If life followed art, George Washington University historian Tyler Anbinder would have thought up the idea for his new book—Five Points: The 19th-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections, and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum—over beers in some dive in lower Manhattan. But the idea actually came to him almost 1,800 miles afield—while he was laboring as a junior professor at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.

Anbinder, now 38, had recently completed his first book, Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings & the Politics of the 1850s, which covered the short-lived but influential anti-Catholic movement in the antebellum North. Having explored the vitriol of immigrant-haters, Anbinder thought it would be worthwhile to study the immigrants’ own milieu. When a fellow professor suggested that he investigate Five Points—a poor immigrant neighborhood in Manhattan—he had a vague flicker of recognition. As a kid in the New York suburbs, Anbinder used to love going to Chinatown, which is what Five Points had eventually morphed into.

Anbinder sought to test two opposing historical interpretations of the neighborhood: the view, popular with historians early in the 20th century, that the slum’s rampant poverty, prostitution, ethnic conflict, and over-the-top criminality were a horrible blot on humanity, as well as a revisionist assessment from the ’60s and ’70s, in which a new generation of historians assailed their forebears for criticizing residents who, in their judgment, were guilty of nothing more than being poor.

Ultimately, Anbinder found evidence that bolstered both interpretations. By looking at indictment records from the Manhattan district attorney’s office, he found that the neighborhood’s worst blocks did have roughly one brothel per building, thus upholding one of the early historians’ more notable accusations. But after looking in old ledger books from the Emigrant Savings Bank, he also found that many Five Points residents—including some of the very poorest—had amassed substantial savings through hard work and sheer frugality. “Saving a nest egg was so important that they continued to live in the worst tenements—even when they could afford to move elsewhere,” he says.

Anbinder says that his research only reinforced his view that today’s immigrant communities share much in common with their predecessors. “Immigrants today are just as desperate to earn as much as possible to save, so they can send the money back home,” he says. “No amount of legislation will stop illegal immigrants from working, as long as employers are willing to hire them. The idea that today’s immigrants somehow aren’t like our ancestors is completely fallacious. Today’s immigrants are just like our grandparents.” —Louis Jacobson