Posts Tagged ‘Hell’s Kitchen’

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]

A secret alley behind a street in Hell’s Kitchen

September 25, 2017

Is there anything quite as enchanting as coming across a quiet hidden courtyard in the middle of a dense Manhattan neighborhood?

It’s especially magical when the courtyard is just a quick walk from the hustle and bustle of Times Square. That was my reaction when I took a walk through tiny Clinton Court in Hell’s Kitchen.

This secret space is about halfway down the busy tenement block between 9th and 10th Avenues. It’s accessible through a long slender walkway behind a heavy iron door, which you can find to the right of the residence at 422 West 46th Street.

The door is locked, of course. But it’s worth the trip if you can catch a glimpse of the courtyard from the street through the door.

And if you can convince a resident to let you in and see Clinton Court up close, you’ll want to grab your camera.

Clinton Court is an oasis of tall trees and lush gardens. The courtyard is steps from the back entrances for 420 and 422 West 46th Street (with their ivy-covered walls).

And right in the center is an entirely separate carriage house, with a facade right out of New Orleans or Paris, or a fairy tale.

The carriage house has an unclear history. It was probably built in 1871 by the builder who put up the tenement at number 422.

This was approximately 20 years after 420 West 46th Street went up in the 1850s—before Hell’s Kitchen filled up and became a poor Irish neighborhood of factories, warehouses, and small businesses in the decades after the Civil War. (And long before the neighborhood got its colorful nickname.)

The carriage house “had horse stalls on the ground floor, but occupancy of the upper floors at this time is unclear—in the 1880’s a milkman, Jacob Michels, occupied the entire structure,” wrote Christopher Gray in a 1992 New York Times piece.

Yet some sources have it that the carriage house dates back to the 1820s and was owned by George Clinton, governor of New York at the turn of the 19th century and a descendant of DeWitt Clinton, who has a park named after him in the neighborhood.

With Halloween coming up, it might be worth mentioning that a couple of sources claims the place is haunted either by Governor Clinton himself, one of his kids, or by an executed British Revolutionary War sailor named Old Moor, as the site of Clinton Court occupies an former potter’s field cemetery.

The carriage house’s history becomes clearer in the 20th century. “In 1919, Raffaello and Frank Menconi, prominent architectural sculptors, purchased both 420 and 422 and merged the lots,” wrote Gray.

The Menconis are the designers behind the flagpole bases outside the New York Public Library, among other city sculpture icons.

“They added a one-story studio with a skylight on the rear lot of 420 and occupied the entire rear building for their business.”


In 1958, the tenements at 420 and 422 West 46th Street, the carriage house, and the studio became one single apartment complex entity, says Gray—serene seclusion steeped in New York history and mere steps from Midtown.

What happened to the residents of The Whitby?

January 30, 2012

Ex-chorus girls and actresses. Retired jazz musicians. A female impersonator who once worked the vaudeville circuit.

These were some of the characters interviewed in a 1988 New York Times article who lived at the Whitby—a grand 1923 apartment building designed by Emery Roth on 45th Street just west of Eighth Avenue.

The article chronicled a familiar story. The Whitby—once a residential hotel popular with theater people and in the 1980s a rental with rates as low as $221 a month—was going co-op. The retired show folk who lived there feared the change about to hit their eclectic longtime home.

“‘It was a home for actors,” said Jon Richards, an 84-year-old retired Broadway actor who has lived at the Whitby since the 1964 New York World’s Fair. ”We walked in, and we walked in among friends, among family.”’

In the article, a rep for the Whitby’s owner said none of the tenants would be kicked out if they couldn’t afford to buy their apartments.

I wonder what happened to them in the ensuing 24 years—and if the Whitby is now populated by executives and bankers rather than eccentric theater people.

[Top photo: from Bottom: a photo of the Whitby originally from The New York Times, by way of]

A 1920s Hell’s Kitchen street scene

March 24, 2010

Artist and Hell’s Kitchen resident Harry Wickey etched this dark, moody moment in time on Ninth Avenue circa 1923. 

The Ninth Avenue El, dismantled in 1940, looms large in the background. It was the city’s first elevated railway, starting at Greenwich Street and traveling up Ninth Avenue to Columbus Avenue and 155th Street.

Wickey, who switched to sculpture after etching acids damaged his sight, wrote in his autobiography about how he “changed from an Ohio farm boy into an enthusiastic resident of Hell’s Kitchen, New York’s tough area along the Hudson River,” according to a Life article from 1942.

“There Wickey now lives with his wife in three rooms where he can watch the slum kids, housewives, tramps, and tavern topers whom he has transformed into bronze.”

A vintage ad towers over West 51st Street

October 28, 2009

Gre-Solvent was a hand cleaner that promised to wash away serious industrial-strength gunk and grime. This 3-story faded ad on Ninth Avenue and 51st Street looks like it could date back to the 1930s. It’s remarkably well-preserved.


This corner of Hell’s Kitchen seems a bit off the beaten path for such a large ad. It must have been aimed at workers and residents who toiled away at the factories and light manufacturing companies that once flourished in the neighborhood.

New York is a hell of a town

October 22, 2009

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.


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.


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. 


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.

The Gophers: Hell’s Kitchen’s most brutal gang

August 22, 2009

Given the name because of their penchant for hiding in cellars, the Gophers formed in the 1890s and went on to rule the West Side between Ninth and Eleventh Avenues around 42nd Street through the 00’s and teens.

Their main target: the  New York Central Rail Yards, which ran up the far West Side. 


One Lung Curran, Happy Jack Mulraney (who always looked like he was smiling but supposedly had some kind of facial paralysis), Stumpy Malarkey, and Goo Goo Knox. Gang leaders back then had some colorful names.

They also had a female auxiliary gang, the Lady Gophers, headed by notorious tough chick Battle Annie—the “Queen of Hell’s Kitchen.” Reportedly she was “the most feared brick hurler of her time.”

UK-born Owney Madden, fourth from left in this 1910 gang photo, earned a rep as one of the most brutal Gopher leaders. Nicknamed The Killer, he’s responsible for numerous deaths of other gang members, especially from the rival Hudson Dusters.

After serving time in Sing Sing, he became a bootlegger and co-owner the Cotton Club, Harlem’s flashy club in the 1920s.

Ninth Avenue’s shrinking Little Italy

March 30, 2009

There used to be several Italian neighborhoods in Manhattan, like the Pleasant Avenue vicinity in East Harlem (still home to Rao’s, the Mafia and celeb hangout) and in the South Village centered along Bleecker Street.

Ninth Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen was another one. The neighborhood is now Duane Reade-ified and its ethnic groups (Irish, Italian, Greek, among others) dispersed, but some of these old Italian-American businesses survive.

Like Mazzella’s Market, selling produce for more than 75 years:


Not too many store signs contain the word “grosseria” anymore:


Rib bellies! Smoked loins! Pig toes! All that and more are available at Esposito Pork Shop:


Player pianos for sale in Hell’s Kitchen

November 27, 2008

On Tenth Avenue and 52nd Street stands a lovely red brick tenement building with some ghostly signage. “Factory & Warerooms” reads the banner lettering across the facade between the second and third floors.


Then, on the lower left, “Player Pianos.” This building was the home of the Becker Bros. piano factory, founded by Jacob Becker. On, it explains that Becker pianos were “of great merit in which the skill and experience of the makers are clearly evinced.”


The player pianos were also rated pretty highly. “The Becker Bros. player piano is equally meritorious and noted for its simplicity of construction and ease of operation,” the guide says.