"When you're a Jet, you're a Jet all the way. From your first cigarette, to your last dying day....... " West Side Story is touted by many as one of the greatest musicals ever staged. The truth is, it was based on the real life drama during the 50's and 60's in the area of Manhattan known as "Hell's Kitchen."
Hell's Kitchen is approximately the area from 34th Street to 57th Street, west of Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River. There are several stories about how it got its name, but delving into the history of the area will give us a clear picture of why.
In the mid 19th century, Irish immigrants began to settle on the west side of Manhattan in shanty towns along the Hudson River. Mostly refugees from the Great Famine, they took jobs as dock workers, or worked for the railroad. After the Civil War, tenements were built, and increased immigration contributed to congestion. Poverty caused many in the neighborhood to turn to crime and gangs, and the area became known as the "most dangerous area on the American Continent." By the turn of the century, violent gangs, including the infamous Gopher Gang controlled the neighborhood. Reportedly, when the neighborhood was described as Hell on Earth, someone else countered that it was Hell's Kitchen. The term first appeared in print in 1881 in a New York Times article covering a grisly multiple murder in the neighborhood. The writer referred to the tough tenement as Hell's Kitchen, and called the surrounding block "probably the lowest and filthiest in the city."
When Prohibition was implemented in the 1920's, the violence and crime escalated to new heights. The warehouses in the area were perfect places for rumrunners to use as breweries, and they controlled the illicit liquor traffic. Owney Madden became one of the most powerful mobsters in New York, and violent gangs like the "Hell's Kitchen Gang" were transformed into organized crime operations.
After the repeal of Prohibition, many of the organized crime gangs shifted their activity into other rackets, including illegal gambling and union shakedowns. The waterfront flourished during the post-war era, and there was plenty of work for longshoremen who resided in Hell's Kitchen. The implementation of containerized shipping in the late 1950's drastically reduced the number of dock workers required, and unemployment increased dramatically. To make matters worse, the construction of the Lincoln Tunnel destroyed a great deal of Hell's Kitchen south of 39th Street.
Puerto Ricans began to immigrate to America in the 1950's, and many of them moved to Hell's Kitchen. West Side Story highlights the conflict between the new immigrants, and the poor Irish and Italian residents. The movie was filmed from 65th Street to 69th Street during the demolition of the area that was to become Lincoln Center. In 1959 the notorious Capeman murders occurred during an aborted rumble between Puerto Rican and Irish gangs. Two innocent teenagers were killed as a result.
The reign of terror of the different gangs and organized crime syndicates continued until 1986 when a series of RICO convictions weakened their stranglehold on the area. However, the Irish Westies remain the most active criminal organization in the area. Hell's Kitchen is now a neighborhood that has experienced a controlled gentrification, with many area residents fighting off developers in an attempt to keep the neighborhood relatively affordable.
The "Special Clinton District" was established to preserve the low-rise character of the neighborhood, and development in the area was drastically slower than the surrounding areas for over 20 years. The restricted area was divided into four sections which delineated the type of development that would be allowed in each. Special permits are required for all demolition and construction work in the Special Clinton District. Developers continued to work at breaking down the restrictions, and made inroads after Michael Bloomberg relaxed zoning rules in the wake of the September 11th attacks. The building boom that occurred as a result included several big projects in Hell's Kitchen, including the Hearst Tower at Eighth Avenue and 56th Street.
For many years Hell's Kitchen has been home to aspiring actors, due to its proximity to the theatre district, and the lower rents. Madonna, Alicia Keys, Jerry Seinfeld, Sylvester Stallone, and Bob Hope are simply a sample of the entertainers who have lived in Hell's Kitchen at one time in their life.
Today the character of the neighborhood has changed, but there are those still pushing back against runaway development. It's a very interesting area to explore, and has a multitude of great ethnic restaurants. You can find everything from the typical Chinese, Caribbean, French, German, Greek, Thai, Mexican, Italian, and American, to Ethiopian, Peruvian, Turkish, Afghan, Argentine, and Vietnamese.
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