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Hell’s Kitchen, New York’s Most Eccentric Neighborhood, Is Another Victim of Overdevelopment
*Editor’s Note: Recently, author and Highbrow Magazine contributing writer Carol Berens wrote about the gentrification and "suburbanization "of New York City, which has become a hot topic - and catchword - in the media, for the magazine. Now, writer David Barwinski, also a New Yorker, offers an in-depth look at overdevelopment in Hell’s Kitchen, the city's most eclectic neighborhood.
“I think a city is a living organism, a giant living organism. It’s a lot more than the sum of its buildings, its infrastructure, its highways. You’d be hard pressed to convince planners, architects, real estate agents of that, but it is. It’s the human beings in a city that give it its character, that give it its culture.”* --John Strausbaugh, author and New York Times contributor (November 7, 2007, New York Times: “Gentrification as ‘Benign Ethnic Cleansing.’”)
Hell’s Kitchen, circa 2000, was perhaps the quintessential New York neighborhood. It lacked the pristineness of the Upper East Side, the stroller barrage of the Upper West Side, the fratiness of Murray Hill, the socioeconomic gap of Chelsea, and the tourist hordes of the Village.
Hell’s Kitchen somehow managed to be gritty but largely without blight, a place where both lonely souls and family types could find happiness, a melting pot where people of all backgrounds mixed freely, and a home of unaffected creativity. It was genuine, unique, and brimming with energy. In other words, it represented everything which has made New York such a beloved, iconic city.
More than 10 years later, things have changed. And its story is New York’s story.
Originally inhabited by working-class German and Irish immigrants, Hell’s Kitchen played a role in the 1863 Civil War Draft Riots; it was home to busy slaughterhouses and docks, the inspiration for “West Side Story,” and the territory of the ruthless Westies. It has also long been a home of entertainers, including James Cagney, Chevy Chase, Larry David, Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks, Charlton Heston, Alicia Keys, Jerry Orbach, Mario Puzo, and George Raft.
In short, it has one of the most colorful histories in New York, rivaling the more well-known Lower East Side. But now overdevelopment has led to the blurring of its distinction.
Gone is McHale’s, a classic bar which was featured in the movie “Sleepers” and served arguably the best burgers in the city, replaced by a luxury high-rise. Gone is Shandon Star, another notable dive, replaced by a Wendy’s. Gone is Scruffy Duffy’s, a bar across the street from McHale’s, which served the best wings in the city. Famously notorious Bellevue, Siberia, and Collins have met the same fate.
These places were far more interesting, as they all were, to some degree, a mirror of the neighborhood’s eccentricity and lack of pretension, than the dull, paint-by-numbers pubs now dotting 8th and 9th avenues, and the trendy lounges hawking $15 cocktails to trust-funders masquerading as bohemians.
Hell’s Kitchen is also famous for its great diversity of foods, but for how long? Gray’s Papaya, Film Center Café (75-plus years serving American fare), Ralph’s (red sauce Italian), and El Deportivo (pollo and mofongo) are all gone, among many others. But there are approximately 25 Thai restaurants.
The neighborhood has likewise succumbed to a myriad of less-than-impressive food trends which have gripped the city in recent years: Asian fusion, small plates, gastropubs, barbeque, cupcakes, food trucks, etc. (The food scene in New York is similar to Hollywood. Someone comes up with an idea that makes money, and the next thing you know, you can’t walk down the street without running into a gelato shop.)
Even the infamous “Soup Nazi,” who operated a hole-in-the-wall on 55th street for many years, now has an empire.
As far as housing goes, good luck finding a reasonably priced apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. For decades, the tallest building in the neighborhood was the art deco McGraw-Hill building on 42nd street. It’s not much to look at, but it possesses more individuality than the glass behemoths taking over the neighborhood. One such example is the Silver Towers a few blocks down, where a studio apartment fetches at least $2,300 a month.
And unless you’re either on the lower or upper end of the income spectrum, raising kids in the neighborhood is not a viable option. At my son’s school (in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, where my wife and I relocated), I recently met another fellow Hell’s Kitchen refugee who ran a small theater company on 43rd street between 8th and 9th avenues. Sadly, the owner forced her out in 2008, along with every other theater company save one, to make room for office space.
Speaking of office space, how many banks does one neighborhood need? There was nearly an entire block of local establishments, on 9th avenue between 54th and 55th streets, including a popular joint called Ned Kelly’s, which closed and lay fallow for quite a long time (presumably the rent was too high). A Capital One now sits there. For an idea of the extent of the big commercial banks’ presence in the city, consider the number of branches in Manhattan alone: Citibank (70), Bank of America (55), Capital One (50), Chase (30).
Of course, what’s happened in Hell’s Kitchen is the same story all over the city. To be sure, there is a balance to be had between the forces of gentrification (which is not a dirty word) and the character and personality which made New York and its neighborhoods famous in the first place.
It’s a good thing that the city can pay its bills (which was a problem in the 1970s), that you can walk down the street without fear of getting mugged or worse (violent crime peaked in 1990), and that new public spaces have been created and old ones revived. However, it seems that the city has decidedly gone the way of excessive gentrification and overdevelopment, much to the detriment of the heart and soul of New York.
It’s quite unfortunate that in Hell’s Kitchen (as in most of Manhattan), the middle class is scarce, local businesses have been forced out by rising rents and competition from multi-national corporations, and creative types have migrated elsewhere. Yes, Hell’s Kitchen, the East Village, the Lower East Side, et al, remain more interesting and diverse than pretty much everywhere else in America. That is, if you can afford to enjoy them.
And this distressing trend, clearly evident over the past 15 years, shows no sign of abating. From the book “The Suburbanization of New York”:
“Today New York is on its way to becoming a ‘theme-park city,’ where people can get the illusion of the urban experience without the diversity, spontaneity, and unpredictability that have always been its hallmarks. Like the suburbs New Yorkers so long snubbed, the city is becoming more private, more predictable, and more homogenized.”
But this lament is nothing new. New Yorkers and indeed people everywhere have always longed for the “good old days,” which of course has a different meaning for different people. Perhaps it’s nostalgia for the days of our youth, which can never be recaptured. And New York has always been about change. Nothing remains the same here for too long. So for those yearning for a more authentic New York experience, there’s always the outer boroughs. Just skip the Target, Best Buy, and IKEA.
David Barwinski is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine. He lives and writes in New York.
*Read Carol Berens’ article here.
Photos: Vincent Des Jardins, Jazz Guy, U.S. National Archives, Flickr