A Niagara of Intemperance and Vice: Newspaper Reports on Immigrant New York, 1800–1900

The M in CITAMS@30

ISBN: 978-1-78769-670-9, eISBN: 978-1-78769-669-3

ISSN: 2050-2060

Publication date: 30 November 2018


This article examines the framing of immigrants in nineteenth-century New York City. A content analysis of local and national newspapers on the Lower East Side of the borough of Manhattan that included the infamous Five Points neighborhood demonstrates that the contemporaneous media narratives constructed a discourse of fear and contempt about residents of the area by emphasizing their alleged vice-ridden lifestyle. This discourse framed immigrants as a threat to the existing social order and diagnosed their moral failings on their cultural alienation. We argue that this process can be seen as an example of the exercise of symbolic power that sought to maintain existing social and cultural hierarchies by denigrating the disadvantaged sections of the population.



Ghatak, S. and Moran, N. (2018), "A Niagara of Intemperance and Vice: Newspaper Reports on Immigrant New York, 1800–1900", The M in CITAMS@30 (Studies in Media and Communications, Vol. 18), Emerald Publishing Limited, pp. 81-95. https://doi.org/10.1108/S2050-206020180000018006

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Copyright © 2019 Emerald Publishing Limited


Populism and resurgent nativism hinging on vilification of immigrants have come to dominate conservative politics in contemporary US (See Bartels, Oliver, & Rahn, 2016; Pérez Huber, 2016; Young, 2017). Immigration has generated heated debates in the past as well, but controversies surrounding immigration policy have become especially strident over the last decade. In the face of a difficult economic recovery, the threat of terrorism, as well as relentless drug related violence in Mexico, the issue of immigration has taken on a particular salience in the public discourse. Woods and Arthur (2014) argue that there has been an authoritarian turn in American political discourse on non-European immigrants since the 9/11/01 attacks on New York City. Despite ample evidence to the contrary (e.g., Ousey & Kubrin, 2009), anti-immigration political figures have continued to frame immigrants as potential threat to the collective security of the nation (e.g., Abrajano & Hajnal, 2015).

In spite of the newfound political potency of this idea, historical research shows that suspicion and labeling of immigrants as deviant are goes all the way back to the early history of the nation (Schrag, 2011; Zolberg, 2008). While Central American or West Asian immigrants bear the brunt of the hostility in our time, nativists targeted the Irish in the early nineteenth century and immigrants from China and eastern and southern European nations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most importantly, these processes were not just evident in political rhetoric and governmental policies, they have also been rooted in mass culture, and agents and institutions of the civil society have often been involved in the generation of frames of immigrant criminality. In this chapter, we highlight a small section of this history by studying the criminalization of immigrants in the nineteenth century by focusing on newspaper reports on life in immigrant settlements in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City. The analysis shows how contemporary newspaper reports on poor neighborhoods that depicted the area as a space of fear populated by poor, dangerous, and disorderly immigrants who were seen to pose a threat to the moral health of the nation. This discourse can be seen as a form of symbolic power directed at justifying the marginalization of some of the poorest residents of the city who were the intersection of various axes of disadvantages for their race/ethnicity, class position, residential location, and gender.

Framing, Media, and Symbolic Power

Scholars have examined the importance of media framing of the immigration and immigrants in recent times (Cheng, Igartua, Palacios, Acosta, & Palito, 2010; Fryberg et al., 2011; Kim, Carvalho, Davis, & Mullins, 2011; Van Gorp, 2005). Framing of the issue has serious ramifications in terms of extension or denial of rights to immigrants (Reich & Mendoza, 2005). Indeed, Chavez has made the case that the media has played an important role in creating and perpetuating the narrative of immigrants as a threat (2001). Recent scholarship has shown that media exposure rather than general prejudicial sentiments is more likely to explain antipathy toward immigrants (Valentino, Brader, & Jardina, 2013). Scholars have also pointed out how media is directly involved in “othering” of immigrants. Much of this literature correctly identifies the themes of otherness/danger/exclusion as master frames when it comes to describing immigrant communities or individuals (Cisneros, 2008; Nevins, 2002). In some cases, isolated incidents of crime by members of this community are hyped to the extent that it dominated the representation of that entire community in the public discourse (Martínez, Martínez-Schuldt, & Cantor, 2017). In other cases, an entire community is excluded from the mainstream and exists in a subliminal position that is an object of public scorn and suspicion (Greer & Jewkes, 2005). The position of immigrants in this context cannot be separated from the existing social hierarchy and distribution of power in a given society. Media framing of immigrants simultaneously occurs at material and symbolic levels in a society riven by racial and ethnic conflict. These frames, we will argue, are integral to world-making, which entails the creation of binary systems of classification whose purpose is to legitimize a social reality on the behalf of a dominant group (Bourdieu, 1989, p. 22).

Here, we focus specifically on the framing of immigrants and other racial/ethnic minority groups as a threat to the nation. Framing as a theoretical perspective emerged as a central theme in constructivist social sciences following the seminal works of Bateson (1972) and Goffman (1974). Frame analysis has transcended it original disciplinary boundaries in anthropology and sociology to become a conventional tool of analysis in media studies, criminology, communications, psychology, and political science. It typically refers to how individuals and collectivities construct and use an interpretative schema to perceive and contextualize events around them. Frames facilitate the understanding of a given phenomenon and simultaneously prescribe normative behavior within a given situation (Gamson & Modigliani, 1989).

Media coverage of issues of race and ethnicity is intrinsically linked to the process of the framing of the issue in public discourse as well as legislative debates (Chavez, 2013; Downing & Husband, 2005; Estrada, Ebert, & Lore, 2016). Media narratives play an important role in shaping popular perceptions of the problem of crime and a culture of fear (Barak, 2013; Ditton, Chadee, Farrall, Gilchrist, & Bannister, 2004; Glassner, 1999). This is also connected with the racial/ethnic divisions within the society, and there is a sizeable body of research on framing processes relevant to racialization and crime. Scholars have shown how media portrayals of violent crime in the US tend to frame white criminals as aberrations to the norm as opposed to black criminals as the norm itself (Heitzeg, 2015; Pepin, 2016). Similar research has also found normalization of drug use and gang-related activities among young African American citizens (Leverentz, 2012; Springer, 2010). This literature has done much to extend our understanding of how racial ideas influence perceptions about criminality in the public sphere. However, this research is primarily focused on the present era and contemporary media. In this article, we trace the trajectory of similar framing processes across the nineteenth century by analyzing the newspaper portrayals of immigrant life in New York City, especially the infamous Five Points neighborhood. We focus on this area since it housed the largest number of immigrants in the nation at that time. It acquired international infamy for its alleged decadence, deviance, and danger. This allows for the analysis of the intersection of different of various social and spatial disadvantages. It also provided a useful research tool to comb local and national newspaper archives for tales of the fads and foibles of contemporary New Yorkers much of which centered on the supposed depravity of an immigrant underclass.

In order to examine the processes of the framing of immigrants in nineteenth-century newspaper accounts concerning New York City, we used an online historical archive of newspapers (newsbank.com) as our key data source. The data come from contemporary local (e.g., The Evening Post, New York Commercial Advertiser, New York Daily Tribune, New York Gazette, New York Herald, New York Spectator, The New York Sunday Mercury, and New York Times) and out-of-town (Albany Argus, Albany Evening Journal, Macon Telegraph, Plattsburgh Republican, Saratoga Sentinel, Wisconsin Chief) newspapers and periodicals (American, Popular Mechanics) that published articles on life in New York City. Most of these were mainstream broadsheets and their readership primarily consisted of the “genteel” classes of the city. Our key search terms were based on both geography (comprising of contemporary immigrant-dominated neighborhoods such as Five Points, East Side, Lower Manhattan, Chinatown, Bowery, Mulberry Bend) and ethnic/ national origin of New York residents (Irish, Italian, Chinese, Jewish, immigrants, migrants) with a great deal of overlap between the two. Based on these, we constructed an archive comprising of close to a thousand articles, opinion pieces, and reports. We identified the key codes of crime, vice, social disorder, and fear. We then proceeded to conduct a content analysis of the codes that were identified and identified the key discourses employed in the framing of immigrants.

We attempt here to show how over the course of approximately 100 years, there was a clearly discernible theme in newspaper reports that presented immigrants and their habitats in the city in tones that alternated between condescension, indignation, and alarm over their alleged deviance as a threat to the city and the nation. When analyzing public discourses on Five Points, two key themes can be identified. Firstly, the reports used a cautionary frame that identifies the immigrant population of that area as a danger. It also asserted that if left unchecked, the vice and misery would overspill and infect the genteel people of the rest of the city. Next, there is a diagnostic frame that equated the alleged deviance and rootlessness of the local immigrant population stemming from their alien and immoral nature. The news discourses present complex imageries that highlight the intersection of race/ethnicity, economic status, residential patterns, and gender that together constructed the matrix of disadvantage among the “other half” of the city.

A Niagara of Intemperance and Vice: Crime, Place, and Immigrants in Nineteenth-century New York City

Historical scholarship has demonstrated that implicit or explicit nativism and suspicion of foreign-born people have driven portrayals of the East Side going back to the pre-Civil War era. Clashes between the native-born populations of the city with Irish immigrants marked the early history of the East Side (Ambinder, 2016). As early as 1802, a respectable gentleman writing to the editors of The New York Evening Post remarked, “We are swarming here with United Irishmen and musketoes; the former pick our pockets and the latter suck our blood []. Their vulgar and beastly appearance was disgusting […] drunken Irishmen […] all smelling as strong of whiskey as a still in the process of cleaning.” 1 By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Wisconsin Chief described Five Points as “[…] a moral wastem where the hot smitoon of vice and crime sweeps up from its pitfalls and reeking halls whose craters seethe and fume over the ruined and the lost. It is a realm where the upas droppings of blight and death have for years choked its huts and caverns with all that’s loathsome in vice or black in crime.” 2 Criminals and crimes were often identified by both ethnicity and geography in newspaper reports on the so-called “other half” of the city. “Yesterday, about 5 p.m. a man named Joseph Dougherty, in the vicinity of that sink of vice, the Five Points, stabbed a woman […]” 3 Drunkenness was habitually connected to the Irish, and news reports often contained comments such as: “Look at the Irishwoman pouring the gin down the babbie’s throat!” 4

However, rapid increase of the immigrant population after the Civil War added to the ethnic landscape of the area. As historical scholarship has shown, Irish Americans began to overcome their past marginalization and assume a pan-ethnic White identity in direct contrast to the newly freed slaves and the newly arriving ethnic European immigrants from southern and eastern Europe (Ignatiev, 1995). As new ethnic groups arrived and became the subject of suspicion in the public imagination, older ones tended to become more assimilated and hence less prominently featured in the rogue’s galleries of contemporary newspapers. References to the Irish were greatly reduced in number after the Civil War, and newspaper reports on misery in lower Manhattan tended to focus mostly on the rapidly growing Italian, Chinese, and Jewish communities in the area.

A local miscellany article in the New York Tribune presented a vivid description of life in ante-bellum New York by superimposing images of ethnic diversity, poverty, urban decay, and alleged criminality of residents. The Lower East Side at that time was perhaps the best representative neighborhood of the polyglot, multicultural nation that would emerge in the next two centuries. However, this presented a picture of urban blight to contemporary observers who could not care less to mask their prejudice. “Beehive tenement houses swarm with frowzy women, tatterdemalion children and dissipated men, The Italians rank first in numbers and filth. Poles and Germans are the principal merchants. Junk stores and ‘fences’ abound and are well known to the youthful criminals who emanate from the quarter and go prowling for a chance to steal. A spiraling of Negroes and Chinamen and other races go to make up the heterogeneous elements of what might be called the pest hole of the city. Death and disease still find a congenial foothold in the precincts of ‘Bone’ or ‘Bottle’ alley.” 5 This frame of life in the tenements of the Lower East Side presents a prime example of reportage on immigrant life in contemporary times. It presented a picture of an alien people different from Americans in physical and moral nature living in dark and mysterious quarters beyond the public gaze and carrying on with their lives unbeknownst to the rest of the city.

Contemporary mainstream newspapers often used stridently racist tropes in describing life of immigrants in the city. “The population of Baxter-st. represents a variety of races and nationalities – German, English, Italian, and African […]. But with all these people, there is no apparent effort made to better the condition of things. The live like animals in the dirty street, breathing its fetid odors and enduring their wretched existence with a stolidity that an observer might think contentment, though he could not twist it into a semblance of happiness – the lard lines in the faces forbid any such conclusion.” 6 The comingling of races resulted in the cosmopolitan kinships that did not escape the attention of the reporter venturing into this curious place geographically so close yet morally so distant from the rest of the city: “The passive Chinaman ‘the poor tay-drinking Chanyman’ is often beaten by his ‘darlint’ of a wife (for it is a remarkable feat that they are all wedded to Irish women), because she knows she can do it with impunity, and it is her right. The offspring of these unions get wonderfully ‘mixed’ in telling the names of maternal and paternal relatives, and their uncles bear such incongruous patronymics as Paddy Flynn or Chin-Ksing. For the rest they fight each other when filled with the stimulation of the grog-shops, beat each other, and are beaten by the police, who find this method of dealing with them the one leading to peace.” 7 The narrative combined condescension at racial minorities who are presented in the light of the worst stereotypes about their groups with uneasiness about the growing cosmopolitanism that came to define New York in the twentieth century. However, this was not just an example of benign contempt toward an internal other as many of these reports ascribed behavioral pathologies to nationality and blamed the combination for the disrepute of the neighborhood that housed the majority of the newly arrived immigrants in city.

In variations upon a theme, lower Manhattan is invariably described as a “receptacle[s] of infamy 8 ,” a “nursery of vice 9 ,” a “sink of corruption and wretchedness,” 10 and a “common-sewer” 11 . Discourses of crime, vice, and drunkenness abound through the nineteenth century. GEO. W. Mastell, chief of police, referred to Five Points as the “lowest den[s] of drunkenness and disease.” 12 Acts of crime are portrayed as stemming from not ignorance but rather “[…] from holes and corners [from people] with an inferior mode of life, itself usually consequent on original inferiority of nature.” 13

Such inferiority was typically linked to ethnicity: be it the Irish and their supposed predisposition for liquor in the early 1800s, or the Chinese with opium smoking in the latter half of the century. With respect to the former, the Temperance Movement received considerable coverage in early nineteenth-century newspapers identifying areas like Five Points as “heart-sickening”. 14 Half a century later, tourists were warned that the spectacle of Chinatown presented to them by guides was an “Oriental wonder tale” constructed for the “credulous tourist,” while the real Chinatown, carefully hidden from their view, was “[…] a citadel of concentrated depravity.” 15 The demonization of the Chinese and the concurrent spatial imagining of Chinatown were also evident in the literature of the time and in various missionary endeavors. Kuo Wei Tchen (1999, pp. 277–8) notes that the contemporaneous sunlight-and-shadow novel genre turned its attention to the emerging Chinatown with the author James McCabe in 1882 describing the then Chinese colony on Mulberry Street as “Ragpickers Row.” In the early twentieth century, popular weekly dime novels, Secret Service, Old and Young King Brady Detectives series set stories in Chinatown, with titles such as The Brady’s After the Tong Kings: or the Red Lady of Chinatown (1909) and The Brady’s and Little Ah Chin: or The Secret Dens of Chinatown (1909) emphasized the exoticism of vice in the area. Opium, gambling, and slave girls abound in Carpenter (1920) The Night Tide, A Story of Old Chinatown, and Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu series, in and of itself, was a significant contributor to so-called yellow peril journalism. Newspaper accounts repeat the frame of crime and of a space beneath the genteel areas of New York City, “Civilization may advance on every side, Chinatown remains a festering sore on the face of Manhattan […] shafts have been dug into the ground under the cellars. The Chinamen, descending a ladder into them, coup in three or four cave-like niches, each with its opium layout and a shelf on which to dream. These resorts are the ‘Tenderloin’ of the Chinese population.” 16

Elsewhere, individuals like Miss. Helen C. Clark from the New York Foreigner’s Mission (formerly Morning Star Mission) were reported as “[…] struggling year in and year out against the hatred of Highbinders, who have taken oaths to end her life… to raise them to higher things […] and through opium dens and dens of vice she makes her endless way, exhorting and imploring, always quietly, always gently, always beautifully, and most times successfully.” 17 Her mission was closely associated with the conditions Chinese women found themselves in Chinatown and she firmly believed that “[…] it is only when the law of God is written on their hearts that they will lift women to her true place of honor and respect” (No Author, 1902, “Religious News and Views” January 25. The New York Times). Rose (1895, p. 2) echoes this recurring sentiment when he notes of his visit with missionaries to Chinatown that, “Caesar’s bulletin was Veni, Vidi, Vici but in making invasion of this stronghold of depravity, we may truthfully say, Veni, Vidi, but there we are compelled to halt. The Vici can be accomplished by Divine power alone.”

While a fuller examination of the gender discourse is beyond the scope of this article, it should be noted that it was an important part of the narrative. Some of the moral horror expressed in the newspaper reports centered on the status of women in the area. In some cases, it focused on the behavior of the women who lived in the area. “Women half-drunk, half-naked, and wholly bestial, of all ages, from children to hags, held riot here without interference from the police. Most of the houses of The Points were wood and were never intended for anything but cheap tenements. Many of them had the old-fashioned half doors over which the women lolled and chaffed the idle hours away.” 18 Sometimes, it was about the lost souls whose misadventures landed them here and are now living the daily iniquities of their lives with no exit in sight. “Living in the reeking atmosphere of opium scented Mott Street is Flossie, its queen. The police of Elizabeth street station know Flossie as well as she knows herself, if not better, for when she is taken into the station she is generally in a condition of stupefaction brought on by filling herself with the narcotic and then roaming at random about Pell, Mott, and Doyers Street, engaging in battles with her Chinese companions, making the nigh hideous with her screams.” 19 At times, it was a vivid picture of intersecting frames that pathologized the behavior of immigrant women. “An old decrepit woman first straggled by, her trailing skirts dripping with muck, and with a broken earthenware pitcher in her hand. She appeared at the bar and said that she only wanted to get ‘a drap of summat for the ould mon’. The bleared eyes, and bloated, repulsive features of the creature, incited strong suspicions that the ‘ould mon’s’ libations are by no means enjoyed in solitude.” 20 This presents a perfect example of the ways in which relatively unremarkable events are turned into stories of immorality of the foreign population and ugliness of everyday life in their neighborhood.

In and of itself, the vice and crime of Five Points were for the most part confined to the area itself. While processes of cautionary framing discussed above portrays Five Points as an area of abhorrent vice and crime committed by ethnicities that are an affront to the “native” American, it does not, in and of itself, have a strictly motivational component, that is a specific set of reasons why a reader should do something about the area. Thus, we see emerge a key theme that implies to the reader that Five Points is a threat to the rest of the civilized and genteel city and secondly that through slumming or merely taking the wrong street turn civilized citizens were at risk. Framing Five Points as a threat was achieved by suggesting that the inhabitants of Five Points and their vices, crimes, and diseases like small pox could easily spill over. Five Points is labeled as a “Niagara of Intemperance and Vice” 21 and the inhabitants are described as a “wandering” and “floating population,” 22 clearly suggesting that the rest of the city is under threat. Indeed, the same article goes on to question “whether all the prisons and islands would contain them [Five Points residents] is a question we cannot answer.” 23 The inhabitants are framed as being mobile with reports that “They make one general attack upon a section of the city, and then haul off their forces for a few days, until the apprehensions of the community have in a measure subsided.” 24

Similarly, the close physical proximity between the abodes of genteel and respectable people and that of the poor dangerous classes gave rise to the fear that citizens could accidently wander into the city is often cited. One report suggests, “The committee [The Street Committee] further say that this den of thieves is situated in the very heart of the city and near the center of business, and of a respectable population, in consequences of which it not unfrequently happens that strangers wander there by accident, or are enticed by the designing, and before they are aware of their situation, are perhaps insulted and robbed […]” 25 Similar concerns were expressed when slumming became a frequent practice for tourists and the respectable population of the city. For example, in 1907, Rev William Howard Mears ended up in the gaol for the evening after police responded to his calls that he was being robbed by a “Mulatto girl.” His wife recounted to the magistrate the next day that, “He is so venturesome […] and his sociological studies led him to such queer places. I have often told him to be careful, but he will not listen to me.” 26 Murder cases of respectable white people like Elsie Siegel in 1909 became even more infamous given the ethnicity of key suspects (Lui, 2007). Particularly noteworthy is the stereotypical combination of ethnicity and vice, in this case Chinese immigrants and opium, which could lead to the death of innocence and sexual servitude of young children. “When it was announced a week ago that our heathens were guilty of enticing children into their opium dens for the vilest of purposes, and that one hundred little girls were ruined body and soul in this manner last year, a shiver of horror went through the community […].There is also a club of young men belonging to the church, who have their clubhouse right in the heart of the Chinese settlement. These young men profess to have seen sights that cannot be described, and to have positive knowledge of scores of young girls, almost children, who have been drugged and ruined by the Chinese.” 27

The dominant frame is that of unruly, immoral mass whose ignorance of the American way of life or the failure to conform standards of civilization presented a clear danger to the city. “Yorkie’s Corner was, in its day – or, rather night, was the vilest of these bucket shops. Here, at the corner of Water and Roosevelt streets, in a filthy hole, or series of holes, men, women, and children, white and black, Chinese, Irish, German, Jew, and Gentile, would congregate, particularly on a Saturday night, and get drunk together – drinking gin and other villainous compounds literally by the pailful. Then, when stupefied with liquor, the wretches will retire into the backroom, an interior den, where they would lie down together, or literally pile on one another, and sleep off their stupor.” 28

The representations of immigrants examined here largely focused on the criminal and vice components of the area, in the process labeling it an immoral space while also creating a sense of threat. The threat revolved around the dual tension of spillover of crime and vice into the moral spaces of the New York natives and the possibility that decent people might unwittingly enter the area and be ensnared. It was claimed that “[…] strangers wander there [Five Points] by accident, or are enticed by designing, and before they are aware of their situation, are perhaps insulted and robbed […]” 29 The vice and crime of Five Points was also portrayed as fluid and capable of extending out beyond its spatial limits. This can be clearly seen in cases where cholera and small pox are claimed to be disproportionally occurring in Five Points, but also in terms of how vice and crime can be literally seen to be “seeping,” “floating,” and “shifting” outward from Five Points.

The fear induced by labeling of Five Points as location of crime and vice was compounded by the fact that both implicitly and explicitly, crime and vice were associated with poverty-stricken blacks and immigrants living in the area. At a broad level, the average New Yorker understood the Five Points area was a magnet to impoverished people and newly arriving migrants who suffered the same kind of economic adversity and social marginalization. Newspaper articles sensationalizing incidents of crime in the area left readers in little doubt as to the origins of the criminals and reinforce the link between poverty, immigration, and behavioral pathologies. What can be identified from the subtext is the intersection between four correlated axes of disadvantages on the framing of the area and its people. Firstly, there is a racial/ethnic axis which seems to highlight the inherent behavioral pathologies of these groups stemming from an alleged lack of morality, cleanliness, industriousness, and other all-American virtues. Secondly, the idea that these communities given their behavioral pathologies exists in a Hobbesian state of nature marked by intergenerational poverty that makes social integration difficult. This way, race/ethnicity and poverty seem to be mutually self-reinforcing, and the twin axes of disadvantage colors the perception of these communities by the rest of the city. The way these so-called dangerous classes (Brace, 1872) were perceived as a threat to public order is very much in line with the idea of the inner city communities being comprised of undeserving poor and criminals that has marked conservative discourses on social policy in our times. Thirdly, the equation of race/ethnicity, crime, and poverty is farther complicated with the inclusion of gender, and the conditions of female residents of these neighborhood is either framed as pitiable when it involved allegedly fallen American women or reprehensible when it involved foreigners. Fourthly, there is the axis of locational disadvantage of living in the poorest, and the allegedly most lawless neighborhood in the city locked out of the amenities and perquisites of American society. This made any chance of upward mobility beyond the reach of the immigrant communities and resulted in habitual delinquency across generations as the children took up the deviant ways of the older residents as they only saw disorder and delinquency around them. The area transcended reality to attain a position of pride in the lore of national infamy making the residents both perpetrators and victims of their own misdeeds.


The nineteenth-century media discourses on immigrants in lower Manhattan centers around the intersection between identity, behavior, morality, and environment. Five Points is constructed as a quintessential space of fear for so-called respectable urban dwellers, with commentators of the time comparing it to London’s Alsatia 30 and remarking that it was “[…] that vicinity where vice and misery join hand in hand” 31 . This is a conception of urban communities that facilitates the production and legitimation of a class/race/ethnic hierarchy. Behaviors associated with them, such as gambling, prostitution, alcohol consumption, petty larceny, miscegenation, and so on, were diametrically opposed to the vision of New York and American natives alike as genteel pinnacles of morality. The collective lifestyle of these communities was reduced to alien, inferior, and illegal, which only legitimated their marginalization and exploitation within a liberal democratic culture. These images can persist over time, especially when materially manifested in words or images. These have succeeded in creating the master frame about lives of poor ethnic minorities in New York that have persisted over more than a century and defined the importance of photojournalism as a tool for historians’ craft. The continued prominence of Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives is testament to this fact.

It clear that powerful social forces controlled the content and aims of the key master frames identified above in contemporary newspaper reportage. Academics, politicians, religious leaders, and media concerns all used their positions and prominence to produce a space of fear and depravity and connect this to specific ethnic groups. Crucially, the stakes at hand are connected to what powerful interests recognize as a legitimacy of the social order, based on both morality and economics. It is in this context that Bourdieu’s idea of symbolic power is relevant in the analysis (Bourdieu, 1990, 1998; Couldry, 2001, 2003). Bourdieu argues that the production and the imposition of the legitimate vision of the social world is a field of as there are always, in any society, conflicts between symbolic powers that aim at imposing the vision of legitimate divisions, that is, at constructing groups. (Bourdieu, 1989, p. 22). Symbolic power is akin to “world making” as leading figures in all fields possess such social authority that legitimizes the frame/discourse that legitimizes the social order with the existing hierarchical structure. Symbolic power is exercised by media in framing social problems and influencing public emotions by stirring representations (Boultanski, 1999; Chouliaraki, 2006; Van Dijk, 2008). However, in the present case, we can see that these reports framed the suffering and poverty of immigrant New York as a product of their own doing and thereby eliciting fear and disapproval rather than pity. Thus, these reports on places and people of New York in the nineteenth century framed the problems of poverty and vice by grafting these on the existing racial formations in the society whereas the immigrants emerged as a discursive subject for the rest of the city to know through the pages of newspapers.

Secondly, world-making requires an allusion to reality. Symbolism can only be effective, per Bourdieu, if it has some empirical basis. There is little doubt that the conditions in which the residents of Five Points found themselves were insalubrious, yet these same conditions were used to vilify and demonize whole tracts of immigrants and their ways of life. It is the latter that were most clearly seen to be a threat to the so-called genteel ways of the native New Yorkers. Swartz notes, “All symbolic systems follow [the] fundamental classification logic of dividing and grouping items into opposing classes and hence generating meanings through the binary logic of inclusion and exclusion. This logic of classification builds an ordered set of fundamental dichotomous distinctions, such as rare/common, good/bad, high/low, inside/outside, male/female, and distinguished/vulgar, that operate as ‘primitive classifications’ undergirding all of our mental activities” (1997, p. 84). The creation of good and bad classes, of proper and improper behaviors, and of weak and strong ethnicities can be clearly seen in the frames that we discussed above. The frames we identified clearly legitimize the genteel classes and further cement their dominant position in the social hierarchy while making difficult or next to impossible for large tracts of ethnic populations to experience upward social mobility. This is very similar to Winant’s theorization of racial formation as a hegemonic process that combines structural inequality and subjugation of specific groups with processes of subjection and representation (1994).

Contemporary newspaper constructed what was very similar to what Michel Foucault called a “discursive formation” about the lives of the urban poor (Foucault, 1972). In his famous work on European discourses on Asia, Edward Said followed Foucault’s lead in seeing Orientalism as an “archive” that bound together disparate narratives on Asia with a unified value that was crucially linked to social and geopolitical hierarchy (Said, 1978). As new generations were exposed to this archive, they approached the Orient with this frame of Western superiority, and their own understandings were shaped by this preexisting discourse. Consequently, their writings only heightened the difference between the two worlds, and this added to the archive assuring its longevity over time.

The same way Orientalism framed West and East Asian societies as alien, exotic, and dangerous and thereby legitimized the material and moral dominance of Western powers, American journalism sought to do the same to impoverished immigrants and their neighborhoods that legitimized their peripheral status in contemporary US. This discourse was characterized by the same kinds of stereotypes, oversimplification, and sometimes overtly prejudicial portrayal of the lower depths of the city very much reminiscent of the tone and attitude of the Orientalist discourse on Asia (Tchen, 1999). As Ricouer might argue, narratives through generations of mimesis can construct a self-contained world of imagery to produce a sense of reality (Ricouer, 1990).

It is important to note that these definitions of people and behavior as imputed or imposed by outsiders and/ or the dominant discourse. This is mainly due to bias in existing historical records in favor of the views of those who chronicle the contemporary times for the archives and databases for later generations to discover. This tends to favor the establishment view over that of the actual residents of such neighborhoods who did not manage of create a competing discourse on their own lives as the daily struggle of existence did not allow for such an exercise, and because contemporary journalists were less interested in their perspectives as they were in producing reports that would be of interest to the rest of the city. Thus, what we are left with is what the British historian E.P. Thompson called an “enormous condescension of posterity” bestowed upon the other half as memorialized by accounts about their lives written by others (Thompson, 1991, p. 12).



From the Same. The New York Evening Post, September 10, 1802.


Not Listed. The Wisconsin Chief. March 16, 1852.


Infamy, Murder, Suicide. Albany Argus December 23, 1828.


Five Points: Reform. Albany Evening Journal, December 15, 1852.


In the five points: The Old Criminal Centre Still Environed with Misery and Squalor. New York Herald, June 12, 1885.


Sunday in Baxter Street: A Singular Phase of City Life. New York Herald, August 2, 1880.


Life in the Rag Lane. Baxter Street and its Inhabitants. New York Tribune, January 24, 1870.


Items. New York Spectator, January 19, 1830.


No Headline. New York Commercial Advertiser, February 5, 1833.


The Cholera. Saratoga Sentinel, August 24, 1832.


Foreign Paupers. New York Spectator, May 28, 1838.


Report of the Chief of Police. New York Commercial Advertiser, January 8, 1850. Retrieved from www.newsbank.com.


No Headline. New York Daily Tribune, September 19, 1873.


Address Delivered before the Temperance Society of the Town of Saratoga Springs. Saratoga Sentinel, November 13, 1829.


No Headline. The New York Times, February 17, 1907.


Chinatown Doomed to Make Way for Bowery Park. The New York Times, February 17, 1907.


No Headline. The New York Times. April 30, 1905.


Five Points: A Pen Picture of a Wicked Part of Gotham Fifty Years Ago. The Macon Telegraph, October 7, 1888.


New York’s Wickedest Women. New York Herald, October 19, 1885.


SUNDAY RUM: How the Groggery Keepers Work on the Sabbath. New York Times, July 3, 1871.


City Items. New-York Tribune, November 27, 1858.


No Title. New York Commercial Advertiser, March 29, 1830.




Burling; John Coyler; Calder; Peter Thompson; White; Candles, Store; Imputed. The Evening Post. December 26, 1829.


No Headline. American, November 25.


Slumming Curate Gets into A Cell: Was Being Robbed by a Mulatto Girl and Called for the Police. The New York Times, March 4, 1907.


The Chinese of New York. American, May 17, 1883.


Slums Wiped Out. New York Sunday Mercury, January 20, 1878.


No Headline. American, November 25, 1831.


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No Headline. Plattsburgh Republican, November 11, 1857.


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The authors would like to acknowledge the research assistance of Rory Hayford and Natasha Young.