Hell’s Kitchen: New York’s Wild West

PODCAST Hell’s Kitchen, on the far west side of Midtown Manhattan, is a neighborhood of many secrets. The unique history of this working class district veers into many tales of New York’s criminal underworld and violent riots which have shaken the streets for over 150 years.

This sprawling tenement area was home to some of the most notorious slums in the city, and sinister streets like Battle Row were frequent sites of vice and unrest. The streets were ruled by such gangs as the Gophers and the Westies, leaving their bloody fingerprints in subtle ways today in gentrified buildings which at one time contained the most infamous speakeasies and taverns.

We break down this rip-roaring history and try to get to the real reason for its unusual name!

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The mysteries begin over 200 years ago when ordered avenues and streets could scarcely be imagined, and the shoreline was a ragged coast.

The Dutch later called it the Great Kill District, for the creek which emptied into the Hudson River (North River) at 42nd Street. As you can see from this diagram the shore was evened out with landfill to create 12th Avenue although the inward dip at 43rd Street is still visible on a modern map.

map

 

A map (drawn by John Bute Holmes) of the original estate borders of Bloomingdale from the late 18th century.  The jagged shore line would later be filled in to make the blocks between 11th and 12th Avenues.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

The Ninth Avenue barricades made by rioters in the area of Hell’s Kitchen during the Civil War Draft Riots.

barricades

The Orange Riot of July 12 from Eighth Avenue south from 25th street, an 1871 image from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

orange

Bad boys:  Some Hell’s Kitchen ruffians show Jacob Riis how to rob people who have passed out.

Jacob Riis
Jacob Riis

 

An intriguing shot of 58th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues

Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

Jacob Riis’ photograph of the Hell’s Kitchen tenement and the remains of Sebastopol (the rocks), 1890

Photo by Jacob Riis
Photo by Jacob Riis

 

Street vendors under the 9th Avenue Elevated Railroad

Museum of City of New York
Museum of City of New York

 

The Hartley House, a settlement house for the Hell’s Kitchen community. on West 46th Street

Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

 

At the recreation pier — a public swimming hole at West 51st Street and the Hudson River.

Museum of the City of New York
Museum of the City of New York

 

The later configuration of the Gophers. Owney Madden is on the back row, fourth from the left.  A very rough and dangerous gang, but don’t they clean up nice?

Courtesy of Garland County Historical Society and Butler Center Books
Courtesy of Garland County Historical Society and Butler Center Books

 

Owney Madden, the king of the Hell’s Kitchen speakeasy racket.

owney

 

A couple spectacular shots of 1938 slum clearance — eliminating the tenements of 37th Street.

Wurts Brothers. Museum of the City of New York
Wurts Brothers. Museum of the City of New York
Wurts Brothers. Museum of the City of New York
Wurts Brothers. Museum of the City of New York

 

Businesses on West 52nd Street, facing into DeWitt Clinton Park. It’s likely that William Hopper & Sons Truckmen at no. 626 probably traces itself back to the original Hopper land owners.  Photograph by Charles von Urban

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

The entrance to DeWitt Clinton Park (at 54th Street) in 1936

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

 

Most of the pressures faced by the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood came from its perimeter with dramatic changes to the waterfront to its west, Port Authority/Lincoln Tunnel to its south, Madison Square Garden/Times Square to its east and Lincoln Center/Columbus Circle to its north.

Below: The West Side Highway and piers 95-98, looking west from a roof on West 54th Street

New York Public Library
New York Public Library

The Port Authority Bus Terminal in 1950, at West 40th and 41st Streets and 8th Avenue.

Wurts Brothers, courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Wurts Brothers, courtesy Museum of the City of New York

The 8th Avenue Madison Square Garden, as seen in 1935.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York
Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

 

A mural from 1974 — “The Neighborhood Belongs to the People Not Big Business.”

Courtesy US National Archives
Courtesy US National Archives

 

  • Kane

    wow, I live right in the heart of this now! love the history I’m living on!

  • Marina Rosenfield

    Great episode, as always! Did you notice that the incident that set off the riot of 1900 (Harris attacking out-of-uniform Irish policeman who accosted his girlfriend, resulting in the latter’s death and the ensuing rioting) is portrayed in season 1 episode 7 of The Knick (“Get the Rope”)?

  • Steve

    I enjoyed the episode until the end, where you completely failed to mention the impact of the gay community in Hell’s Kitchen. A cursory mention of Flaming Saddles doesn’t cut it.