New York City will not be New York City without Hell’s Kitchen. Also known as Clinton and Mid West for New Yorkers, Hell’s Kitchen is actually a neighborhood in the city that never sleeps that includes roughly the area between 34th and 57th streets, from 8th Avenue to Hudson River. And judging from its history, Hell’s Kitchen can be aptly described as a “diamond in the rough. ” In studying the history of this particular neighborhood, one cannot isolate one facet of development from the rest.
For purposes of this paper, we will focus on the commercial development that took place within Hell’s Kitchen as well as nearby areas and will slightly touch on its immigration history since these two areas are intimately related. Brief History of the Neighborhood’s Commercial Development According to Wikipedia, Hell’s Kitchen has figured quite prominently in the New York Underworld, especially in Irish-American organized crime circles.
Starting out as the hometown of the poor and the working class Irish Americans, the neighborhood has grown to become one of the most famous neighborhoods in New York City –also mainly because of its proximity to upper end Manhattan. If there in one thing common about the Hell’s Kitchen’s history and that of the United States in general, it would be the fact that its beginnings were initiated by the tide of immigration. According to the website of Hell’s Kitchen History, it was way back in the 17th century when the first settlers of Hell’s Kitchen arrived in New York City.
These were no less than the Dutch, where they found on what is now midtown’s west side and which they called back then as Bloemendael or “Vale of Flowers”. A number of decades later, between the periods of 1841 to 1851, the move of Hudson River railroad to set up a station in the area sprung forth major changes –primarily the migration of Irish and German immigrants to the area. These immigrants –majority of which were from Ireland who fled their country due to the Great Potato Famine)-worked in the construction of the railroad yard.
Thus, with the height of industrialization in New York City, these immigrants also became the workers in breweries on the West Side as well as factories, warehouses and slaughterhouses. By the start of the Civil War, the population of Hell’s Kitchen soared to over 350,000, and that population was housed primarily in rows of tenements that were hastily erected amid the slaughterhouses and factories. (Hell’s Kitchen History, 1995) By the late 17th century, the website of the Hell’s Kitchen history noted that 36th Street to 59th Street west of 9th Avenue was “a seething mix of tenements and factories”.
So much so that by the year 1879, an ordinance mandated an improved tenement design incorporating airshafts on each side of a building, giving it a dumbbell shape. These “dumbbell tenements” were meant to provide air and light, but the airshafts were often used as dumping grounds for garbage. (Hell’s Kitchen History, 1995) Another milestone in the history of Hell’s Kitchen is the construction of the El or the elevated subway where the new sides of New York City finally met. As noted in the above-mentioned website, the El used the vestiges of the aqueduct, built in 1842, to carry Croton water to the city’s receiving reservoir.
One pivotal timeframe in the commercial history of Hell’s Kitchen is the period of the Great Depression. According to research from the website of Hell’s Kitchen’s History, the Depression led to the shutting down of docks, empty railroad yards, lack of new construction work and layoffs at the factories and slaughterhouses. In fact, it has been noted that a number of neighborhood residents could be seen skulking along the side streets in search of food and clothing. Families became homeless, discarded furniture glutted the sidewalks, and most of the dispossessed turned to the Democratic Party for sustenance.
(Hell’s Kitchen History, 1995) In terms of commercial development, the construction of the Lincoln Tunnel in the 1950s destroyed 91 old-law tenements and the expansion of the Port Authority Bus Terminal resulted to the tearing down of more tenements. By the turn of the 20th century, immigration patterns have changed alongside development in the commercial aspect of the neighborhood. By the early 1900s, more Greeks, Eastern Europeans and Southern blacks found homes on the West Side.
After 1940, Puerto Ricans joined this rapidly diversifying population. In terms of commercial development, public and private funds fueled massive public works projects that affected the community. In fact, the construction of the West Side Highway, the Lincoln Tunnel, the New York Central Railroad West Side Improvement Project and the Port Authority drastically changed the local landscape and displaced thousands of families. Also, in 1940, the 9th Avenue El was taken down and the ground level tracks on 11th Avenue were removed.
Railroad tracks were laid down in a below ground-level “cut” between 10th and 11th; the “railroad cut” still exists and on many blocks is crossed by a street-level bridge. The Hells’ Kitchen History website likewise noted that throughout the 1950s to the 60’s, the neighborhood remained a convenient annex to Times Square and Broadway, supplying many of the workers for midtown shops, hotels, restaurants, offices and theaters. One interesting facet on the development of Hell’s Kitchen is the fact that it was used as a setting for the Broadway musical “West Side Story”.
This particular musical echoes the immigration and commercial development of the neighborhood in so far as the gang wars were depicted. Moreover, this tumultuous neighborhood in the City of New York also contributed greatly in the development of American Theater and the so-called Great White Way. The Hell’s Kitchen History website notes that by 1902 the Times Tower was under construction in “Times Square” which had been once been part of the large Astor land-holdings that extended west toward the Hudson River. Theaters were relocating from West 23rd Street and it was quickly becoming a vital entertainment hub.
The klieg lights which have lighted Broadway stages ever since that time were first produced at the Kliegl Brothers plant on West 38th Street. The Old American Theater on 8th Avenue between 41st and 42nd Streets was a mainstay of this era, featuring at various times The Chanticleer with Anna Held as the leading lady, and the great prison play, 999. The neighborhood’s proximity to the theater district eventually attracted actors to move into Hell’s Kitchen. As a result, off-Broadway theaters flourished, and the Actors Studio on West 44th Street has fostered stars like Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe.
In the website of the New York Studio Search website, it was noted that the 1950s ushered in the immigration of Puerto Ricans in Hell’s Kitchen. Apparently, the immigration of the Puerto Ricans in the already melted pot that is Hell’s Kitchen caused more harm than good which resulted in more gang wars which was even more highlighted in the said Broadway musical. Unfortunately, the website also noted that by 1965, Hell’s Kitchen was the home base of the Westies, a deeply violent Irish-American crew aligned with the Gambino crime family. Hence, the reputation of the neighborhood took a turn for the worse.
In terms of commercial development, one striking feature of Hell’s Kitchen during the 1970s was the proliferation of porn stores, specifically in 8th avenue. Eighth Avenue became a haven for peep shows, x-rated movie theaters, massage parlors and adult book shops. It was also during this period when Hell’s Kitchen hit on very hard times and was a drug infested neighborhood until the late 1970s when it began to gentrify. Wikipedia explains that during the beginning of gentrification, there was an increase in reported issues or problems between tenants and landlords.
The most notable of these incidents involved the Windermere complex which is just a few blocks away from Central Park. According to reports of tenants, rooms were ransacked rooms were ransacked, doors were ripped out, prostitutes were moved in and tenants received death threats in the campaign to empty the building. (Wikipedia, 2006) During this particular time frame, it has been said that the population of the neighborhood started to decline drastically to below 50,000. In the area north of 42nd Street, residential buildings were replaced by parking lots for the theaters.
Many children grew up and moved to the outer boroughs and the suburbs, leaving the older generation behind, and in the 1970s rent regulations began a period of landlord abandonment of buildings. Small landlords, often long-term neighborhood residents, were negatively impacted by rent control and were forced to sell their buildings at a loss. Wealthier owners sought a greater profit than the new rent laws permitted. As a result, apartments were not rented after tenants left and fell into disrepair, and ultimately, dozens of buildings were abandoned.
(Hell’s Kitchen History, 1995) As noted in the same website, the 1980s ushered in a period of the so-called gentrification which began to alter the demographics of the longtime working-class Irish-American neighborhood. Moreover, the 1980s saw an end to the Westies’ reign of terror, when the gang lost most of its power after the RICO convictions of most of its principals in 1986. (New York Studio Search, 2006) Over time, Hell’s Kitchen grew out of its reputation as being one the most notorious neighborhoods in the Big Apple.
In fact, as early as 1950s, developers wanted a more respectable identity for the neighborhood. They finally rejected the infamous Hell’s Kitchen designation in favor of a name resurrected from the past: Clinton, after former mayor and governor DeWitt Clinton. (NYC Company, 2006) Today, Hell’s Kitchen is no longer the bastion of gang wars but a social problem continues to linger: gentrification. As earlier noted, gentrification started in the 1970s but the problem seems to persist in this neighborhood.
As noted in the website of the NYC company, neighboring districts like Chelsea and the Upper West Side have become magnets for wealthy young professionals in recent years. Hell’s Kitchen lies in between, desperately fighting to hold onto its original working-class character. In terms of immigrants settled in the neighborhood, other nationalities continue to choose Hell’s Kitchen as their home. Over the years, Irish and German population has made room for Italians, Greeks, Eastern Europeans, Puerto Ricans, Peruvians and Ecuadorians, among others.
The NYC Company website is keen to note that the diversity of these immigrants is evident in the local businesses in the area, particularly in restaurants. If before vendors used pushcarts to sell their products on the street, the diversity of palate for tourists and locals alike are invited to restaurants scattered in the area. Known for its ethnic cuisine, the area attracts hungry theater-goers, particularly along “Restaurant Row” on West 46th Street. Ninth Avenue, the heart of the neighborhood, is known for its annual International Food Festival in May.
Indeed, the variety of food continues to exist in this neighborhood despite the many changes that took place in its History. Conclusion Hell’s Kitchen is not unlike any other American neighborhood primarily because, like most areas in the US today, it is considered a melting pot of various nationalities. Needless to say, it has gone through a lot of problems and its own period of Hell. But mostly, Hell’s Kitchen also stood witness to the many happenings or events that helped shaped American culture.
Situated amid the Big Apple, the role of Hell’s Kitchen in our history, albeit small, cannot be overlooked. All the events that took place in this particular area –good or bad –helped shape New York City as we know it. On a personal note, I particularly liked looking into the history of this neighborhood for it has shown me that a real jewel will shine through amidst its roughness. For many, Hell’s Kitchen can be considered a diamond in the rough, but for one who has studied or looked into its colorful past will see that Hell’s Kitchen is an American gem just the same.
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