Publication Date

December 1, 2008

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

Walk out of the meeting hotels in any direction and you can visit memorable historic sites. Walk east and south to see Radio City Music Hall and Rockefeller Center. Further east and south are Grand Central Station and the Chrysler Building. Weather permitting, walk north and explore the wonders of Central Park; the Central Park Conservancy offers free walking tours ( Walk south through the new glass towers of 6th Avenue and explore the Theatre District.

This tour, which builds on a tour constructed by some of my undergraduates for my Walking New York class, covers the area popularly known as Hell’s Kitchen. It takes you on a less well traveled tourist trail and provides a window on several hundred years of the city’s history, from its farmland and industrial past to its more recent gentrification, and all only a few minutes walk to the west. Taking into account the weather in early January, this tour focuses on sites that are near each other and in some cases bring you indoors and out of the cold. The tour should only take about an hour and a quarter.

Hells’ Kitchen is located in the area between 34th and 59th Streets to the west of Eighth Avenue. Numerous origin stories have circulated about the name, but the most popular version attributes it to a frightened rookie policeman in the 1880s. Observing a street fracas, he commented that “This place is Hell itself,” to which his veteran partner supposedly corrected him, “Hell is a mild climate. This is Hell’s Kitchen.” Officially, the area is called Clinton, though you will see that modern shopkeepers now happily advertise themselves as denizens of Hell’s Kitchen. Hell seems to sell.

Leaving the Hilton on 6th Avenue (Avenue of the Americas), begin walking west on 54th Street. Cross Broadway en route to 8th Avenue. Broadway is the modern variant of the Breede Weg, the old Dutch road north built on a former Indian trail. This is why it is the one major artery traversing the length of the island that does not conform to the 1811 street plan. Continue past 8th Avenue and look at the south side of the block. We begin with material signs of the area’s immigrant, industrial past and legendary urban street crime.

1. West Side Court (1894–96) and Midtown North Precinct House (1939), 306–314 W. 54th Street. The four banded Corinthian columns in terra cotta on the courthouse contrast with the arte moderne/Classic revival police station. A five-story prison originally adjoined the court house, which was known as the Men’s Night Court, noted for the many petty offenders, many of them immigrants and sons of immigrants, who were arraigned here at night. Today, the court is also the home of the American Theatre of Actors, a development that hints at the changing use of space in the area and the growing synergy between the theatre and Clinton districts.

Continuing to walk west to 9th Avenue, we see evidence of the immigrant 19th-century city.

2. “Pre-law” tenements (1858–60), 9th Avenue and the northwest corner of 54th Street. These early tenements were built on 25-foot-wide lots planned in the grid to accommodate a single family. They consisted of four apartments per floor with three rooms in each apartment. The apartments had little ventilation—only a single room had a window—and had no indoor water or toilet.

3. “Old-law” tenements (1888), 787 9th Avenue (between 52nd and 53rd Streets). The Tenement House Law of 1879 stimulated the construction of what are called “dumbbell” tenements, buildings recessed on the sides to allow a window in every room. The “reform” added only a bit of light to rooms that looked out on a shaft between adjoining buildings and did nothing to ease congestion or improve sanitation.

9th Avenue working-class life. Look down the street at the vestiges of an immigrant neighborhood that once bustled with small local eateries, tenements, saloons, and street life for those who labored in the slaughterhouses, shipyards, and industrial factories west to the river.

4. Bar 9, West side of 9th Avenue and 53rd Street. Hell’s Kitchen was farmland before the 1811 grid plan promoted development. The building currently housing Bar 9 stands on an old road, which accounts for the unusual shape of the building and carries over to the narrow patio of Julien’s Restaurant across the street.

Walk south to 53rd Street, and turn left heading back toward 8th Avenue. Stop in the middle of the block.

5. The junction of the 6th and 9th Avenue Els. The 9th Avenue elevated railway opened in 1867 and stood until 1958. As you walk on 9th Avenue try to imagine the noise, tumult, and physical presence of the El and its impact on residents. The 6th Avenue El opened in the 1870s and was razed in 1939, to be replaced by the subway. This was where the two lines met, however. Look for vestiges of the signage for “Omega Oil,” billed as good for “weak backs,” on the upper side of the brick building. The sign was positioned so that riders on both lines could see it.

6. St. Benedict’s Church (1869), 342 W. 53rd Street. Erected by Protestant Evangelicals as the Church of St. Benedict’s the Moor, the church served the black middle class whose congregation (founded in 1883) moved to this site from Bleecker Street in the 1890s.

Return to 9th Avenue and walk south to 46th Street, noting the many ethnic (and inexpensive) restaurants that are part the famous annual 9th Avenue Food Fair. Turn right in the direction of 10th Avenue to see the adaptive reuse of 19th-century buildings in the Theater District.

7. St. Clemente’s Church, 423 W. 46th Street. This lovely Victorian Episcopal church with Gothic revival arched windows was erected in 1870 and altered in 1882. Founded as the Faith Chapel of the West Presbyterian Church, it now serves as home for Playhouse 46’s dance and drama productions that reflect the area’s growing importance in “fringe” theatre—both physically and artistically.

8. Matthews-Palmer Playground, south side of W. 46th Street. In 1959, a 16-year-old gang member named Salvadore Agron mistook two teens for members of a rival gang and stabbed them to death in this park. Agron’s death sentence and subsequent appeals prompted Paul Simon to write a musical based on Agron’s life and the case, The Capeman, which opened at the Marquis Theater in January 1998.

9. The Piano Factory (apartments), 452–58 W. 46th Street. This converted New England style mill building was the home of the Wessell, Nickel, and Gross Company, which built innards for pianos. Today it hints at the gentrification that is reshaping many parts of New York, including Hell’s Kitchen.

Possible tour extension: continue west to the Hudson River, stopping at the Landmark Tavern (1868) on the southeast corner at 11th Avenue, and then at the dock where the Intrepid, the ship museum, is docked.

Turn left on 10th Avenue and walk south. Hell’s Kitchen was (in)famous for its gang life, often associated with ethnic immigrant subcultures in the city. The area’s gang history became the stuff of legend, popularized in West Side Story and The Cape Man. One such gang was the Westies, an Irish gang that dominated the area in the 1970s and 1980s.

10. Site of the White House Bar, 45th Street at the northeast corner of 10th Avenue. This bar was one of several owned by the gangster Mickey Spillane, who, the New York Times claimed, “ran the neighborhood like an Irish Godfather.” Spillane, who died in 1977, specialized in extortion.

Continue south on 10th Avenue one more block and turn left on W. 44th Street, where you can see additional signs of the present adaptation of the past. Here Hell’s Kitchen becomes transformed into an economical site for the arts and the neighboring Theatre District.

11. Row Houses, south side of W. 44th Street. These are classic examples of three-story row houses built for wealthier residents moving north as the area opened up for development in the 1850s–70s.

12. The Actors Studio, 432 W. 44th Street. Originally the Seventh Associate Presbyterian Church (1859), this Greek revival brick building was restored in 1995. The Actors Studio was founded in 1947 by Elia Kazan, Cheryl Crawford, and Robert Lewis. In 1955, Lee Strasberg, who had become artistic director in 1951, moved it to this site. The studio was known for training actors, including Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, James Dean, Shelley Winters, and many others, in Stanislavsky’s “Method Acting.”

13. New Dramatists, 424 W. 44th Street. Erected in the 1880s as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, this gothic revival building is now home to the New Dramatists, a company founded in 1949 and dedicated to helping advance the careers of playwrights. The organization’s dramatists have won 16 Pulitzers and 24 Tony awards. Tony winners included Michael Steward for best musical (Bye, Bye Birdie, 1961) and August Wilson for best play (Seven Guitars, 1996).

Continue east on W. 44th Street and cross 9th Avenue. Walk 20 yards north on 9th Avenue toward 45th Street to enter the cooperative apartment building lobby at 630 9th Avenue. This opportunity to get out of the cold also affords a view of an architectural gem that illustrates how the area has become a site for both gentrification and for some fine examples of modern American architecture.

14. Film Center Building (1928), 630 9th Avenue, east side. Check out the spectacular polychrome art deco lobby, with its geometric forms and abstract ornamentation, gold ceiling, and colored walls. Eli Jacques Kahn of Backman and Kahn designed this building at the height of the art deco movement to serve the new film industry. The building, listed on the National Historic Register, was erected in the same era as the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. Today it is a condominium loft building.

Walk north back to 46th Street and turn right to enter a block of restaurants that today serve the tourist theatre crowd but also reflect the ethnic groups—both old and new—that have historically populated Hell’s Kitchen.

15. Restaurant Row, West 46th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues. More than 16 restaurants and clubs on this one block offer a taste of the many ethnic cuisines of immigrants who have lived in Hell’s Kitchen. Of course, the immigrant working class would have most likely visited such establishments only to celebrate special occasions, and contemporary foodways often reflect invented versions of the ethnic past. Good and cheaper places abound on 9th Avenue, but many of these restaurants have attractive prix fixe dinners and good reputations. A few suggest the variety:

  • Swing 46, 349 W. 46th Street, live jazz with a dance floor and a prix fixe pre-theatre American-Continental dinner. Imagine yourself in a speakeasy!
  • Danny’s Skylight Room, 346 W. 46th Street, a dinner theatre piano bar.
  • Le Rivage, 340 W. 46th Street, serving classic French country food, one of many newer restaurants on the block seeking to appeal to tourist notions of the cosmopolitan gourmet.
  • O’Flaherty’s Ale House, 334 W. 46th Street, the walls crammed with dusty old novels and music in the back room of this old Irish favorite are a throwback to the area’s roots.
  • Barbetta Restaurant, 321 W. 46th Street, the oldest Italian Restaurant (1906) in New York still owned by its founding family, it serves northern Italian food from the Piemonte region that may be less about haute cuisine than atmosphere.

Walk to 8th Avenue for a view of some of the architecture that has begun to transform the New York skyline since 9/11. Begin by looking to your south at the blocks of rainbow glass reaching to the sky on the southeast corner of 43rd Street.

16. The Westin New York at Times Square, 270 W. 43rd Street and 8th Avenue. The 800-room Westin Hotel has won praise for its playfulness—though others think it a gaudy and ugly supplement to the Disneyland-like renovation of Times Square and 42nd Street. Completed in 1993, it is the first New York project by Arquitectonica, the Miami-based firm led by Bernardo Fort-Brescia and Laurinda Spear. The glass skin of the tower has been described as postmodern Mondrian.

Possible detour as time and the weather permit:

Walk south toward 42nd Street and look east at the landmark McGraw-Hill Building, 330 W. 42nd Street on the north side of the street. One of the city’s great “modern” buildings, it represents a transitional moment between art deco and the international style. The practical, utilitarian style and tiered setbacks of the “jolly, green giant,” built in 1930–31 with the country already in the Depression, won the building a place in the 1932 exhibition on the international style at the Museum of Modern Art.

Continue south one more block, to the southeast corner of 41st Street, to see the New York Times Building. Designed by Renzo Piano, this building was the first post-9/11 skyscraper to be built in New York (2005). The building was constructed using sustainable principles to minimize energy consumption and has a double-skin façade—a ceramic exterior covers a steel and glass interior. Walk into the lobby to appreciate the street level large interior garden and spacious public space.

Continue north on 8th Avenue, looking into the distance at the last site on the tour.

17. Hearst Tower, 300 W. 57th Street and 8th Avenue. Designed by the London architect Norman Foster, the Hearst Tower was completed in 2005–06 and is the first building to receive a Gold LEED certified rating for “core and shell and interiors” in New York City. The “diagrid” frame—glass triangles in a steel grid—sits atop Joseph Urban’s existing six-story art deco building. The building’s silhouette stands quite apart from the tenements, row houses, churches, and restaurants of the older immigrant neighborhood, but speaks to the vibrant, changing culture of today when “Hell’s Kitchen” seems more like a beacon call to new settlers and tourists than a warning that you are entering “Hell itself.”

Daniel J. Walkowitz, New York University, is chair of the 2009 Local Arrangements Committee.