Friday, June 20, 2014

Hell's Kitchen

Location:   The West Side 
Year:   c. 1840

West Side Story is based on events in Hell's Kitchen

Davy Crockett was once quoted as saying, "In my part of the country, whenever you meet an Irishman, you find a first-rate gentleman; but the New York Irish are worse than savages; they are too mean to swab hell's kitchen." 

A map of Hell's Kitchen aka Midtown West aka Clinton

Bounded by Eighth Avenue to the east, the Hudson River to the west, 59th Street to the north, and 30th Street to the south is the infamous neighborhood that 21st century realtors refer a bit disingenuously to as "Midtown West." A taxi map will tell you that it is called "Clinton," after the eponymous DeWitt Clinton Park in its midst, but almost any New Yorker still refers to the neighborhood as Hell's Kitchen.

Early Hell's Kitchen tenements. Many of the New York Draft Rioters of 1863 lived in Hell's Kitchen

Hell's Kitchen got its name sometime after Davy Crockett made his famous if impolite remark, and about the same time that masses of impoverished Irish tenant farmer families fleeing the Potato Famine in the 1840s, over 100,000 of them, crammed into this West Side area 30 blocks long by four blocks wide. By the time of the American Civil War, Hell's Kitchen was known as an endemically  violent, impoverished shantytown. Penny bars, where ne'er-do-wells could knock back a glass of adulterated wood alcohol or barter pocket change for sex from streetwalkers barely worth the investment, were in virtually every basement. Houses of ill-fame, some catering to the outre and attracting upscale New Yorkers on the downlow, were the area's biggest tourist attractions. In the early years, the city's tanneries, lard-rendering plants, and open sewers --- all concentrated here --- lent a piquant taste to the air. 

Hell's Kitchen in the 1930s
Conditions in Hell's Kitchen were so rough that NYPD vehicles became known as "Paddy Wagons" because they mostly hauled "Paddies" --- Irishmen --- away to jail.

A horse-drawn Paddy Wagon of the 1890s

The later railroad yards and wharves along the Hudson cemented the rough-and-tumble dangerous quality of the neighborhood well into the 20th Century. 

In the late 19th Century and early 20th Century locomotives were moved from one part of the rail yard to another along tracks laid in the streets. Accidents --- generally involving maimings and deaths --- were common as the fast-moving trains generally did not stop for other vehicles or pedestrians. It is estimated that a person was killed by a train once every three days in Hell's Kitchen. As a result. the train engineers were usually pelted with rocks, broken bottles, and horse or dog manure as they went by.  
Although Hell's Kitchen has traditionally been known as an Irish neighborhood, it has also been home to several other ethnic groups over the years, including the Scots, Germans, African- Americans, Greeks, Eastern Europeans, Puerto Ricans, and others. Violence between the neighboring groups, represented by youth gangs such as the Gophers in the early 20th Century and the Westies in the late 20th Century, has predominated there. The area around the Port Authority Building with its arriving out-of-town buses was a magnet for grifters, con-men, pickpockets, and muggers who often worked in broad daylight. Gang-related violence in Hell's Kitchen is memorialized in the 1957 stage play and 1961 film West Side Story. The Irish mobster Mickey Spillane (not the author) was killed in 1977 for his refusal to allow the Mafia to wet their beaks from the rackets in Hell's Kitchen. 

Spillane's Bar and Grill pays appropriate homage to the hard-drinking Boss of Hell's Kitchen

Post-West Side Story, and especially after the decline of the frighteningly violent Westies in the late 1980s, Hell's Kitchen began to gentrify.  At first, the area was notable for its affordable housing. Currently the neighborhood is home to a diverse and rich restaurant and cultural scene along Ninth Avenue. Comedy Central's Daily Show studios, the CBS Broadcast Center, and the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum all lend a touristy feel to the area today. Walking tours are available to those who want to explore the neighborhood's historic dark side in company, comfort, and in safety.    

Hell's Kitchen today

The old West Side Story-type tenements have become upscale condos conveniently located to Midtown

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