Charles Dickens toured Five Points for a day and found only two things he liked about it. One was the pigs. Dickens described the city swine in better terms than he described many of the local slum dwellers. The pigs were gentlemanly, self-reliant and confident, while the people had “coarse and bloated faces” and lived in houses of debauchery. Dickens surmised that the pigs, who lived in those houses too, smugly wondered why their masters walked on two legs instead of four.
The second thing Dickens liked was a dance hall called Almack’s, located in a basement at 67 Orange St. below a carpenter’s shop. He arrived in the evening, with his police escort, balking at the inhumane conditions he witnessed at the prison known as “The Tombs” and lamenting the “great mounds of dusty rags” asleep on tenement floors. But descending into Almack’s offered him a glimpse of an entirely different side of the slum. The dance hall wasn’t fashionable — the landlady and women dancers wore only handkerchiefs on their heads — but it was full of life.
One man played the fiddle and another shook a tambourine, while couples danced on the floor. One dancer in particular caught Dickens’ eye: it was William Henry Lane, also known as “Master Juba.” Though only a teenager, he was the greatest dancer Dickens had ever seen. When Lane stepped out onto the dance floor, a new energy entered the room, lifting everybody up and adding more brightness to the candles. Then his tap dance began.
Dance historians consider Lane to be the first — or one of the first — to ever perform the tap dance. He got his start at 67 Orange St., giving the dance hall the legendary distinction of being the birthplace of the art form. In the 1840s, in the midst of death, disease and gang violence — the usual descriptors of Five Points — Almack’s was a place of joy and delight. It was also a place where two black men found great success in a pre-Civil War society: Lane and the owner of Almack’s, Pete Williams.
67 Orange St. no longer exists — Orange Street was renamed Baxter Street in 1854 — and the tenements that surrounded it are long gone. At the end of the 19th century, the city razed Five Points and turned the empty lots into a park, now part of Chinatown. Where Lane once tapped the hard floors, the western edge of Columbus Park now sits across from the New York County Criminal Courthouse. With the end of Five Points, the memory of Pete Williams’ Place and its famous dancer, William Henry Lane, faded. Though the site of the former slum is now a New York City landmark, there is no memorial in Chinatown specifically dedicated to the dance hall. But its legacy lives on still — in Harlem, where another black entrepreneur opened a cocktail bar in 2008 called 67 Orange Street in homage to the original dance hall.
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Long before Pete Williams occupied 67 Orange St., the ground that lay beneath it was an idyllic scene near the shores of Collect Pond. The Lenape Native Americans lived there when the Dutch arrived in 1624. The area was advantageous for both the Lenape and the Dutch, with the bountiful 50-foot-deep freshwater pond, located about halfway between the Hudson and East rivers.
Over the next 150 years, the presence of the Lenape diminished as they were killed or forced to move and the European population grew. Collect Pond and the area around it remained an important source of water and also became a sort of countryside retreat away from the growing bustle of Lower Manhattan. Paintings of Collect Pond in the mid-18th century show rolling hills and scattered homes around the placid body of water in the summer and a crowd cheerily gathered around a fireplace and a sleigh on the frozen pond in the winter. In this period, the prominent slave-owning Bayard family owned the future site of Almack’s. To this day, Bayard Street runs east to west in Manhattan, bordering the north end of Columbus Park.
As rich, white landowners moved in, forcing out the Lenape, slaves and free black people also populated the area. In 1741, an alleged conspiracy of a slave revolt led to hysteria. Historians have never been able to confirm whether the planned revolt was real or imagined, but its consequences were certainly real: 18 slaves lynched, 13 burned to death, 150 imprisoned and 70 forcibly moved to the West Indies. Roi Ottley, a black journalist, wrote in 1949 that this was the “biggest lynching in the history of America.” In 1911, a journalist for the Syracuse Herald wrote that the lynching foreshadowed what was to come when that ground became Five Points, saying it “received a red baptism, a promise of its future infamy.”
Towards the end of the 18th century, the city began to develop the area around Collect Pond, constructing tanneries, slaughterhouses and breweries. Peter Schermerhorn, who later lent his name to the Brooklyn Hoyt-Schermerhorn stop on the MTA, also owned a “ropewalk” right across the street from the future Almack’s. The “ropewalk” was a long and narrow building used to manufacture rope. Its strange dimensions accommodated the rope, which had to be stretched the length of a few blocks. As industry took over the area, the pond became polluted and lost its charm. City officials filled it shortly after the turn of the century and began to build it up, this time with tenements and shops that would soon become the country’s first slum.
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Charles Dickens arrived in New York in 1842, documenting his trip around the eastern part of the country in a book called American Notes. Most of what he saw left him unimpressed. Gone were the placid pond and rolling hills. “Poverty, wretchedness, and vice, are rife enough where we are going now,” Dickens wrote as he prepared to enter the district, with two heads of police, which he deemed necessary.
It’s unclear when exactly Almack’s opened, but it became famous after Dickens wrote about it. Pete Williams is listed as the tenant of 67 Orange St. only once in the New York City directories, in 1845-46; he’s labeled as “col’d.” Little is known about Williams beyond this, but one journalist described him as a “well-to-do” black man “who has made an immense amount of money” that he gambled away. He wrote that Williams “glories in being a bachelor” and was a lover of drama who frequented the theater at Astor Place, just beyond the slum.
After publication of American Notes, newspapers all over the country began carrying stories about Almack’s, with the writers making it clear this dance hall was nothing like the the tony venues they usually covered. First of all, it was diverse, with patrons of all backgrounds: black, brown, white and Asian, matching the demographic makeup of Five Points. It goes without saying that these reports were extremely racist in describing the dance hall’s owner, performers and clientele. Nonetheless, the reporters were as delighted as Dickens at what they witnessed on the dance floor.
One reporter wrote in the New York Daily Herald in 1846 that he saw “one of the most perfect pieces of dancing” at Almack’s. Though these accounts don’t name the dancers, it’s likely they were describing William Henry Lane, who was becoming a rising star and winning dance competitions in New York. In 1845, Lane toured with four white minstrels, unprecedented at the time, and the handbill named him the “Greatest Dancer in the World,” according to dance historian Marian Hannah Winter, the first academic to give Lane his due in the dance world in 1947. Eventually, Lane left New York behind, traveling to London, where Dickens’ book had made him famous, too. Unfortunately, Lane died only a few years later in the early 1850s.
Meanwhile, at Almack’s, the show went on, even without its star performer. Journalist George G. Foster, a New York Tribune reporter known as “Gaslight” Foster for his series on New Yorkers called “New York by Gaslight,” wrote about Pete Williams’s Place in 1850. He described tobacco-chewing men, women “agog” in anticipation of the fun ahead and the “motley and thirsty souls” at the bar. But like most accounts of this place, Foster heaped the most praise on the performances, writing about it in a literary and almost sexual way.
You can imagine that the music at Dickens’s Place is of no ordinary kind, You cannot, however, begin to imagine what it is. You cannot see the red-hot knitting-needles spirited out by the red-faced trumpeter, who looks precisely as if he were blowing glass, which needles aforesaid penetrating the tympanum, pierce through and through your brain without remorse. Nor can you perceive the frightful mechanical controtions of the bass-drummer as he sweats and deals his blows on every side, in all violation of the laws of rhythm, like a man beating a baulky mule and showering his blows upon the unfortunate animal, now on this side, now on that. If you could, it would be unnecessary for us to write.
Were it not for the fame that Dickens’ visit brought Almack’s, a fire in 1945 might’ve destroyed the place for good, before Foster had the chance to write about it. The blaze started in a hayloft at a grocery store just south of Almack’s on Orange Street and quickly spread to the carpenter’s shop and down to the dance hall. A news report described the dance hall as “completely cleaned out.” It opened back up a few months later.
Almack’s even outlasted its owner, Pete Williams. A death notice for Williams appeared in the New York Daily Times in 1852, eulogizing him as one of the most well-known black men of the time and noting that governors, members of the legislature and other prominent men visited his dance hall. The exact date of his death is unclear, however, as another death notice for Williams appeared in the same paper a year later.
Almack’s stayed open until the early to mid-1860s, after the street name changed from Orange to Baxter. Then it appears the building served as an ordinary home for newly arrived immigrants who populated Five Points. An Irish immigrant named Michael Downs lived at 67 Baxter St. until his death in 1866, according to the New York Herald, fitting the ethnic makeup of Baxter Street at that time.
By the 1880s, Italians dominated the area around the former Almack’s, which journalists increasingly described with disdain. In 1888, an account of Mulberry Bend, on the east side of the present-day Columbus Park, appeared in the Buffalo Evening News, which described it as a place where Italians did not live, but “simply existed.” “The odor that constantly arises is unpleasant,” the journalist wrote. “Other adjectives could be used, but all are inadequate. In the entire block not more than four homes are really fit, aside from prevailing stenches, for human habitation. So great is the filth that the board of health is almost constantly at work raiding some of the houses and fairly flooding them with disinfectants and antiseptics.”
This report was published a year after the New York state legislature passed the Small Parks Act, which allowed the city to eventually acquire several blocks in Five Points, including the block that used to house 67 Orange St., and turn it into Mulberry Bend Park, which later became Columbus Park. The park was meant to relieve the overcrowding of the tenements, or to erase it, as some might see it. In 1895, residents were evicted and the tenements were demolished. Mulberry Bend Park opened two years later.
Italians still lived around the park in the early 20th century, but journalists now wrote about the area in more positive terms. Mulberry Bend Park became the “lungs of the city,” a place where families spent languid afternoons in the fresh air. Drawings of people in the park in a 1903 New York Sun article show children playing instruments and laughing and women chatting, wry smiles on their faces. The drawings are more similar to the paintings of Collect Pond in the 1700s before the slum arose. In 1960, New York City built another small park a block west of Columbus Park and named it after Collect Pond, in another nod to the area’s idyllic, pre-Five Points past.
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Today, the site of the former Almack’s sits at the western edge of Columbus Park, where commuters in business suits walk quickly past tourists, who amble through the green space in the heart of Chinatown. Right behind the place where William Henry Lane once entertained visitors with his tap dance is a statue of Sun Yat-sen, considered the founder of modern China.
But the legacy of Almack’s lives on way uptown — in Harlem. A cocktail bar called 67 Orange Street opened in 2008. The bar’s owner, Karl Franz Williams, was inspired by the original dance hall and even shares a name with its owner, Pete Williams. And like Almack’s, located in a basement, 67 Orange Street is hard to find. Its windows are covered with velvet maroon curtains, and the only sign is a gold “67” about the size of a palm next to the door. Inside is a cozy, dimly lit cocktail bar, featuring drinks with names like “Emancipation (Classic or Again)” and “Afro Love.” Another one is called “Baxter Street.”
In modern-day New York City, Harlem has had to battle its own share of negative stereotypes, just like Five Points once did. The new 67 Orange Street shatters those images. Reviews have appeared in publications like the New York Times — not quite American Notes, but perhaps just as influential. We’ll never know if Dickens would approve, but the cocktail bar has one thing we know he’d like — pigs, or rather baby back ribs, on the menu.