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Scenes from a Walk Through Hell's Kitchen

On two consecutive nights in March of 1905, poet Vachel Lindsay tried to peddle his poems on the streets of New York City. A young and poor art student at the time, he possessed vaulted ideas about taking Beauty to the masses. On the first night, he began his door-to-door poetry crusade at 10th Avenue and 50th Street and then walked down the west side of 10th, stopping in stores, laundries, delis, and drugstores to talk the proprietors into buying his poems. He didn't do all that well, but he seemed to enjoy his efforts. In his diary, quoted at length by Edgar Lee Masters in his biography of Lindsay, the aspiring poet detailed his interactions with many of the shopkeepers he encountered, offering commentary about their various ethnic backgrounds - Greek, Chinese, African-American, and German. While his comments often take on offensive stereotyping, he does paint a fascinating, if naive, portrait of the multi-ethnic neighborhood known as Hell's Kitchen.

Tenth Avenue at W. 50th St. looking south
In the mid 19th century, Irish dockworkers settled along the banks of the Hudson in this area, soon to be joined after the Civil War by poor and working class immigrants from other countries. Poverty bred gang life and violence, so that by the 1880s this increasingly industrial section of the West Side had developed into one of the most dangerous neighborhoods. One theory about the origin of the name Hell's Kitchen stems from an anecdote in the 1880s. Responding to his rookie partner's observation that the block of W. 39th between 10th and 9th Ave. resembled Hell, Dutch Fred The Cop retorted, "Hell's a mild climate. This is Hell's Kitchen." (See the Wikipedia entry on Hell's Kitchen for alternative theories of the neighborhood name.) Walking this particular block today, nothing much is left to recall the looks of the old neighborhood, except for a handful of buildings near 9th Avenue. This block, however, is the site of the popular weekend market, the Hell's Kitchen Flea Market.

10th Avenue between W. 48th and W. 47th St. west side
Lindsay, though walking at midnight when neighborhood gangs controlled the streets, made no mention of fear or danger, just the quiet, and the occasional drunk person. He didn't venture, however, below 42nd Street:
"I walked down 10th to 42nd. I met some prowling soaks* on the cross streets, and most of the saloons on 9th and 10th ave had three men sober and one man drunk loafing in front of them. It was just cool enough to be pleasant for a soaked loafer. There were a few bad women standing at the foot of stairways, but not the obtrusive kind. Tenth ave was for the most part very still except for the intermissions that every city must have." (diaries, cited in Edgar Lee Masters, Vachel Lindsay: A Poet in America. p. 126
Couldn't help pointing out the 666 address, especially in a place called Hell's Kitchen. East side, 10th Avenue.
Hell's Kitchen continued to change demographically in the 20th century, with Puerto Ricans and immigrants from the Balkans settling in the area. The 1939 WPA Guide to New York City noted patterns of assimilation in the Middle West Side, as the guide called it, pointing out that the 1930 census revealed that "native-born residents of the district outnumbered the foreign born by nearly two to one."  (p. 145) The conflicts remained, however, most notably in the 1950s, especially among the Puerto Ricans, Irish, and Italians. Their territorial skirmishes would inspire the great musical, West Side Story. By the 1960s, in an effort to overturn negative perceptions, boosters and real estate people attempted to push Clinton as an alternative name for the district, but Hell's Kitchen has been stubborn and remained more popular.    

Look for St. Raphael's Croatian Catholic Church on 41st Street, just west of Tenth Ave. The church dates from the 1890s.
While walking the same route as the poet today, especially in the morning and not at midnight, only an active imagination can help visualize the rough and tumble Hell's Kitchen of old. Most of the old tenements near W. 39th disappeared, torn down to make access roads for the Lincoln Tunnel. Though still ethnically diverse, the neighborhood has witnessed much gentrification in the past decades, thanks in part to its proximity to the Theatre District to the east. The current state of Hell's Kitchen development seems much in evidence, especially on the vertical end, connected to the desirability of living in a tall luxury residence with stunning views of midtown Manhattan and the Hudson River.  The sky remains one of the most impressive features of the Middle West Side.  

View of apartment buildings at the corner of 10th Avenue and 45th Street.

View of midtown Manhattan skyscrapers from W. 39th Street.
In order the appreciate the perspective of the west side, begin by retracing Vachel Lindsay's footsteps along Tenth Avenue down to 42nd Street. Continue south to explore the Lincoln Tunnel area (best enjoyed by fans of heavy infrastructure) and then wander west and south over to the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. At the Convention Center, look for the big hole in the ground across 11th Avenue. That's the construction site for the extension of the 7 subway line. Until the 7 line is completed, the best way to reconnect with midtown Manhattan is via the crosstown bus to convenient stops such as Herald Square. Or, alternatively, continue west and walk along Hudson River Park. Before getting on the bus, however, take one last look around at the wide expanse of sky. It may not last forever.

Jacob Javits Convention Center. 11th to 12th Avenues. between W. 37th and W. 34th. 1986. currently undergoing renovations.
Perspective from bus stop on the southwest corner of W. 34th and 11th Avenue. It's OK - a bus will eventually come and take you back to the middle of the island.
Now, how about a map?


View Scenes from a Walk Through Hell's Kitchen in a larger map

See related post - Vachel Lindsay, Artist and Poet, Walking in New York. This post is the second in a series.

* A "soak" is a slang term for a drunkard.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from Thursday morning, May 20, 2010. Clicking on images will enlarge them. Walking Off the Big Apple did not encounter any prowling soaks on her walk and is a little disappointed. Will have to return at night sometime, before Hell is paved over.

P.S. If you thought you were going to read about a cooking show on television, I am sorry.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this great post. My family lived in Hell's Kitchen in the late 1800's, up to the 1950's. My mother and I spent the day yesterday walking through the neighborhood, attempting to imagine where they grew up, and what the neighborhood was like at the time. Unfortunately, two of their homes were torn down to create Hell's Kitchen Park, and a third was combined with the neighboring properties to create a larger facility. We recently acquired a wedding certificate from St. Raphael's for my great-grandparents, dating back to April 2, 1899. We're currently trying to acquire pictures of my relative's buildings as they would have looked in 1900; if anyone has any suggestions, they would be greatly appreciated!!!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Elizabeth,
    Thank you so much for writing, because while walking around the neighborhood, I was wondering what former or longtime residents must think about the changes. It's great you have the wedding certificate for your great-grandparents. Readers who may know of photo resources of Hell's Kitchen should help Elizabeth with her quest!

    ReplyDelete
  3. It's been almost 7 months and was wondering if Elizabeth had any luck finding some images of HK from the early days?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Good question, Hector. (Time doesn't matter here.) Elizabeth, any luck with finding images of your relatives' building in HK?

    ReplyDelete
  5. Elizabeth12:39 PM

    I reached out the NYC Department of Records, and ordered a tax photo of the building (I think it cost around $40, but you can't preview it before time). Luckily, it was the right building, and I gave it to my mom as a gift - she went nuts. She remembered the building, and the candy shoppe in the basement. It even showed open windows in my great-grandparents apartment, so they may have been home when the photo was taken. :)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks so much, Elizabeth, for answering Hector's question. What a great gift for your mom. And that's a lovely image, the open windows in the apartment, a cherished and personal connection to NY history.

    ReplyDelete

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