Skip to main content

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

Unknown said…
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!!!
Teri Tynes said…
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!
Unknown said…
It's been almost 7 months and was wondering if Elizabeth had any luck finding some images of HK from the early days?
Teri Tynes said…
Good question, Hector. (Time doesn't matter here.) Elizabeth, any luck with finding images of your relatives' building in HK?
Elizabeth said…
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. :)
Teri Tynes said…
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.

Popular posts from this blog

Museums in New York Open on Mondays

Please see this post for current announcements of reopenings . Please consult the museum websites for changes in days and hours. UPDATED September 23, 2020 Advance tickets required for many museum reopenings. Please check museum websites for details. • The  Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)  reopened to the public on  August 27 , with new hours for the first month, through September 27: from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday to the public; and from 10:30 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.  on Mondays for MoMA members on ly. Admission will be free to all visitors Tuesday through Sunday, through September 27, made possible by UNIQLO. See this  new post on WOTBA for a sense of the experience attending the museum . •  New-York Historical Society  reopened on  August 14  with an outdoor exhibition, "Hope Wanted: New York City Under Quarantine,” in the rear courtyard. The exhibit by activist Kevin Powell and photographer Kay Hickman will highlight how New Yorkers weathered the quarantine

Taking a Constitutional Walk

A long time ago individuals going out for a walk, especially to get fresh air and exercise, often referred to the activity as "taking a constitutional walk." The word "constitutional" refers to one's constitution or physical makeup, so a constitutional walk was considered beneficial to one's overall wellbeing. (Or, as some would prefer to call it, "wellness.") The phrase is more common in British literature than in American letters. As early as the mid-nineteenth century, many American commentators expressed concern that their countrymen were falling into lazy and unhealthy habits. Newspaper columnists and editorial writers urged their readers to take up the practice of the "constitutional" walk. One such essay, " Walking as an Exercise," originally printed in the Philadelphia Gazette and reprinted in New England Farmer , Volume 11, 1859, urges the people of farm areas to take up walking. City dwellers seemed to have the

25 Things to Do Near the Metropolitan Museum of Art

(updated) Sitting on the steps in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of those iconic things to do in New York City. On a sunny day, the wide steps can become crowded with the young and old, the tourist and the resident. It's tempting to stay awhile and soak in the sun and the sights. Everyone has reasons for lingering there, with one being the shared pleasure of people watching along this expansive stretch of Fifth Avenue, a painting come to life. Certainly, just getting off one's feet for a moment is welcome, especially if the previous hours involved walking through the entirety of art history from prehistoric to the contemporary. The entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue The Metropolitan Museum of Art should be a singular pilgrimage, uninterrupted by feeble attempts to take in more exhibitions along Museum Mile. Pity the poor visitor who tries "to do" multiple museum exhibitions in one day, albeit ambitious, noble, and uplift

25 Things To Do Near the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

(updated 2016) The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) at 11 W. 53rd Street is near many other New York City attractions, so before or after a trip to the museum, a short walk in any direction could easily take in additional experiences. Drawing a square on a map with the museum at the center, a shape bounded by 58th Street to the north and 48th Street to the south, with 7th Avenue to the west and Park Avenue to the east, proves the point of the area's cultural richness. (A map follows the list below.) While well-known sightseeing stops fall with these boundaries, most notably Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick's Cathedral, and the great swath of famous Fifth Avenue stores, cultural visitors may also want to check out places such as the Austrian Cultural Forum, the 57th Street galleries, the Onassis Cultural Center, and the Municipal Art Society. The image above shows an intriguing glimpse of the tops of two Beaux-Arts buildings through an opening of the wall inside MoMA's scu

25 Radical Things to Do in Greenwich Village

A list of 25 things to Do in Greenwich Village with history of protest, old cafes, and signs of change. Hipstamatic iPhone images of contemporary Greenwich Village by Walking Off the Big Apple (Revised and updated.) Flipping through  Greenwich Village: A Photographic Guide by Edmund T. Delaney and Charles Lockwood with photographs by George Roos, a second, revised edition published in 1976, it’s easy to compare the black and white images with the look of today’s neighborhood and see how much the Village has changed. A long shot photograph of Washington Square taken up high from an apartment north of the park, and with the looming two towers of the World Trade Center off to the distant south in the background, reveals a different landscape than what we would encounter today.    On the north side of the park, an empty lot and two small buildings have since given way to NYU’s Kimmel Center and a new NYU Center for Academic and Spiritual Center Life. The Judson Memorial Church

From Penn Station to New York Landmarks: Measuring Walking Distance and Time in Manhattan

(revised 2017) How long does it take to walk from Penn Station/Madison Square Garden to well-known destinations in Manhattan? What are the best walking routes ? What if I don't want to see anything in particular but just want to walk around? In addition to the thousands of working commuters from the surrounding area, especially from New Jersey and Long Island who arrive at Penn Station via New Jersey Transit or the Long Island Rail Road, many people arrive at the station just to spend time in The City. Some have questions. Furthermore, a sporting event may have brought you to Madison Square Garden (above Penn Station), and you want to check out what the city offers near the event. This post if for you.  The map below should help you measure walking distances and times from the station to well-known destinations in Manhattan - Bryant Park , the Metropolitan Museum of Art , the Empire State Building , Times Square , Rockefeller Center , Washington Square Park , the High Line

North Towards Autumn: A Day Trip on the Metro-North Hudson Line

The peak of autumn colors in New York City tends to fall sometime in the days following Halloween, but those anxiously waiting leaf change can simply travel north.  Near Beacon, a view of autumn colors from the Metro-North Hudson line One way to speed the fall season is to take the Hudson line of Metro-North north of the city and watch the greens fade to oranges and yellows and the occasional burst of red.  Autumn light in Hastings-on-Hudson Weekends during the month of October are ideal times to make the trip. The air tends to be crisp with bright blue skies, and the Hudson River glimmers like a mirror in the light of autumn. As the Hudson line hugs the river for much of the distance north, the train ride alone provides plenty of opportunities for sightseeing. Try to grab a window seat on the river side of the train car for views of the Palisades and the bends of the Hudson Highlands later in the trip.   Autumn leaves on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail in Hastings Still, October is a gr

A Weekend Walk on the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail

Imagine strolling from town to town near the eastern shores of the Hudson River, walking a well-trodden path lined with trees and stately architecture and with easy access to cafes, local shops, and train stations for an easy ride home. Imagine a weekend when the sun is bright and the sun is warm, and many other people - but not too many - are out enjoying the same weather and the same stroll. Such were the pleasures on a recent Sunday, in the latter part of this unseasonal winter, along the Old Croton Aqueduct Trail not too far north from New York City. View of the Hudson River from the Keeper's House The Old Croton Aqueduct, the system that once delivered fresh water from the Croton River to New York City, was a huge and complex marvel of engineering. The trail sits on top of the aqueduct system. This post describes a walk along just a section of the trail, the one that begins at the Keeper’s House in Dobbs Ferry and ends in Irvington. Recommended purchase - a map det

14 Useful Mobile Apps for Walking New York City

Texting and walking at the same time is wrong. Talking on the phone while strolling down the street is wrong. Leaving the sidewalk to stop and consult the information on a cellphone, preferably while alone, is OK. What's on Walking Off the Big Apple's iPhone: A List Walkmeter GPS Walking Stopwatch for Fitness and Weight Loss . While out walking, Walkmeter tracks routes, time, speed, and elevation. This is an excellent app for recording improvised or impromptu strolls, especially with many unplanned detours. The GPS function maps out the actual route. The app keeps a running tally of calories burned while walking, useful for weight loss goals. Another welcome feature is the ability to switch over to other modes of activity, including cycling. An indispensable app for city walkers. $4.99  New York City Compass , designed by Francesco Bertelli, is an elegant compass calibrated for Manhattan, with indications for Uptown, East Side, Downtown, and West Side. While facing a cert

The High Line and Chelsea Market: A Good Pairing for a Walk

(revised 2017) The advent of spring, with its signs of growth and rebirth, is apparent both on the High Line , where volunteers are cutting away the old growth to reveal fresh blooms, and inside the Chelsea Market, where new tenants are revitalizing the space. A walk to take in both can become an exploration of bounty and surprise, a sensual walk of adventure and sustenance. A good pairing for a walk: The High Line and Chelsea Market Walking the High Line for a round trip from Gansevoort to W. 30th and then back again adds up to a healthy 2-mile walk. Regular walkers of the elevated park look for an excuse to go there. Especially delightful is showing off the park, a model of its kind, to visitors from out of town. A stroll through Chelsea Market. Time check. If you haven't stopped into Chelsea Market lately, you may want to take a detour from the High Line at the stairs on W. 16th St. and walk through the market for a quick assessment or a sampling. Among the sampli