Gangs of New York gets New York City wrong

Robert W. Snyder
15 January 2003

"you can't begin to imagine how it all began..."
- a lot of imagination is needed, here

‘L’America E Nata Nelle Strade’ (‘America Was Born in the Streets’). So proclaims the billboard on my friend’s street in Rome for Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York.

At a time when American capacities for violence have the world on edge, it is tempting to see gang war as the symbol not just for the biggest city in the United States but also for America itself. But Scorsese’s film misunderstands both New York and its place in American history.

The USA was not born only in gang conflicts on its big city streets. It has more to offer the world than the celebrity of violence and lawlessness.

Gangs of New York is set in the Five Points. This was New York’s most famous slum in the mid-19th century. In Scorsese’s telling of the neighbourhood’s story, the inhabitants spend their days fighting in the streets and their nights fornicating on the docks. But the film ignores what most New Yorkers did back then with their days and nights: work.

The omission matters.

At work, despite the ethnic tensions that are a recurring theme in the city’s history, New Yorkers learned the toughness and solidarity that made it the capital of the American labour movement.

The struggles of New York workers for shorter hours, better pay and safer working conditions – voiced in a multitude of languages – improved life for the average New Yorker. When these conditions at work were combined with strong public parks, schools and housing, Gotham became, for much of the 20th century, an international city where working-class people made better lives for themselves than they would have found elsewhere. This, not warring ethnic gangs, is New York’s great bequest to posterity.

From error to myth

Mid-19th century New York could indeed be a violent place. Gangs and rioting were common. But the film has many historical inaccuracies. The politician Boss Tweed is depicted as a major player during the draft riots. In fact, his biggest years came afterward. The film creates a character, Bill Cutting, based on the real-life Bill Poole (an anti-immigrant thug and politico), and then places him at events that Poole never lived to see. The catacombs beneath the Five Points streets, a major element in the film, are implausible. The Five Points was built on the site of the filled-in Collect Pond. It was always too low and damp for the kind of tunnels depicted in the film. In the film’s final scene, the great draft riot of 1863, warships bombard the city – something that never happened.

Bill the Butcher

Why all these errors? Partly because the film, as screenwriter Jay Cocks put it, gains ‘inspiration and a little history’ from Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York. Asbury, a newspaperman turned chronicler of the urban underworld, had a tendency to recycle urban legends that confirmed 1920s stereotypes about immigrants and the supposed dangers and mysteries of the big city.

For the filmmakers, these inaccuracies are beside the point. As Cocks put it, they saw Gangs of New York as a chance to create ‘our own myths, based in history’.

But if myths are the stories that we tell to give meaning to our past, then Gangs of New York is a flawed piece of mythology. Scorsese’s film does more than exaggerate the violence of the neighbourhood. Historian Tyler Anbinder, the author of a study of the Five Points, points out that the neighbourhood was less dangerous, less violent and more productive than its image. In the years depicted in Gangs of New York, almost half the women of the Five Points were seamstresses. And more of its men were skilled workers, such as tailors and shoemakers, than day labourers. Only because the district had many Irish immigrants and African Americans, did the Points become everyone’s urban whipping boy.

If you take part of what happened, make story out of it and forget the rest of what happened, then the result is not a myth based in history but one that has been taken, even stolen, from history.

A city forged in work

Martin Scorsese has a pretty skewed view of paid labour anyway. The only workers he portrays are gamblers, boxers, taxi-drivers and prostitutes, the professional successors to the gang members he portrays in the film.

The result is that the film implies that New Yorkers acquired their toughness, solidarity and a chance at a better life by joining gangs. In fact, the vast majority of immigrants, then and now, found most of the toughness and cooperation they needed in the world of work.

Over the generations, newcomers to the city, working people especially, have transformed New York with their struggles to make it live up to its promises. Jewish and Italian women fighting against sweatshops in the early 20th century, A. Philip Randolph organising a union for black railroad workers in the 1920s and 1930s, the Irishman Mike Quill leading transit workers before and after the Second World War, and today’s transit union leader, Roger Toussaint from Trinidad: all are part of the tradition.

Across the generations, they created something rare in America: a multinational city, saturated with the spirit of capitalism, which nonetheless functioned as an urban social democracy. The significance of this achievement should not be lost on Europeans who are now trying to reconcile their own beleaguered welfare states with large, unfamiliar immigrant communities that are new to their own cities.

Since the 1970s, under the pressure of political and economic forces, the New York tradition of strong public institutions, active unions and generous social services has weakened. But the achievements of New York’s working class, which has always held substantial numbers of immigrants and newcomers to the city, remain as a yardstick for measuring the justice and injustice of the present. Call this too a myth if you like. But it is a myth more accurate, more useful and more worthy than a hymn to the life of gangs.


murderous crowd headed by Bill the Butcher

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