At Foley Square, a Center of Justice Where Lawlessness Once Ruled 

At Foley Square, a Center of Justice Where Lawlessness Once Ruled 

Foley Square is the city’s legal heart, surrounded by stately courthouses like the New York Supreme Court and the Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse. Long ago, it was the exact opposite: the center of crime and lawlessness in fledgling New York. Ahead of our April 1 screening of the classic 1957 court drama “12 Angry Men,” we took a look into the area’s history. 

These days, the plaza is anchored amid heavy buildings, with a slice of greenery in the form of a park named for author and revolutionary Thomas Paine. Foley Square has come a long way since the early 19th century, when the area was part of Five Points, a neighborhood that gained notoriety as a hub for crime, disease and unemployment. If you’ve seen “Gangs of New York,” you know all about it — the area was notorious for gang activity. It was also one of the only parts of the city where immigrants and formerly enslaved people could find a place to live, even if conditions were abhorrent.

Disease hit Five Points far before the crime set in. The area was once home to Collect Pond, the main source for drinking water for the native Lenape tribe that lived on its shores far before the colonists. When the colonists arrived, they used Collect Pond, too. But as colonization grew, more and more waste, runoff and sewage drained into the pond, eventually leading to the spread of disease 

Ultimately, the pond was too contaminated to use, and the residents decided to fill it in, building a canal — now present-day Canal Street — to drain it. A nearby hill got pushed into the lake to serve as landfill, but the engineering was shoddy, releasing methane gas into the air and causing the whole neighborhood to sink as the water table moved. The area became fetid and filled with mosquitoes, prompting wealthier residents to abandon it, and Five Points rose out of its remains. 

Five Points was only a handful of streets in total, but the degradation of that land quickly led to a deterioration of the quality of life. The slum was overrun with gangs, gambling halls, saloons and brothels. It attracted corrupt politicians who tried to take advantage of the neighborhood and its crime for their own nefarious ends, which in turn attracted more gangs who sought to seek asylum among those corrupt leaders.

As the neighborhood grew more crowded with new immigrants from Europe, criminal activities became not only lucrative, but also the only means of employment for the struggling residents. The area was dominated by the Old Brewery, a former industrial building that had been converted into cramped apartments, which housed 1,000 people at its peak. The building is said to have seen a murder every night for 15 years straight. Any visitors to the area were appalled, Charles Dickens among them, who wrote

 “This is the place: these narrow ways diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. … Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays.”

The area was also responsible for some innovation: with so many ethnic groups living together, there were quite a few  creative cultural collaborations. Some historians, for instance, believe that the combination of African and Irish influences in the neighborhood led to the creation of tap dancing

“Triumph of the Human Spirit,” located near the African Burial Ground, at Foley Square

Reformers finally took note of the neighborhood in the late 19th century. These included Jacob Riis, who photographed the squalid conditions and exposed them to a larger audience. A mission took over the Old Brewery and began offering food, lodging and clothing to the area’s residents. Eventually, in the 20th century, the area was redeveloped as part of the civic center in Lower Manhattan, ultimately growing into the collection of courts we have today. 

In recent years, Foley Square has honored its past with five points of its own — it once had five bronze medallions around the park to mark various historical events, stretching from the Lenape days to the 20th century. The land is also linked to another part of the city’s early history, as it sits on part of the African Burial Ground. 

In 2013, the city erected a statue of Abraham De Peyster, a former New York City mayor who served between 1691 and 1694, in the park as a reminder of the area’s roots as a Dutch settlement. 

The park stands now as a spot of respite among the court buildings that line its edges, and is a gathering spot for lawyers and protesters alike. Any trace of Five Points or the Collection Pond are long gone. Foley Square is now a nexus uniting the surrounding centers of justice,  and a reminder of the lawless days that once dominated this area of Lower Manhattan. 

Join us at IPIC Fulton on April 1 for our New York on Film screening of “12 Angry Men,” followed by a  conversation with Josh Dubin, executive director of the Perlmutter Center for Legal Justice at Cardozo Law School and president of Dubin Research and Consulting, Inc., and Derrick Hamilton, Deputy Director of the Perlmutter Center for Legal Justice at Cardozo Law School and an expert in wrongful conviction. Get your ticket here

Tags: feature, Foley Square

Related articles

Find the Secret Slice of Ireland Hidden in Lower Manhattan 
Find the Secret Slice of Ireland Hidden in Lower Manhattan 

Just ahead of St. Patrick's Day, learn about the history of the Irish Hunger Memorial.

Photos: “Domino Effect,” Now on View at Fosun Plaza
Photos: “Domino Effect,” Now on View at Fosun Plaza

Be sure to check it out before it departs on March 6.

This Vibrant New WTC Mural Will Help You Shake Off the Winter Blues 
This Vibrant New WTC Mural Will Help You Shake Off the Winter Blues 

You can spot this stunning Georgie Nakima piece on Vesey Street.