Posts Tagged ‘Hell’s Kitchen history’

How Hell’s Kitchen got its rough and ready name

February 20, 2023

There used to be a lot of hell in New York neighborhood names.

Hell’s Hundred Acres was the early to mid-20th century moniker for today’s SoHo, thanks to all the fires that broke out in the cast-iron buildings then used for manufacturing. Hellgate Hill was an East 90s enclave named for the narrow East River channel separating Queens from Ward’s Island, where perilous rocks and currents sunk many ships.

Let’s not forget Satan’s Circus, the Gilded Age vice district that straddled the Chelsea-Flatiron-Midtown borders, and Spuyten Duyvil, the northern Bronx enclave that translates into “spite of the devil” or “spouting devil” due to its treacherous waters.

Today, we’re left with one hell neighborhood: Hell’s Kitchen, on the West Side of Manhattan. The name conveys a sense of danger, depravity, and chaos—fueled by the post–Civil War development here of tenements, factories, elevated trains, slaughterhouses, waterfront activity, and railroads. Poor people and immigrants moved in, and crime was rampant.

So where did the illustrious name actually come from? Several intriguing theories abound.

In the late 19th century, Hell’s Kitchen might have first referred only to the down and dirty block of 39th Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues. “Legend has it that one rookie cop commented to his more seasoned partner, ‘This place is hell itself,'” explains NYC Parks.

“‘Hell’s a mild climate,’ his partner replied. ‘This is hell’s kitchen.'” Soon, the name spread across the neighborhood—which early on spanned roughly 34th Street to 42nd Street west of Eighth Avenue and today runs all the way up to West 59th Street.

Another possibility is that Hell’s Kitchen the neighborhood was named after the Hell’s Kitchen Gang, which in the late 19th century specialized in stealing from railroad yards, breaking and entering, extortion, and “general mayhem,” according to a 1939 book produced by the Federal Writers Project.

A third explanation states that the name was borrowed from Hell’s Kitchen in London, a slum district on the South Side, per New York Architecture. A fourth attributes the name to a local German restaurant called Heil’s Kitchen.

Could a New York Times reporter be responsible for the name? The first appearance of “Hell’s Kitchen” in newsprint dates back to September 22, 1881.

“A Notorious Locality,” is the title of the article, which goes on to describe some of the tenement houses on the blocks between 38th and 40th Streets and Tenth and Eleventh Avenue.

“Within the square are a collection of buildings…known to the police as ‘Hell’s Kitchen,’ ‘The House of Blazes,’ ‘Battle Row,’ and ‘Sebastopol.’ The entire locality is probably the lowest and filthiest in the city, a locality where law and order are openly defied, where might makes right, and depravity revels riotously in squalor and reeking filth.” Ouch.

Probably the strangest theory posits that a remark by Davy Crockett—the early 1800s frontiersman—inspired the name.

In 1835, Crockett was touring New York City, and he stopped to see Five Points, the most infamous slum district in antebellum Manhattan. Of his visit to this neighborhood of rum houses, dance halls, and ramshackle homes packed with mostly Irish immigrants, he wrote in his autobiography:

“I said to [my friend]…these are worse than savages; they are too mean to swab hell’s kitchen.” Somehow the name was applied decades later to the West Side neighborhood, and it fit.

In recent years, Hell’s Kitchen has lost its once-notorious edge. The gangs are gone; apartments in formerly rundown tenements are now pricey. Bars and restaurants make it a prime nightlife area. An attempt to rebrand the neighborhood the bland “Clinton” years ago never really panned out.

Hell’s Kitchen will continue to be Hell’s Kitchen, albeit a more law-abiding and expensive version.

[Top image: Louis Maurer, 1883, “View of 43rd Street West of Ninth Avenue”; second image: Jacob Riis, 1890; third image: New York Times; fourth image: MCNY/Charles Von Urban, 1932; 33.173.319, 1881; fifth image: Jacob Riis, 1890; sixth image: MCNY, 1930, X2010.11.6065]

What happened to Manhattan’s “Piggery District”

March 13, 2010

Mid-19th century New York City had its genteel side, but mostly it was a collection of rough edges. One long-forgotten hardscrabble neighborhood was the Piggery District, between Sixth and Eighth Avenues in the West 50s.

It was a dirty, smelly, rocky area of hog yards and shanties housing the poor Irish and Dutch families who eked out a living raising and slaughtering pigs.

No one seemed to care about the Piggery District until Central Park opened in 1859. With the city accelerating northward, the neighborhood was deemed a filthy nuisance, and the Department of Health wanted it gone.

That year, the city sent dozens of armed men into the Piggery District to forcibly shut down the offal-boiling places and round up the pigs. 

On at least one occasion, they also ended up ripping apart residents’ homes. A Times article from July 27, 1859 about the raid quoted one woman whose shanty was demolished:

“Very poor revenge,” said she, “to tear down people’s buildings after the pigs is all sent away entirely.”

Here’s another West Side neighborhood that once thrived, then disappeared around the turn of the century.

This Lincoln Center–area neighborhood held out a little longer, but it too is dead and gone.