In midtown Manhattan, West from 7th Avenue, there’s a district known as Hell’s Kitchen . Despite nowadays it’s full of cozy and packed restaurants serving foods from all around the globe, it’s not because of the gastronomy that it was given this name.
Back on the early 19th century, most of the New York City that we know was open farmland and suburban villas. Hell’s Kitchen (the name wasn’t given yet) was no exception. The landscape pictured isolated houses surrounded by fields and a slaughterhouse that received cattle from Weehawken docks, just across the Hudson. But things would change quickly. The construction of the Hudson River Railroad brought factories and docks to the area, and consequently, the city expanded fast towards them. At the same time, many working class people from Europe were running away from poverty and hunger, shipping to America with the hope to start a new life in the new world. Ireland’s Great Famine brought up to one million Irish men and women across the Atlantic, and many of them settled their new home next to the Hudson River, creating large shantytowns close to the docks, the railroad, and the factories.
The constant flux of people arriving to the city, moreover after the American Civil War, overcrowded the area and leaded it towards a gang lifestyle. The alcohol prohibition implemented in 1919 was the turning point for the neighborhood to become the operation centre for New York’s Irish gangs. The many warehouses along the district were ideal spots for rum runners, and soon people like One Lung Curran or Owney Madden and their gangs controlled all the activities in the area.
It is still uncertain the origin of the denomination, but by the mid 1930’s the district was already known as Hell’s Kitchen . A place the police preferred to avoid and where the law was established by gun power. This Hell’s Kitchen ‘s status quo last for decades, the neighborhood reached severe levels of degradation and was completely forgotten by the city. Something really surprising in comparison with the close Theater District. Broadway, Times Square… was only a couple of blocks away. With the time, the theaters in the area lost attendance. People wanted to go to the movies, plays, and musicals, but it wasn’t worth to get robbed. Places like the New Amsterdam Theatre and many others were transformed into adult movies theaters, and the former glamour was totally lost.
So, the question is, what took that depressed area to become again one of the busiest and lively neighborhoods in the city? That’s the starting point of the Miracle on 42nd Street.
As Hell’s Kitchen was actually hell, the real estate value was very low. On the early 1970s, HRH Construction bought a huge lot (a complete Manhattan block) between 42nd and 43rd streets, and 9th and 10th avenues. They wanted to build an extensive residential building consisting on two 45-stories towers and facilities, designed for middle and upper-middle class rental tenants. The development was supported by a $95M mortgage by the city of New York, under a middle-income housing program. However, the project faced several difficulties, starting from financial problems by the city that was even more severe during the 1973 financial crisis. The residents were also against the project, sustaining that the government did nothing for them through years and now they offered economical muscle for a project that wasn’t for them.
After struggling during some years, they finally came up with the final solution: the project was declared as a Section-8, which permitted to use Federal funds, and the new apartments were going to be distributed between Hell’s Kitchen residents, middle-income residents and, mostly, by artists. Bringing artists back to the district was key to give life to the area. Manhattan Plaza became the residence and studio for talented people like Samuel L Jackson, Angela Lansbury, Larry David or Alicia Keys among others. They could live paying a rent based on their income, and they were really close to Broadway were they performed every night. With time, a new sense of community grown in Hell’s Kitchen. The old theaters came back to the movies, new restaurants and shops spread all over the area and the neighborhood was again alive, as it is nowadays.
Miracle on 42nd Street is a documentary that tells the whole story through the real people that lived there and found their place to develop as artists. I had the chance to assist to the premiere at Vanderbilt Hall in NY, and if they raise the sufficient funds, it’s going to be distributed soon. It was such a great experience to discover this part of New York-s history, moreover in a place like the Vanderbilt Hall.