Manhattan Mayhem

Martin Scorsese's realistic portrayal of pre-Civil War strife Gangs of New York re-creates the brutal street warfare waged between immigrant groups

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Doing the big job. . . $100 and up 



By the 1890s, Manhattan’s meanest streets had been so tamed that middle-class tourists were taking midnight tours of Bowery dives. The old underworld had become, in part, a caricature of itself. Some Bowery haunts remade themselves into tourist traps, morphing into a kind of low-life Disneyland, designed to titillate with staged scenes of opium smoking and tableaux depicting “white slavery” in the “depths” of Chinatown. One celebrated barkeep, Steve Brodie, paid his regulars to impersonate the lowlifes whom “slummers” yearned to glimpse. For a time, Brodie actually played himself onstage as the quintessential Bowery denizen. It was one more reflection of the entertainment industry’s love affair with New York’s underworld, a fascination that would continue through the hard-boiled gangster films of Jimmy Cagney to the blood-soaked realism of Scorsese’s latest endeavor.


Although nearly every trace of the world that Scorsese has re-created has long since been obliterated, there are a few exceptions. At 42 Bowery, an address claimed by some to be the former clubhouse of the Bowery Boys, a Chinese restaurant now stands. Several blocks of Bayard Street, where the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits brawled in the 1850s, remain much the same. In Five Points, which includes a section of modern Chinatown, small children clamber over jungle gyms in a public park. If the ghosts of the thugs and mayhem artists, the murderers and pickpockets, the embattled nativists and desperate immigrants still linger, their murmurings are lost among the voices of today’s New Yorkers, chattering to each other in half a dozen dialects of Chinese, in Haitian French, Spanish, and even the slurry tones of the durable old New Yorkese that Bill the Butcher would have recognized.


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