hells kitchen

Hell's Kitchen, Manhattan

Hell's Kitchen, also known as Clinton and Midtown West, is a neighborhood of Manhattan in New York City that includes roughly the area between 34th Street and 59th Street, from 8th Avenue to the Hudson River.

The neighborhood provides transportation, hospital and warehouse infrastructure support to the Midtown Manhattan business district. Its gritty reputation had depressed real estate prices relative to much of the rest of Manhattan until the early 1990s.

Throughout its history, Hell's Kitchen has figured prominently in the New York City underworld, especially in Irish-American organized crime circles. Gangsters like Owney Madden, bootleggers like Bill Dwyer, and Westies leaders Jimmy Coonan and Mickey Featherstone were Hell's Kitchen natives. The rough and tumble days on the West Side figure prominently in Damon Runyon stories. Various Manhattan ethnic conflicts formed the basis of the musical and film West Side Story.

Once a bastion of poor and working-class Irish Americans, over the last three decades of the 20th century and into the new century, Hell's Kitchen has undergone tremendous gentrification as a result of its proximity to Midtown. The 1969 edition of the Plan for New York City book authored by the City Planning Commission stated that people of modest means were being driven from the area by development pressures due to the Midtown location. Today, a great number of actors have resided in the neighborhood thanks to its proximity to the Broadway theaters and The Actors Studio training school.


While there are no hard and fast rules for defining a neighborhood since neighborhoods have neither formal legal standing nor do they constitute a census designated place, "Hell's Kitchen" generally refers to the area from 42nd to 59th street, starting 100 feet west of 8th Avenue because city zoning regulations limit buildings to 6 stories high (although exceptions are often made). As a result, most of the buildings are older, often walk-ups. For the most part the neighborhood encompasses the ZIP codes 10019 and 10036. The post office for 10019 is called Radio City Station, the original name for Rockefeller Center on Sixth Avenue.


Alternative names

Hell's Kitchen has stuck as the name even though real estate developers have offered alternatives of Clinton and Midtown West or even the Mid-West. The Clinton name originated in 1959 in an attempt to link the area to DeWitt Clinton Park at 52nd and 11th Avenue, named for the 19th century New York governor.

Hell's Kitchen

Several different explanations exist for the original name. An early use of the phrase appears in a comment Davy Crockett made about another notorious Irish slum in Manhattan, Five Points. According to the Irish Cultural Society of the Garden City Area:
When, in 1835, Davy Crockett said, "In my part of the country, when you meet an Irishman, you find a first-rate gentleman; but these are worse than savages; they are too mean to swab hell's kitchen," he was referring to the Five Points.

According to an article by Kirkley Greenwell, published online by the Hell's Kitchen Neighborhood Association:

No one can pin down the exact origin of the label, but some refer to a tenement on 54th Street as the first "Hell's Kitchen." Another explanation points to an infamous building at 39th as the true original. A gang and a local dive took the name as well.... a similar slum also existed in London and was known as Hell's Kitchen. Whatever the origin of the name, it fit.

Local historian Mary Clark adds a probably apocryphal anecdote when she states the name:

...first appeared in print on September 22, 1881 when a New York Times reporter went to the West 30s with a police guide to get details of a multiple murder there. He referred to a particularly infamous tenement at 39th Street and 10th Avenue as "Hell's Kitchen," and said that the entire section was "probably the lowest and filthiest in the city." According to this version, 39th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues became known as Hell's Kitchen and the name was later expanded to the surrounding streets. Another version ascribes the name's origins to a German restaurant in the area known as Heil's Kitchen, after its proprietors. But the most common version traces it to the story of Dutch Fred The Cop, a veteran policeman, who with his rookie partner, was watching a small riot on West 39th Street near 10th Avenue. The rookie is supposed to have said, "This place is hell itself," to which Fred replied, "Hell's a mild climate. This is Hell's Kitchen."

Today, most residents of the area, and most New Yorkers in general, refer to the area as "Hell's Kitchen", with "Clinton" being the name favored by the municipality, "gentrifiers", and eager real estate agents.


Irish tenements

The beginnings of the neighborhood that would become known as Hell's Kitchen start in the mid 19th century, when immigrants from Ireland, most of whom were refugees from the Great Potato Famine, began settling on the west side of Manhattan in shantytowns along the Hudson River. Many of these immigrants found work on the docks nearby, or along the railroad which carried freight into the city along 11th avenue.

After the American Civil War the population increased dramatically, as tenements were erected and increased immigration added to the neighborhood's congestion. Many in this poverty stricken area turned to gang life and the neighborhood soon became known as the "most dangerous area on the American Continent." At the turn of the century, the neighborhood was controlled by the violent [Gang], led by the notorious Owney Madden.

The violence escalated during the 1920s, as Prohibition was implemented. The many warehouses in the district served as ideal breweries for the rumrunners who controlled the illicit liquor. Gradually the earlier gangs such as the Hell's Kitchen Gang were transformed into organized crime entities around the same time that Owney Madden became one of the most powerful mobsters in New York.

After the repeal of Prohibition, many of the organized crime elements moved into other rackets, such as illegal gambling and union shakedowns. The postwar era was characterized by a flourishing waterfront, and work as a longshoreman was plentiful. By the end of the 1950s, however, the implementation of containerized shipping led to the decline of the West Side piers and many longshoremen found themselves out of work. In addition, the construction of the Lincoln Tunnel had devastated much of Hell's Kitchen to the south of 39th street.

West Side Story

During the 1950s, immigrants, notably Puerto Ricans, moved into the neighborhood. The conflict between the Irish, Italians and the Puerto Ricans is highlighted in the Broadway musical and movie West Side Story. The movie was filmed from 65th street and 69th street between Amsterdam and West End Avenue. Part of the sites seen are old P. S. 94 on the corner of 68th Street and Amsterdam Ave and Saint Michael's Church. The movie was filmed during the demolition of this area that was to become Lincoln Center. In 1959, an aborted rumble between rival Irish and Puerto Rican gangs led to the notorious "Capeman" murders in which two innocent teenagers were killed.

By 1965, Hell's Kitchen was the home base of the Westies, a deeply violent Irish-American crew aligned with the Gambino crime family. It was not until the early 1980s that widespread gentrification began to alter the demographics of the longtime working-class Irish-American neighborhood. The 1980s also 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. But, even though their level of violence and influence has been lowered significantly, the Irish Westies remain the most active criminal organization operating in the area.

Today Hell's Kitchen is an increasingly upscale neighborhood of actors and affluent young professionals, as well as residents from the 'old days'. It has also acquired a large diverse community as residents have moved north from Chelsea.

Special Clinton district

Although the neighborhood is immediately west of New York's main business district, development lagged for more than 30 years because of strict zoning rules called the Special Clinton District designed to protect the neighborhood's low rise character.

When the third incarnation of Madison Square Garden at 50th and Eighth Avenue was torn down in 1968, New York developed a master plan calling for two to three thousand hotel rooms, 25,000 apartments, 25 million square feet of office space and a new super liner terminal in the neighborhood which it described as "blocks of antiquated and deteriorating structures of every sort." During this time a proposal was made to build the world's tallest building on the Madison Square Garden site and a massive convention center at 44th Street and the Hudson River.

Residents organized to fight the developments. In October, 1974 the Planning Commission approved the establishment of the Special Clinton District and Mayor Ed Koch moved the Jacob Javits Convention Center to 33rd and the Hudson River.

The District severely restricted development in the neighborhood for more than 20 years. The world's tallest building was not to rise and its Madison Square site was to remain a parking lot until 1989.

Provisions of the District:

The SCD was originally split into four areas:

  • Preservation Area: 43rd to 56th Streets between 8th and 10th Avenues. R-7 density, 6-story height limit on new buildings, suggested average apartment size of two bedrooms. (This was a response to the fact that between 1960 and 1970 developers had torn down 2,300 family-sized units and replaced them with 1,500 smaller units.)
  • Perimeter Area: 8th Avenue, 42nd and 57th Streets. Bulkier development permitted to counterbalance the downzoning in the preservation area.
  • Mixed Use Area: 10th and 11th Avenues between 43rd and 50th Streets. Mixed residential and manufacturing. New residential development only permitted in conjunction with manufacturing areas.
  • Other Areas: West of 11th Avenue. Industrial and waterfront uses.

The mixed use area and other area are now combined into "Other areas."

Building height in the Preservation Area cannot exceed 66 feet or seven stories, whichever is less.

Special permits are required for all demolition and construction in the SCD, including demolition of "any sound housing in the District" and any rehabilitation that increases the number of dwellings in a structure. New developments, conversions or alterations which create new units or zero bedroom units are required to contain at least 20% two bedroom apartments with a minimum room size of . Alterations which reduce the percentage of two bedroom units are not permitted unless the resulting building meets the 20% two bedroom requirement.

In the original provisions no building could be demolished unless it was found to be unsound.


As gentrification pace increased, there were numerous reports of problems between landlords and tenants. The most extreme example was the eight story Windermere complex at the southwest corner of Ninth Avenue and 57th Street -- two blocks from Central Park.

Built in 1881, it is the second-oldest large apartment house in Manhattan. All the major New York newspapers covered the trials that sent the Windermere's managers to jail. According to former tenants and court papers, rooms were ransacked, doors were ripped out, prostitutes were moved in and tenants received death threats in the campaign to empty the building. Its landlord Alan B. Weissman made top billing in the 1985 edition of The Village Voice annual list, "The Dirty Dozen: New York's Worst Landlords, surpassed only by Traill." He too was never convicted of anything.

Most of the tenants eventually settled and moved out of the building. As of May 2006, seven tenants remained and court orders protecting the tenants and the building allowed it to remain in derelict condition even as the surrounding neighborhood was experiencing a dramatic burst of demolition and redevelopment. Finally, in September 2007, the fire department evacuated those remaining seven residents from the building citing dangerous conditions and padlocked the front door. The ultimate fate of the building and its final residents will depend on continuing legal proceedings.

September 11th

While almost all fire stations in Manhattan lost fighters in the September 11 terrorist attacks, the hardest hit station was Engine 54, Ladder 4, Battalion 9 at 48th Street and Eighth Avenue which lost 15 firefighters. Given its proximity to Midtown, the station had specialized in skyscraper fires and rescues and is reputed to be the busiest station of any in all of New York City.

Its patch reads "Pride of Midtown" and "Never Missed a Performance". Memorials dot the station's exterior walls and a granite memorial is in a park to its north.

Also Ladder 21, the "Pride of Hell's Kitchen", located on 38th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, and stationed with Engine 34, lost 7 firefighters on September 11th. In addition, on September 11th, Engine 26 was temporarily stationed with Engine 34/Ladder 21 and lost many firefighters themselves.

Developer Larry Silverstein made part of his fortune that eventually earned him the lease for the World Trade Center by building and managing buildings in the neighborhood. Silverstein's architect David Childs who is designing the Freedom Tower designed the Time Warner Center and Worldwide Plaza buildings in the neighborhood. Signature features of those towers are slated for the Freedom Tower.

Boom times

Developers have constantly attempted to chip away at the zoning rules.

The David Childs designed Worldwide Plaza established a beach head when it was built in 1989 at the Madison Square site between 49th and 50th Streets and between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.

The City under Michael Bloomberg relaxed zoning rules all over the city in the wake of the September 11 attacks. This led to a real estate building boom with Hell's Kitchen getting some of the biggest projects in the city including the Hearst Tower at 56th Street at Eighth Avenue.

An indication of how fast the neighborhood became hot was a 2004 transaction involving the Howard Johnson's Motel at 52nd and Eighth Avenue. In June Vikram Chatwal's Hampshire Hotel Group bought the motel and adjoining SIR (Studio Instrument Rental) building for $9 million. In August they sold the property to ElAd Properties for about $43 million. Elad, which owns Plaza Hotel, is in the process of building The Link, a luxury 44-story building.

Actors' neighborhood

Hell's Kitchen's gritty reputation has meant that housing prices there tended to be cheaper than elsewhere in Manhattan.

Given the lower costs and its proximity to Broadway theaters, the neighborhood is a haven for aspiring actors. Many famous actors and entertainers have resided there, ranging from Bob Hope and James Dean to Jerry Seinfeld, Alicia Keys, Madonna, John Michael Bolger and Sylvester Stallone. This is due in large part to the Actors Studio on West 44th, which rose to prominence under Lee Strasberg and is famed for its method acting style.

Manhattan Plaza at 42nd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues was built in the 1970s to house artists. It consists of two 46-story towers with 70 percent of the apartments set aside for performing artists. The Actors Temple and Saint Malachy's Roman Catholic Church with its Actors' Chapel also testify to the long-time presence of show business people.

The neighborhood is also home to a number of broadcast and music-recording studios, including the CBS Broadcast Center at 524 West 57th Street (also the home of Black Entertainment Television's 106 & Park show), Sony Music Studios at 460 West 54th Street, Manhattan Center Studios at 311 West 34th Street, and Right Track Recording's Studio A509 orchestral recording facility at West 38th Street and 10th Avenue. The syndicated Montel Williams show is also taped locally at the Unitel Studios, 433 W. 53rd Street, between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. AV8 records is housed in the film center building.

Comedy Central's satirical program The Daily Show with Jon Stewart is also taped in Hell's Kitchen. In the summer of 2005, it moved from its quarters at 54th Street and 10th Avenue to a new studio in the neighborhood, at 733 11th Avenue, between 51st and 52nd Streets. The old location at 54th and 10th is now home to The Colbert Report.

The headquarters of Troma studios is located in Hell's Kitchen.

The Alvin Ailey Dance Theater opened on Ninth Avenue in 2006.

The Clinton Community Garden is a result of the actors living in the area. Since they mostly work at night in the local theaters, they took time to create a garden in a rubble-strewn lot. Eventually it became a selling point for gentrification, providing real estate agents with another selling point.

Transportation center

About every conceivable form of transportation, including horses, ocean going ships, and airplanes, has some form of infrastructure in the neighborhood.

  • Automobiles - The Lincoln Tunnel connects New York City to New Jersey. Parking lots dot the neighborhood. Eleventh Avenue is lined with car dealerships, many of which claim to have the highest volume among all dealerships for their brands in the country.
  • Buses - The massive Port Authority Bus Terminal is between 40th and 42nd Streets and 8th and 9th Avenues.
  • Horses - Many of the horse drawn carriages from Central Park stay in stables just off the West Side Highway. It is not uncommon to hear the clip clop of horses in the neighborhood. There have also been calls for banning horses following collisions between horses and cars.
  • Planes - An assortment of planes including the Concorde and SR-71 Blackbird are on display at the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum.
  • Ships - Cruise ships, including the RMS Queen Mary 2 and Freedom of the Seas continuously dock at the New York Passenger Ship Terminal in the 48th to 52nd piers called Piers 88, 90, 92. The SS Normandie caught fire and sank its Pier 88 berth during World War II. Cruise ship horns are a common sound in the neighborhood. Several French restaurants opened on West 51st Street to accommodate traffic from the French Line. The piers originally built in 1930 are now considered small and so the city is considering sending cruise traffic to other locations. In addition to the passenger ships, the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum features the USS Intrepid (CV-11) Aircraft Carrier as well as an assortment of submarines and destroyers. Other ship operations in the neighborhood include the Circle Line at West 42nd and the New York Waterway ferry service.
  • Trains - Hell's Kitchen begins northwest of Penn Station. Amtrak trains going into the station run along a sunken corridor west of 10th Avenue. It is not uncommon to hear their train whistles in the neighborhood. During the post-9/11 building boom, apartment houses have been built over sections of the train tracks. It is bounded on its easternmost border by the Eighth Avenue subway line, which here is the westernmost NYC subway line. The MTA is planning to extend the Flushing Line west from its current terminus at Times Square by two stops, at 41st Street and 10th Avenue, and at 34th and 11th.

Food diversity

Ninth Avenue is noted for its many ethnic restaurants. The Ninth Avenue Association's International Food Festival, stretches through the Kitchen from 37th to 57th Streets every May, usually on the third weekend of the month. It has been going on since 1974 and is one of the oldest street fairs in the city. In addition to the usual American, Caribbean, Chinese, French, German, Greek, Italian, Irish, Mexican and Thai restaurants, there are multiple Afghan, Argentine, Ethiopian, Peruvian, Turkish, and Vietnamese restaurants. Restaurant Row is located on West 46th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues.

Famous natives and residents

Natives and famous residents: past and present

Hell's Kitchen mobsters

Hell's Kitchen in Pop Culture

Popular culture references to Hell's Kitchen tend to play up the rougher aspects of the neighborhood:

  • Films and television shows largely set in Hell's Kitchen include the Irish-American gangster film State of Grace (1990), Sleepers (1996), All Over Me (1997), Bringing Out the Dead (1999), and In America (2002), as is the 2007 television series The Black Donnellys, about a closely knit Irish-American clan living on the margins of the law. In the film " The Warriors", Hell's Kitchen is the residence of The Rogues gang. In The Godfather series, Hells Kitchen is the neighborhood where the Cuneo family rule. In The Replacements, the character Nigel Gruff is said to be "residing in Hell's Kitchen"
  • In music, New York progressive metal band Dream Theater's 1997 album, Falling Into Infinity (recorded at Avatar Studios in Hell's Kitchen) features an instrumental track named "Hell's Kitchen", an obvious reference to the location of the studio. Aerosmith's "Lightning Strikes" features the lyric "The lid's gonna blow up in Hell's Kitchen." The video includes the band as street toughs in the back alleys of Hell's Kitchen. The phrase "Hell's Kitchen" is also used several times in Aerosmith's 2006 song "Devil's Got a New Disguise". Hell's Kitchen also features in the song "New York City" by rock band The Cult. In the song "Thunder on the Mountain" on Modern Times (2006) Bob Dylan sings "I was thinking about Alicia Keys, couldn't help from crying/When she was born in Hell's Kitchen, I was living down the line".
  • Books using Hell's Kitchen as a setting include Ayn Rand's 1943 novel The Fountainhead, where Hell's Kitchen is the birthplace of the character Gail Wynand, a rich newspaper mogul who comes to power by taking * advantage of the corruption, poverty, and squalor he experienced in his surroundings. At the end of the book, Wynand erects the world's tallest skyscraper in the part of Hell's Kitchen where he was born; the site is given as "two blocks between Ninth Avenue and Eleventh Avenue" and "five blocks from north to south" (without specifying the streets). Though such a skyscraper was never built, the book correctly predicted the gentrification of the area, many decades before it came about in reality.
  • In Bret Easton Ellis' 1991 novel American Psycho, the main character Patrick Bateman rents a warehouse in Hell's Kitchen.
  • In the Marvel Comics universe, Hell's Kitchen is the home base of the superheroes Daredevil and The Punisher, and the birthplace of Nick Fury and The Kingpin. It also features prominently in Omega the Unknown.
  • Hell's Kitchen features prominently in the video game Deus Ex and can be seen on the video game True Crime: New York City. It is also where the events in the noir video game Max Payne take place.
  • The design team on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition remodeled the Hell's Kitchen apartment of two firefighters in a special episode of the show. The firefighters had provided the space for their brethren to "crash" as they all participated in the lengthy cleanup following the World Trade Center disaster.
  • In Avenue Q, two Characters, Christmas Eve and Brian, say that they are leaving Avenue Q and moving to Hell's Kitchen.
  • In the US television series Law & Order, in the seasons featuring actor Jerry Orbach (1992-2004), portraying old-school detective Lennie Briscoe, the character never misses a chance to recall his life experience as a youth, growing up in this neighborhood. The anecdotes are often garnished with colorful expression, such as: "Coney Island Whitefish" meaning "a used condom floating on water". • In real life, Jerry Orbach was an actual resident of Hell's Kitchen...
  • In Vic Reeves & Bob Mortimer's "Bang Bang, It's Reeves and Mortimer", a 1999 British comedy show, the character of Kinky John Fowler, played by Vic, claims to have been born in Hell's Kitchen, in 1953. The character also speaks in an exaggerated New York accent, to comic effect.


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