If New York City is a melting pot, then Hell’s Kitchen is the part of the cauldron that is closest to the fire. At least, it used to be. This section of Manhattan stretching from West 34th Street to 57th Street and westward from Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River is in the process of a dramatic transformation. Historically a haven for gangs, violence, and some seriously unsavory social elements, the new face of this neighborhood is the sleek, sexy, expensive high-rise condo building.
What’s in a Name?
According to neighborhood historian Mary Clark, the most common story traces its origins to the story of Dutch Fred The Cop, a veteran policeman, who with his rookie partner, was watching a small riot on West 39th Street near 10th Avenue. The rookie is supposed to have said, “This place is hell itself,” to which Fred replied, “Hell’s a mild climate. This is Hell’s Kitchen.” The brothels in the area went by such atmospheric names as the House of Blazes, where drunks were lured and set on fire for the entertainment of the girls and their less-soused clientele.
Investigating a double homicide, a police-escorted reporter from The New York Times put the name Hells’ Kitchen in print for the first time in 1881. The label aptly described the area: full of street urchins in gangs, putrid tenements, prostitution, drunkenness, lawlessness and permeating it all, the stench from the slaughterhouses and factories by the river.
In a more recent twist born of the city’s real estate boom, the area was unofficially re-christened “Clinton” or more recently, “Midtown West,” possibly by realtors attempting to take some of the starch out of the area’s reputation and get people to think of it as a more gentile neighborhood. While real estate listings often refer to the area as Clinton, residents of the neighborhood didn’t really take to having their stomping grounds renamed. The violence is gone, but the name Hell’s Kitchen seems to have stuck.
From Dutch to Desolate
Initially, Hell’s Kitchen wasn’t at all hellish. The first Dutch settlers arrived on a gentle slope of freshwater streams and grassy meadows. They called it Bloemendael, which sounds like a major department store (Bloomingdale’s store takes its name from the old Dutch word, incidentally) and actually means “vale of flowers.” The area was a pastoral paradise that eventually contained the farm of George Clinton who became the first Governor of New York and later the vice-president of the United States during the second-term of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency. Clinton was also the uncle of the famed DeWitt Clinton, mayor of New York as well as father of the Erie Canal and the city grid.