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

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 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

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

A Walk From Lincoln Center to Zabar's

If you happen to be attending a noon or matinee performance in Lincoln Center or otherwise happen to be hanging around there for whatever reason and find you've got some time, I recommend a stroll up Broadway to Zabar's, the famous Upper West Side food emporium. This stretch of Broadway takes in the sights of several new housing sky-rises, several theaters, and some flamboyant former apartment hotels of the early 20th century. Flâneurs will love the Belle Epoque ambiance of these overly-ornamented buildings, and the distance from W. 66th or so to W. 80th is not so taxing, especially if you're dressed in shoes for the opera. View Larger Map Several noteworthy structures along the way - The Dorilton, 171 W 71st St., from 1900-02, at the northeast corner of Broadway, is considered a Beaux Arts masterpiece. The 72nd St subway station dates from 1904 and is a funny little thing. Verdi Square, at the convergence of Broadway, Amsterdam, an W. 73rd, is a nice small park fea

The Thin Man Walk: A New York Holiday Adventure with Nick and Nora Charles

(Revised) Line up the cocktails. As Nick says, "You see the important thing is the rhythm. Always have rhythm in your shaking. A Manhattan you shake to foxtrot, a Bronx to two-step time. A dry martini you always shake to waltz time." If ever a couple possessed complementary drinking rhythms, it would have to be Nick and Nora Charles , the much-envied glamorous cocktail-swilling quick-thinking duo of Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man . Inspired by the writer's blossoming affair with playwright Lillian Hellman , the novel, published in January of 1934, motivated MGM to rush a cinematic adaptation into production. The movie, released in late May of 1934, proved popular enough to spawn sequels, foremost because of the stellar chemistry and witty performances of William Powell as Nick and Myrna Loy as Nora. Decades later, many people still search for their own Nick or Nora. Beyond the playful banter, the partying Charleses exude a confident security and ease in their

25 Things to Do Near the American Museum of Natural History

After visiting the American Museum of Natural History, explore attractions on the Upper West Side or in Central Park. Visitors to New York often run around from one major tourist site to the next, sometimes from one side of the city to the other, and in the process, exhaust themselves thoroughly. Ambitious itineraries often include something like coffee in the Village in the morning, lunch near MoMA, a couple of hours in the museum, a ride on the Staten Island Ferry in the afternoon, cocktails at the midtown hotel, a quick dinner, and then a Broadway show. It's a wonder people don't pass out at the theater. While sitting on the steps of the American Museum of History, consider exploring the Upper West Side and nearby sites of interest in Central Park. There's a better way to plan a New York trip. Consider grouping attractions together geographically. Several posts on this site address this recommended approach. The Wild West of the Tecumseh Playground Groupin

Museums in New York Open on Tuesdays

American Folk Art Museum , 45 W. 53rd St. Asia Society and Museum , 725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street) Guggenheim Museum , 1071 Fifth Avenue (at 89th St.) Pictured left International Center of Photography , 1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street The Metropolitan Museum of Art , 1000 Fifth Avenue NEW: Beginning May 1, 2013 MoMA will be open seven days a week. 11 W. 53rd St. The Morgan Library & Museum , 225 Madison Avenue at 36th Street Museum of the City of New York , 1220 Fifth Avenue New York University, Grey Art Gallery , 100 Washington Square East Mondays and Tuesdays are the hardest days to remember which museums are open. See the list for NY museums open on Mondays here .

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

10 Short Walks from Grand Central Terminal

(updated March 2017) Famously crowded Grand Central Terminal functions as a major crossroads for the city, hosting busy commuters as they come and go from the suburbs via the Metro-North Railroad or within the city via a few subway lines, but the terminal also happens to be a good place to launch short walks. With its south side fronting E. 42nd Street and its massive structure interrupting Park Avenue, Grand Central provides quick access to many of the city's most well-known attractions. The New York Public Library and Bryant Park are only a couple of blocks away from the terminal, a quick jaunt on 42nd Street. And from there, Times Square is just another block or two farther west of the library, its neon shimmering in the distance. One wonders, standing near the intersection of 5th Avenue and 42nd Street, how many souls have been lured away from their well-meaning library studies by the beckoning lights of the Theater District. Grand Central Terminal : Before setting