New York is a hell of a town

More than a few city neighborhoods currently or used to start with “Hell.” Hell’s Kitchen is the most famous—and enduring. (C’mon, does anyone really call it Clinton?)

The nabe’s moniker but it may have first been used in the late 1800s to describe the revolting slums and ferocious gangs in the West 30s and 40s.

Hellgatebridgepostcard

Hell Gate is the name of the once-dangerous tidal strait separating Astoria from Randall’s Island. It’s also a lovely bridge that connects these two land masses across the East River.

Was Hell Gate once the name of the neighborhood on the Manhattan side of the East River too? I’m not sure, but maybe—there’s a Hell Gate Station post office on East 110th Street.

Hellgatepostoffice

And let’s not forget the fantastically named Hell’s Hundred Acres, a gritty term for pre-1970s Soho. The beautiful cast-iron buildings that today house million-dollar lofts were used for decades as warehouses and manufacturing sites. 

Hellshundredacresfire

Safety codes weren’t followed and the buildings allowed to deteriorate, so they often went up in flames—hence the nickname. This photo documents a 1958 fire in a Wooster Street factory that killed six firefighters. Hell’s Hundred Acres indeed.

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10 Responses to “New York is a hell of a town”

  1. Christopher Says:

    A couple things, I believe that hell gate is a mispronunciation of a dutch word, that happens to sound interesting in english — so maybe an intentional mispronunciation.

    Also, the post offices in east harlem are named for the bridges — so the next post office north from hell gate station is the triborough. it sits on 124th. i doubt that east harlem was ever known as triborough.

    i believe, also, that the hell gate bridge was miniaturized and sold with hundreds of lionel train sets, making it one of NY’s most recognized bridges.

  2. petey Says:

    so far as i know there was no neighborhood named hell gate. as christopher says, the source of the name is obscure: i’ve read it may be an englishing of ‘helle gat’, “shining pass”, for the sparkling off the surface of the turbulent water. but the danger of the strait would be reason enough for the name.

    i own a hell gate t-shirt, get yours here!
    http://www.astorialic.org/store_goods.php

  3. Sean Says:

    Don’t forget Sputenduyvel, another corruption of a Dutch word, that wound up translated into English as “in spite of the devil” due to its treacherous currents.

  4. Dan Says:

    Here’s how the Wooster St. location looks today. The Elkins Co. building was replaced with a fine exposed steel girder building. http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=wooster+st.,+new+york,+ny&sll=40.794705,-73.944148&sspn=0.010851,0.016758&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Wooster+St,+New+York&ll=40.725885,-73.99968&spn=0.011269,0.016758&t=h&z=16&layer=c&cbll=40.725965,-73.999613&panoid=0rbshlxLYR6unyDT4YIgHA&cbp=12,259.05,,0,-14.13

  5. wildnewyork Says:

    I like that Hell Gate shirt! It’s a beautiful bridge, probably my favorite. It kind of looks like a train toy bridge.

    Thanks for the insight into the origin of Hell Gate and the post office station names. Amazing how treacherous Hell Gate was and that this deceptively simple little strait was the site of hundreds of shipwrecks over the years.

  6. Joe Jackson Says:

    Hell Gate Post Office is the worst place in East Harlem. Please make sure to lodge complaints about these postal workers to USPS so we can get people working there who actually do a good job.

    The USPS phone number is 1-800-275-8777. The Manager of the branch is Mohamed Eletrsuy and the supervisor is Ms. Washington.

    Be heard!!

  7. This might be the coolest sign on Canal Street | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] teenage gangs were making newspaper headlines, and the desolate neighborhood not yet known as Soho was still called Hell’s Hundred Acres (for all the fires in the cast-iron buildings used for manufacturing at the […]

  8. trilby1895 Says:

    I’d always assumed Soho earned the “Hell’s Hundred Acres” moniker due to the preponderance of brothels in the area during the 1800s.

    • Sean Sweeney Says:

      Urban Myth Debunked:

      Actually, SoHo was ascribed the name “Hell’s Hundred Acres” only in the past couple of decades, erroneously, long after it was first coined by NYC Fire Commissioner Cavanagh around 1958 to describe ALL the fires in the old loft bldgs in the downtown manufacturing district. SoHo was just a SMALL part of that manufacturing district. http://www.nytimes.com/1986/06/19/obituaries/edward-cavanagh-jr-dies-former-fire-commissioner.html?mcubz=0

      22 November 1960, New York Times, pg. 37:
      “Describing the area as “Hell’s Hundred Acres,” {Cananagh} gave its boundaries as Reade and Eighth Streets, between Broadway and the Hudson River. ”

      Cavanagh used the term again in a 1961 NY Times article during the 50th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, on Greene and Washington Place, where 147 died in Greenwich Village.

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