Friday, December 23, 2016

The Irregular Guide to New York City Entry #10: Chinatown's Bloody Tunnels

I promised to post about a few of New York City's underground attractions, and I will honor that promise. However, I do so with a heavy heart. As you know, this has been a terrible week for the greatest city in the world. It's been particularly brutal for those who live in Staten Island, downtown Manhattan, and the coastal parts of Brooklyn and Queens. I urge each of you to help in anyway that you can--whether that means giving a few dollars, a few cans of food or a pint of blood.

One of the reasons that the hurricane caused so much damage in downtown Manhattan is that the entire island is practically hollow. Gazing up at the skyscrapers, it's easy to forget that there are miles upon miles of tunnels beneath the asphalt. Subway tunnels. Automobile tunnels. Parking garages. And probably quite a few passages that have been forgotten over the years. Today, most streets are dry, but many of those underground spaces remain flooded. It's still too early to know how much we've lost.

So, keeping that sad fact in mind, here's the first "underground" entry in the Irregular Guide to New York City . . .

(Above: Doyers Street and the "Bloody Angle")

Long before Chinese immigrants began arriving in New York, the Manhattan neighborhood we now call Chinatown was know as Five Points. For much of the nineteenth century, it was the most notorious slum in the United States. Giant pigs roamed freely, eating garbage right out of the gutters. Violent gangs with names like the Dead Rabbits and the Pug Uglies fought to the death in the streets. The air reeked of raw sewage and rampant disease sent countless residents to an early grave.

(Above: Five Points)

While most of the people who called the slum home were honest working folks, the Five Points had a reputation as a haven for criminals. Visitors who wanted a glimpse of the “dark side” of New York would often take a tour of the neighborhood. But only the bravest would have ventured into the tunnels beneath it.

Most of the mysterious tunnels under Chinatown probably date to the Five Points days. But by the late nineteenth century, Five Points had become Chinatown, and when the Chinese gang wars erupted in the early twentieth century, the subterranean passages were used by Tong Gangs to ambush—or escape from—their enemies.

Today, many of these tunnels still exist, but few people have access to them. However, one passage is open to the public—and if you’re heading to Chinatown, you won’t want to miss it. Go to 5 Doyers Street. (The street was once known as the “Bloody Angle” because so many men died there during the gang wars.) You’ll find an ordinary door with a staircase behind it. At the bottom of the stairs is the Wing Fat Shopping Mall. This strange underground shopping center was once a dark, wood-lined tunnel lit only by kerosene lamps. The locked doors you’ll pass all lead to other tunnels. No one really knows how many there are—or what purposes they serve today.

For more information--and pictures of the Wing Fat Shopping Mall--click here!


Ali said...

If I was going to name a gang, I would name it the Irregulars or something. Something cool.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ali:
Back around 1870-1880 "Dead Rabbits" and "Plug Uglies" were cool gang names. Law enforcement so haphazard that in 1857 there were two rival police departments (Metropolitan and Municipal)(link goes to Wikipedia article on NYPD History) in NYC -- and they fought against each other.

Robert in San Diego