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June 15, 2014

Hell's Kitchen, NYC

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Jacob Riis photo of Bandits' Roost (1890)

Old neighborhoods, like old people, have strong personalities. And they are feisty as Hell.

The above photograph of an alley in Hell's Kitchen, then in its second century, was taken long before the midtown Manhattan neighborhood got cute and trendy again. The work, images and outcry of Jacob Riis were famous at the time. So was this photograph.

But Hell's Kitchen actually started out cute and even pastoral. Three hundred years ago there were farms. Then came suburbs, and it was not really a "bad" neighborhood until around the time of the Civil War. Movies and novels maybe over-covered that second 150 years. Hell's Kitchen kept changing but stayed famous: from Irish and German immigrant sub-city to gangland neighborhood to actors' quarter to, these days, more of a yuppie heaven.

People feared the second round of "cute"--the gentrification of recent years--would destroy it. It didn't. It's still authentic in pulse and atmosphere. A few (not many) old families could afford to stay. Real estate brokers years ago came up with the new labels of Clinton and "Midtown West"--but those did not work. They could never replace the real name, the one that no one can even trace.

Yeah, older neighborhoods, like older people, have personalities--and they are feisty as Hell.

Personally, I think of the area as smaller and more compact than most descriptions. For me, it does not start until just north of the Lincoln Tunnel at 40th and then goes up to 57th Street. Its width, of course: West of 8th all the way to the Hudson. Yet it always seems worlds away from Times Square, right next door, and Midtown East.

If you are in Manhattan some weekend, stroll around there on a Sunday morning early, when it groans, complains and even growls like its old self. You will not head east. You won't even think about leaving Hell's Kitchen for a while. Too seductive. The uneasy mixes of Irish, German, Italian, and Everyone Else that dominated it--especially in the last 150 years--left certain imprints and energies. You can still feel and hear them in the stone of the buildings and street.

Posted by JD Hull at June 15, 2014 10:59 AM

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