestants to convert to Catholicism. Many of these high-profile converts—Levi Silliman Ives (see “Once We Knew How to Rescue Poor Kids,” Autumn 1998), James Roosevelt Bayley, Elizabeth Boyle, Isaac Hecker, James McMaster, and others—offered to help the Irish; Hughes astutely availed himself of their services. Hughes also developed close relationships with WASP politicians like William H. Seward, the Whig Governor of New York. Many WASPs shared Hughes’s vision of a pluralistic America and felt that a large numbers of immigrants would speed the economic development of the country. They understood that with the help of immigrants, the U.S. could become the greatest economic power the world has ever known, and its greatest democracy. Too bad that Scorcese treats all WASP politicians and philanthropists as naive buffoons, without recognizing the value of their efforts to uplift the newcomers, very much an American tradition.

With the help of WASP pols and his talented converts, Hughes launched a series of what today we would call “faith-based initiatives.” These charitable initiatives, which often received government funding, aimed at everything from fighting alcoholism and promiscuity to boosting economic development and the self-esteem of Irish women. The initiatives drew on the power of faith to call people to personal responsibility. A life devoted to the Ten Commandments, Hughes recognized, would lead people to be responsible in their sexual conduct, to care for their children, to respect the elderly, to minister to the sick, to be financially responsible, and to live disciplined lives—a recipe for individual and communal success.

Hughes’s efforts proved astonishingly successful. In less than a generation, the New York Irish moved from being criminals to being the policemen and prosecutors who put the bad guys behind bars. In the mid-nineteenth century, New York Irish women had a reputation for promiscuity. By the end of the century, people chided them for being puritanical. By 1890, two-thirds of the schoolteachers in the city’s schools were Irish women. Temperance societies in every parish convinced most of the women and some of the men to abstain from alcohol. By 1880, when banking and shipping magnate William Grace became the first Irish-Catholic mayor of New York, people viewed the Irish as “a churched people.” Some, like Grace, had accumulated significant wealth; many more had entered the middle class; few resembled the violent, drunken, aimless citizens of 1860’s Five Points.

Hughes and his allies won a monumental struggle with the nativists. If they hadn’t won, the mass immigration of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century might not have happened, because opposition to newcomers would have continued to grow, and the nation’s openness might have closed. America would have looked in the twentieth century like a gigantic WASP version of Japan. John Hughes is an American figure of major historic proportions.

Today in inner city America, of course, we have another underclass, this one largely African-American. Since the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, many barriers to black advancement have come down, and the nation’s blacks have made considerable progress in many areas. Almost everyone would agree that the nation has more work to do to remove racist attitudes and racial discrimination. But what is also holding some blacks back is the explosion of out-of-wedlock births among African-Americans over the last several decades. As the data conclusively show, children born out of wedlock have an exponentially greater chance of living in poverty, committing a crime, doing poorly in school, going to prison, taking drugs, and suffering from a host of other problems than do children born to a married couple. Good schools mean little if a child has no interest in education; economic opportunity means even less if a child isn’t raised in a culture where the day after tomorrow matters.

In other words, culture is key. As Alcoholics Anonymous or any psychiatrist understands as well as Hughes, people often have problems that they can only solve by changing their inner self and accepting the idea of personal responsibility. That’s why faith-based initiatives, with their emphasis on inner transformation and individual accountability, help produce the kind of responsible citizens any freedom-loving democracy needs. They have been an important means for social progress throughout U.S. history, and they’ve often received government help in carrying out their mission. It has only been in recent decades that the courts have prevented government from enlisting this aid.

President Bush has proposed a program through which government would again provide support to faith-based initiatives for the purpose of solving social problems. Arrayed against these initiatives are the new nativists: the cultural Left, including the New York Times, the A.C.L.U., liberal justices, and a number of left-liberal elected officials. Unlike their nineteenth century predecessors, they don’t want the Catholic Church cast out of the country. Instead they want all religion cast out of the public square.

On December 30, 2002, the Times published an editorial entitled using tax dollars for churches. The editorial asserted: “It is clearer today than ever that one of America’s greatest strengths is that we are a nation in which people are free to practice any faith or no faith, and the government keeps out of the religious realm. This is a tradition that has served America ever since its founding. There is no reason to tamper with it now.”

This is revisionism worthy of Walter Duranty, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Times correspondent in Moscow who, when the Soviet government precipitated a famine in the Ukraine that killed at least 5 million people, blatantly denied the existence of the starvation in his dispatches to his editors back in the states. In 1871, the Times published an editorial arguing that government support of Catholic Charities was out of proportion to the trifling sums granted Protestant institutions. “How long will Protestants endure?,” the Times worried. The Times has gone from arguing “let’s give the Protestants more” to “let’s give nothing to religion.” The fact is, nineteenth century Americans—the Times included—understood religion’s essential role in fighting social problems.

For most of its history, government has helped religious institutions when they perform activities that help the country as a whole—and that secular service should be the test as to whether a faith-based institution (or, for that matter, a secular one) receives taxpayer support. In truth, the new nativists don’t like the moral teachings of traditional Judeo-Christian religion, and they want those teachings to disappear—regardless of how much that hurts America.

Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York only briefly depicts the role that religiously motivated people were playing in trying to help the citizens of Five Points during the 1860s, and doesn’t show at all the crucial fact that their efforts were gradually changing the culture.

A Roman general, when his officers dragged the leading actor of Rome before him, after they caught the actor sleeping with the general’s wife, said, “Don’t kill him; let him go—he’s only an actor.” We should forgive Scorsese for missing an opportunity. After all, he’s only a Hollywood director. And perhaps we should ignore the New York Times as well. After all, it is only the paper of Walter Duranty.

TOPICS: Crime/Corruption; Culture/Society; Editorial; US: New York
KEYWORDS: irishcatholic
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To: aculeus; All
As I have stated on other threads, I LOVED the movie, despite some historical inaccuracies. The 1863 draft riots are rarely talked about in high school history classes (especially in the early 1960s, when my parents were in school), despite the fact that they were the most violent civil insurrection in American History (other than the "War of Southern Arrogance" of course).
41 posted on 01/14/2003 11:12:15 PM PST by Clemenza (East Side, West Side, all over town. Tripping the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York!)
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To: nopardons; Wallace T.; martin_fierro; Happygal; discostu; Peter Libra
THIS MOVIE SUCKS, REALLY SUCKS, and I loved Scorcese with Taxi Driver etc. However, I don't care if the libs screwed up the history or not, it just isn't worth a spit! This one has lots of colors and camera shots of gratuitous fighting, and we usually love gratuitous fighting, but this baby face boy, with a sorry Irish accent, and fighting?... nope.... it doesn't work...we 3 guys walked out after 45 minutes... save your money...came home and watched CONAIR... again!
42 posted on 01/14/2003 11:13:31 PM PST by carlo3b (Tell your kids you love them today, tomorrow may be too late....)
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To: Clemenza
Thanks...I got it now. I know Mulberry well.....used to take visitors to Luna's for Rollatinis(sic) and Ferraras afterwards for Shfotellas (sic again) and espressos.

And yes I knew even then that the best Italian food was in Brooklyn but everybody wanted to see Little Italy and stuff like that joint where Joey Gallo got clipped.
43 posted on 01/14/2003 11:14:44 PM PST by wardaddy (I think Manhattan.....I think Roxy Music's Avalon...strange eh?)
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To: Clemenza
The riots WERE taught, just a few years ealier, in the '50s.
44 posted on 01/14/2003 11:15:22 PM PST by nopardons
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To: Clemenza
45 posted on 01/14/2003 11:15:56 PM PST by wardaddy
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To: Wallace T.
(and not just German and Polish immigrants)

THIS WAS A TOTAL LIE!!! The Germans DID NOT participate in the draft riots and were, in fact, staunch supporters of the Union cause (which got them in trouble when they settled in places like Kerrville, Texas). As for the Poles, THERE WAS NO LARGE POLISH POPULATION IN NEW YORK IN THE 1860s. The few Poles that were in this country were in Panna Maria, Texas. The large wave of Polish immigrants came in the 1880s-1920s and, in any case, preferred places like Chicago, Cleveland and Pittsburgh (to say nothing of Northern New Jersey, where Clemenza's paternal family settled) over NYC.

46 posted on 01/14/2003 11:16:46 PM PST by Clemenza (East Side, West Side, all over town. Tripping the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York!)
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To: carlo3b
Thanks, dear friend, for the review. I'll wait for it to come to cable, so that I can yell at the screen, add historical data, and hoot at little Leo, who can't act his way out of a wet paper bag.
47 posted on 01/14/2003 11:17:19 PM PST by nopardons
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To: nopardons
It's written by the head chef at Les Halles in Manhattan and is sort of an expose of kitchen culture and his own perilous route through it all. He started out as a prep school kid.

He's the chain smoking tall skinny guy (40s)on the food channel who travels all over the world eating at strange places. His dad was from the SW French coast(south of Bordeaux) and he's had an unusual and rather self indulgent life but seems to have recovered. Lots of jaded irony of course...he is half
48 posted on 01/14/2003 11:21:47 PM PST by wardaddy (a fair amount of gutter kitchen've been warned...)
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To: carlo3b
I tend to find that the people who dislike this movie 1. HATE historical films in general (unless its a war movie) or 2. Don't give a damn about New York. Since I saw the movie while visiting parents in Boca Raton, FL (aka New York South) those who did not like the film tended to be in the first camp. I'd say that the consensus regarding the film was about 60% in favor with 40% disliking it (no middle ground on this one).

BTW: Taxi Driver is my favorite movie of all time. As for Con Air what a bombastic load of Jerry Bruckheimer produced sh-t!

49 posted on 01/14/2003 11:23:06 PM PST by Clemenza (East Side, West Side, all over town. Tripping the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York!)
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To: wardaddy
Oh dear, I loathe him; he's so smarmy on that show. Maybe the book is better ? ;^ )
50 posted on 01/14/2003 11:26:08 PM PST by nopardons
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To: Clemenza; nopardons are correct..The movie Ride With The Devil deals with pro-Unionist German settlers in Missouri and Arkansas and the uncivil civil war there...not too shabby or preachy.

NP, (dudette) hear Thomas Barksdale stirring and it's my time to give him his Enfamil Low Iron since I'm fooling around here and Annette is sawing logs.

Good Night....nice to hear from you....I'll reply about my dilletante anarchist later.
51 posted on 01/14/2003 11:27:29 PM PST by wardaddy
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To: wardaddy
It's written by the head chef at Les Halles in Manhattan and is sort of an expose of kitchen culture and his own perilous route through it all. He started out as a prep school kid.

Chef Anthony Bourdain bump!

52 posted on 01/14/2003 11:27:32 PM PST by Clemenza (Needs to cut back on the sfogitelle and cannoli)
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To: nopardons
53 posted on 01/14/2003 11:28:07 PM PST by wardaddy
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To: Clemenza
Dear, it's really " East side, West side, all around the town... " and was written by Mayor Gentle Jim Walker. Please correct your tag line. :-)

P.S. Do you want / need the rest of the lyrics ?

54 posted on 01/14/2003 11:28:53 PM PST by nopardons
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To: Clemenza
I love NEW YORK, and can quote almost every important line in most big budget historical movies in the last &$%# years...LOL I own most of them on DVD VHS... This dog just don't hunt...and I am a bit worried about any guy that doesn't like Con Air, ....just an observation...Ha!
55 posted on 01/14/2003 11:30:47 PM PST by carlo3b (Tell your kids you love them today, tomorrow may be too late....)
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To: wardaddy
Give Master Tom a kiss from me and don't worry about how long it takes to reply.

LOLing at the " dudette " thingy and I have a whole bunch of new things to help ya with the " anarchist " pretender. :-)

56 posted on 01/14/2003 11:31:39 PM PST by nopardons
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To: carlo3b
Hey sweety, have you been watching the PBS three parter on Chicago ? Tonight's episode was out of this world ! No bias, no lefty garbage; just pure historical fact. :-)
57 posted on 01/14/2003 11:33:34 PM PST by nopardons
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To: nopardons
Thanks for the correction. For some odd reason, James T. Farrell decided to open Studs Lonigan (which, ironically, includes ANOTHER Black vs. Irish Riot, that of Chicago in 1919) with the lyrics to this song.
58 posted on 01/14/2003 11:36:07 PM PST by Clemenza (East side, West side, all around the town. Tripping the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York)
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To: nopardons; Clemenza
Don't tell me that !!!!!!! I thought that was next week.. Sh#% ok what have I missed...point me to a review so I can eat my heart out...psst...only just be sure it's not written by Clemenza...smirk....LOL
59 posted on 01/14/2003 11:37:42 PM PST by carlo3b (Tell your kids you love them today, tomorrow may be too late....)
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To: Clemenza
Read the book, saw the movie, and the T.V. miniseries of " STUDS LONIGAN ". The book is the best of the three. Why something, taking place in Chicago, would have that song playing as an opener, is beyond me.

I grew up not only singing " SIDEWALKS OF N.Y. ", but doing the trational tap dance ( really a soft shoe ) of it. It's one of those things that is forever engraved in my brain. :-)

60 posted on 01/14/2003 11:44:46 PM PST by nopardons
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