Hell's Kitchen History
By: Kirkley Greenwell

Times Square and West 42nd Street have gotten recent face-lifts, but there is one neighboring area that still enjoys being rough around the edges: Hell's Kitchen. Loosely defined as the district west of 8th Avenue between 34th and 59th Streets, Hell's Kitchen has a history as colorful as its name. Though the neighborhood now has a reputation for restaurants rather than riots, many of the locals can recall the darker past of Hell's Kitchen.

For many years, Hell's Kitchen was famous for its fights. From ax-handle arguments over clotheslines to race riots, violence was a way of life.

The area's name itself speaks volumes. No one can pin down the exact origin of the label, but some refer to a tenement on 54th 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. The truth is difficult to uncover, since the West Side was peppered with menacing nicknames like Battle Row and the House of Blazes (where arson was a favorite form of entertainment), so Hell's Kitchen was just another way of describing a place that was hotter than hell. The expression was possibly an import: a similar slum also existed in London and was known as Hell's Kitchen.

Whatever the origin of the name, it fit. Hell's Kitchen was troubled by violence and general disorder from an early point in its history. In 1851 the Hudson River Railroad opened a station at West 30th Street, and the development of the railway brought factories, lumberyards, slaughterhouses and tenements to house the numerous immigrant workers. Poverty and close quarters bred ill will between neighbors, and riots erupted between the Irish Catholics and Protestants as well as between the Irish and African-Americans. Eventually, gangs such as the Gophers and later the Westies ruled the streets. Hell’s Kitchen also served as an appropriate setting for one of the most famous gang rivalries of all: the Sharks and the Jets in Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story.

Even the rowdiest of neighborhoods can be reformed, however. The 1930s brought the destruction of some of the worst tenements, and the surface railroad tracks that had given 11th its reputation as Death Avenue were moved to a safer location. The Ninth Avenue Elevated train, which had blocked out the sunshine for generations, was dismantled as well. Attracted by its easy access to the Theater District, actors moved into Hell's Kitchen. Off-Broadway theaters flourished, and the Actors Studio on West 44th Street fostered stars like Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe. Residents took control of their blocks, transforming vacant lots into parks and driving out hoodlums. By the end of the 1950s developers wanted a more respectable identity for the neighborhood. They finally rejected the infamous Hell's Kitchen designation in favor of a name resurrected from the past: Clinton, after former mayor and governor DeWitt Clinton.

Present-Day Hell's Kitchen
These days Hell's Kitchen is free from gang wars, but it faces a new foe: gentrification. Neighboring districts like Chelsea and the Upper West Side have become magnets for wealthy young professionals in recent years. Hell's Kitchen lies in between, desperately fighting to hold onto its original working-class character.

Over the years the Irish and German population has made room for Italians, Greeks, Eastern Europeans, Puerto Ricans, Peruvians and Ecuadorians, among others. This diversity is reflected in the local businesses, particularly in the numerous restaurants. A century ago vendors sold an array of foods from pushcarts along the streets; today the abundance and variety of food offered is a continuing tradition. Known for its ethnic cuisine, the area attracts hungry theater-goers, particularly along "Restaurant Row" on West 46th Street. Ninth Avenue, the heart of the neighborhood, is known for its annual International Food Festival in May, when twenty blocks are traffic free and filled instead with stands selling delicious fare from all over the world.

With its lively ethnic character and old neighborhood feel, Hell's Kitchen is getting hotter all the time. Trendy New Yorkers hail Clinton as an up-and-coming neighborhood, safer and more attractive than ever. Even with this new popularity, however, many locals take pride in the rough-and-tumble past, remaining loyal to a neighborhood that they still call Hell's Kitchen.

For More Information
Hell's Kitchen Flea Market, every Saturday and Sunday, 9am-5pm

Historical information on the Women of Hell's Kitchen.
Check out Hell's Kitchen at the movies: West Side Story (1961) and Sleepers (1996) were both filmed in the area.

For information on the annual Ninth Avenue International Food Festival call the Ninth Avenue Association at 212/581-7217.


With farms continually being divided into lots, the populace shifted from landed gentry to wage earners. Although paved avenues only reached to 30th Street in 1847, the city authorized laying of track and operation of trains from Canal Street to Spuyten Duyvil along 10th, 11th and 12th Avenues. This accelerated movement into the area of industry and a population seeking employment opportunities. The first large groups of immigrants to Clinton came from Ireland fleeing the famine at home in the 1840's; weavers arrived from Scotland and cabinet makers from Germany. Negroes working on construction of a distribution reservoir on the site of the present New York Public Library and Bryant Park settled around 53rd Street and 9th Avenue. The Herald newspaper proclaimed that the 450 children from 26 ethnic groups attending Public School 127 at 515 West 37th Street when it opened in 1854 represented:

a superior class of residents than those [on the] east side of town.

As if to contradict, an "Evening Post" reporter complained that:

During the past few years an immense population of Irish and Germans have settled on the vacant lots between 37th and 50th Streets. They have built their own cabins and live there, the dogs, goats and pigs often all in the same room with the family. Their business is the poorest street or house labor -- picking rags, selling goat's milk, gathering cinders from the ashes to sell to other poor, cleaning the new houses, working on the docks, and among them, Germans making the wooden splinters for match manufacturers.


hk44a.jpg (72588 bytes)
Amity Baptist Church, wooden church in the Gothic style, 310 West 54th Street,
N.Y.C. Photograph, 1885


Churches, schools, social organizations, places for recreation and entertainment, shops of all sorts, grocers, butchers, fishmongers opened shop in Clinton. Doctors, hospitals, orphanages, homes for the aged and social service organizations formed. The populace pulled in city services of police patrols, fire stations and sanitation workers. Families filled clusters of two and three story frame houses. Overcrowded multiple tenant buildings throughout the city led its housing inspector to report that one tenth of the population lived in deplorable housing. He was promptly removed from his post.

Religion played a central role in neighborhood life. Ethnic and religious groups worshipped in accord with different traditions and built churches to suit. During the second half of the nineteenth century an impressive number of houses of worship spread through the neighborhood.

  • St. Michael's Church, 1857, 34th between 9th and 10th, largely Italian attendees
  • Dutch Reformed Church, 1861, 34th 8th and 9th
  • Collegiate Church, 1914, 305-9 West 34; demolished for New Yorker Hotel 1929, now home to Unification Church of America
  • St. Clare's Church for Italians, 1903, 434 West 36th with a school following two years later
  • 2nd German M.E. Church, 1913, 346-8 West 40th
  • Mission Chapel of Atonement, 1869, 416-18-20 West 41; around 1900 merged into Zion Industrial School
  • Holy Cross Church and school, 1854, 42nd Evangelical Lutheran Church, 424 West 44 [now New Dramatists]
  • The 7th Associate Presbyterian Church, 1870, 432 West 44 Street, brick late Greek revival style building which later became home to the famed Actors Studio
  • Ganes M. E. Church, 1863,461-3 W. 44
  • St. Luke's German Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1850, 46th between 8th and 9th
  • Faith Chapel, 1867, 421 West 46th, became St. Clement's
  • 2nd German Baptist Church, 46th, in 1889 became part of the assemblage by Wessell, Nickel, Gross for a new piano factory building, which in turn became an apartment cooperative in 1980.
  • St. Albert's, 47th, primarily French and Flemish parish members
  • Congregation Ezrath Israel The Actors Temple, 1917, 339 West 47th, the neighborhood's only Synagogue was established as the West Side Hebrew Association
  • German Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, 1859, 427 West 49; 1867 school on 50th
  • St. James Presbyterian Church (colored) 3rd site 355-359 West 51. Irvington Hall apartments built on cleared site 1914
  • Sacred Heart parish, 1876, Irish, 51st between 9th and 10th
  • Martha Memorial Church, 1886, 419-21 West 52nd
  • Second Evangelical Church, 1869, 342 West 53rd
  • St. Benedict the Moor, first black mission church north of Mason Dixon line, founded on Bleecker Street 1883, moved into a former Protestant church at 342 West 53rd in 1898
  • Amity Baptist Church, 1885, 310 West 54th
  • St. George Theodorfus Greek Orthodox Church, 1886, 307 West 54th
  • St. Ambrose Church, 1898, 541 West 54th. A religious order now uses this and the adjacent building as a residence for young working women.
  • Deems Memorial Church of the Strangers, 1927, 309 West 57th
  • Trinity Presbyterian Church, 1877, 424 West 57th, also hosts a weekly service by the Church of South India
  • Catholic Apostolic Church 417 West 57th
  • St. Paul the Apostle Church, 1876, 59th on 9th, designed by architect Stanford White with baptistery and a mural by artist John La Farge.

The Catholic Polish National church which had been housed at 552 West 50th Street moved to 40th off 9th Avenue in 1909. Renamed St. Clemens Mary, with 160 children attending services, the school continued until 1971. The Croatian Franciscans took over the 50th Street church renamed St. Cyril and Methodius. Today the building is a Bysantine church, its medieval style painting and frescoes magnificently restored.

Ninth Ave. Elevated Railroad north from 42nd St., showing station at W. 42nd St. Photograph by J.A. Powelson, May 12, 1876. New York Historical Society

The astonishing number within one square mile on this incomplete list clearly indicates the centrality of church activity in the lives of Clinton residents throughout its history. Over the years, however, many of the church buildings have been demolished or converted to other uses. Only three churches continue their grammar and/or high schools.

Ethnic and economic groups did not always mix harmoniously. Racial animosity existed sporadically and in pockets. During the Civil War Draft Riots of July 1863 a white mob hanged negroes at 32nd Street and 8th Avenue and women slashed at three of the bodies. Police routed the mob of 5,000 but it returned later and hung more until artillery was used against them. Police jailed only 20 men. The mob also burned the Colored Orphan Asylum between West 44th and 45th Streets on 5th Avenue. Two white women, Mrs. Anna Shotwell and her niece Ms. Murray, had founded the home in 1836. Although the fire destroyed the building, all the children were saved.

1900's Recreation Pier. Courtesty Department of Ports, International Trade & Commerce

In July 1881 a crowd of Irish men in the neighborhood threw bricks from house roofs at Orangemen parading up 8th Avenue. A riot ensued. Police summoned the State Militia which fired on the crowd using real bullets instead of expected blanks. 30 bystanders were killed, hundreds wounded.

In 1899 when whitemen attacked James Harris at 41st Street and 10th Avenue, he drew a gun and killed two of them. A year later, racial tensions erupted into riots in August. While his wife waited outside, a negro man ducked into a store on the comer of 41st Street and 8th Avenue to buy a cigar. Police in civilian clothes arrested the wife. The husband, not knowing that the man accosting his wife was a police officer, fought with him. In an ensuing scuffle, the policeman hit him with a club; the husband slashed him with a penknife, ran and disappeared. On the day of the policeman's funeral and that night, hordes of 5,000 young whites 16 to 19 years old mobbed the streets from 34th to 42nd west of 8th Avenue. Joined by policemen, they chased negroes dragging them from streetcars or wherever found to savagely beat them. Police refused to interfere or protect negroes but instead beat and arrested them, cries for justice unheeded. In the morning, they did arrest 600 persons. Negroes, refusing to be driven from their homes, formed a League and hired an attorney who put together a stack of over 50 affidavits describing the viciousness of police.

That blacks continued to live in Clinton is confirmed by the move of P.S. 6, whose principal was black, from Broadway by West 35th Street to 41st Street and 8th Avenue in the late 1800's. During those early years, the city moved schools and principals to follow the center of the city's negro population. The city's first negro teacher in a school which included both blacks and whites was Ms. Susan Frazier. A graduate of Hunter College in 1888, she waited twelve years for permanent appointment as a teacher and gained it only after taking the Board of Education to court.

The 53rd Street blocks from 6th to 9th Avenue between the years 1890 and 1910 were known as the Black Bohemia. Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight boxing champion, comedian Bert Williams and William Sims, the first black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby three times, lived for a time in that strip.

A 1930 study by Greater NY Federation of Churches placed the area's section with largest negro population around West 58th Street east of 10th Avenue in "San Juan Hill." The name honored black troops who served in the Spanish American War. In PS 141, 828 blacks attended out of the school's 1,104 pupils. Students were drawn from Central Park West to 12th Avenue, 64th to 55th Street. PS 58 on 52nd Street west of 8th had 150 black students out of a 750 total. Its area covered 8th Avenue to the Hudson River, 49th to 59th Streets. They also counted 50 Puerto Rican students, "a new element just appearing in the school district." There were no negro churches below 35th on the west side.

In the 1920's many of St. Benedict the Moor's parishioners followed a citywide move of blacks to Harlem in the 1920's. The Spanish order of Franciscans were assigned to the church and the Church re-dedicated in 1954. Many of the former members filled the Church for its one hundredth anniversary celebration.

Catherine Green, born in 1915, lives on West 51st Street between 8th and 9th Avenue within a block of her birthplace at 409 West 52nd Street. Her only other two moves were to apartments on that same block. Her parents arrived on 52nd Street from South Carolina around 1914. Of their 5 children, one boy and 4 girls, three of the girls married neighborhood boys then left Manhattan. Catherine did not marry. When her parents both died within a year of each other in the 1930's, the owner of their tenement building kept Catherine and her brother but the four youngest girls went to an orphanage because their grandmother was not able to care for them.

Catherine attended PS 58 on 52nd Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, PS 84 on 50th Street and Julia Richmond High School on the eastside. She found work in a hospital, then in a factory as a stamper and pinner on materials. As each of her sisters reached 16, she took her from the orphanage and saw to completion of her education. In 1956, she switched to temporary work at the IRS and from there to full time at Mangel Stores on 18th Street where she stayed in the accounting department for 24 and a half years before retiring.


1858 "The Hermitage" Samuel L. Norton residence 43rd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues
United States History, Local History & Geneology Division.
The New York Public Library Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

As a child she played mostly in front of the house but did go to Central Park for ice skating, sleigh riding and boat rides. She belonged to a social club formed in the neighborhood but never a political one. Broadway was okay for the movies but Tenth Avenue was forbidden territory because of racial problems if a black person walked through. She confirms that:

White kids chased us away because we were black, My parents warned us never to go over there. In fact, I should say ordered us and when they told me something, I listened. Except, I did go sometimes anyway and got chased just like they said I would. Other than that I don't remember any gangs or gangsters. I mean, the kids who chased us didn't seem to do it in meanness, just sort of that's the way it was, more turf than color. We had our block, they had theirs, but there were whites and blacks on both of them.

Perhaps because he was white, in his 1935 book of reminiscences, Dr. Milton Jonathan Slocum observed no racial distinction where he lived and practiced medicine in a tenement apartment on West 56th Street off Ninth Avenue.

We were not Catholic, which most of the people were, nor were we Italian, Irish, French or German. We were a Brooklyn girl and Virginia boy, and both of us were Jewish. Yet I knew we would be accepted. And we were.

The composition of ethnic groups has changed but the mixed use, mixed income, mixed ethnicity of the neighborhood continues. The 1980 Census of 35,858 residents in the area records 74% white (with 30% Hispanic), 9% black, 4% Asian, 12% other and 1% American Indian. A radical change, however, is in the numbers. Compared with the thousands of children attending school in the middle years of the century, a 1990 Department of City Planning report listed the school population from Kindergarten through 8th grade at 1,320 in public and 654 in private and parochial. In 1867 St. Michael's Church alone had 1,200 children attending.


From Hell's Kitchen: The Roaring Days of New York's Wild West Side by Richard O'Connor


For decades after the Civil War, Hell's Kitchen on New York City's West Side between 14th and 52nd Streets, and Eighth Avenue and the waterfront, and the Tenderloin just to the east, glowed, simmered, and frequently boiled over with crime and corruption. Notorious gangs ruled the streets between the tenements, grog shops, slaughter houses, railroad yards, and gas works. In Hell's Kitchen Bully Morrison pulled lamposts out of the sidewalk to use as shillelaghs. During prohibition Hell's Kitchen was the domain of Owney Madden and "Mad Dog" Coll who scared even the city's underworld.

In the gaslight days of the lobster palaces, private dining rooms, and champagne suppers, those in a sportive mood headed toward the Tenderloin, centering around Haymarket. In the Tenderloin there was more crime per square mile of redlight house and saloon than in any other place in America. This all flourished under police protection of course.

But Hell's Kitchen also produced "The Fighting 69th" and Father Francis Patrick Duffy, the heart and soul of that famous regiment. Writers such as Thomas Wolfe and O. Henry lived in Hell's Kitchen and searched its streets for ideas and inspiration.


Over the years, Hell's Kitchen has learned to temper its wild instincts somewhat. An unknowing visitor will still see pockets of sleaze, but the neighborhood is home to thousands of people and businesses. Some still argue about the exact boundaries of Hell's Kitchen, but these days it's commonly considered to run from 34th to 59th Streets and from Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River. The area is also known as Clinton and residents use the two terms interchangeably. One word of caution: our neighborhood is not Midtown West, an unwelcome moniker slapped on by the real estate interests.