The other day I went looking for Hell.
I was in New York and had a few hours to kill so I checked the map for things near my hotel and I saw we were near the neighborhood labeled “Hell’s Kitchen.” I’d been reading about the 19th Century tenements of the Five Points neighborhood, so I was in the mood to look for signs of past misery in New York. Five Points was so notoriously bad that it became a huge tourist attraction. Davy Crockett, visiting New York in 1834, said that the residents of the Sixth Ward were “too mean to swab hell’s kitchen.” So those who actually lived in Hell’s Kitchen had to have it worse, right? Maybe they did, but I found no evidence of it on this trip.
The first indication I saw that I’d reached the right area was a restaurant proudly calling itself “Hell’s Kitchen.” It was closed. Maybe that had something to do with the ice over the sidewalk outside…
I headed for “Hell’s Kitchen Park” on 10th Avenue between 47th and 48th Streets. It, too, had more ice than fire, and some nice playground equipment. A plaque on the gate said that Hell’s Kitchen supposedly acquired it’s name in the 1870s when a young policeman described the block of 39th Street between 9th and 10th as “hell itself.” His partner replied, “Hell’s a mild climate. This is hell’s kitchen.” This description eventually spread to envelop much of the midtown west side neighborhood.
But while the name remains, that hotter-than-hell neighborhood seems long gone. The oldest buildings in the area might date back to the 1870s but if so, they’ve been renovated many times to meet building codes that grew more stringent over time. In the doorways of a few buildings, I could see some Victorian molding that was cracked and covered with layers of paint, and narrow dark hallways reminiscent of the days of dank depressing tenement apartments. And in the basements of a few buildings I observed stone and crumbling brick foundations. But that was all I saw of the old “Hell.”
For the most part, the neighborhood looked to be in much better shape than most of those in my hometown of Baltimore. I did see two elements indicative of a more modern hell, however. The first was a small park: dismal strips of concrete and grassy manufactured mini-hills. There was barely enough room for a small dog to take care of business and a few smokers pacing in the cold. What was worst were the aluminum gates surrounding park, ready to roll into place to form a locked barrier. What was worth locking up?
The second sight that evoked thoughts of hell was a long line of people waiting out in the cold. Hundreds of people lined up one side of the street, around the corner and up the other side waited with grim patience as the sun sank into chilly darkness. Since it’s Manhattan, I thought they might be lined up to see a show. But the crowd didn’t give off the right social vibe. I finally asked a woman what they were waiting for.
“Jobs,” she said simply. It was a line to apply for jobs at a new hotel opening in Soho. An hour later when I walked by again, the line was just as long and just as grim.
But if the neighborhood exhibited a little bit of hell, it also shared a generous slice of heaven. I was curious about the massive gothic stone church at 60th and Columbus Circle, so I looked to see if it was open, and it was. St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church turned out to be a stunningly beautiful and serene place, made all the more magnificent by the organist who happened to be practicing at the time. Let’s just say he didn’t hit too many wrong notes. The music filled the basilica in a truly awe-inspiring manner. I sat down and enjoyed one of those moments where senses are so overwhelmed, you hope you will remember the sensation forever. I like to think that maybe some of the neighborhood’s residents were able to find sanctuary here when the outside world resembled its namesake.
I then went on to Central Park, but before I returned to my hotel, I decided I needed to check out the block that supposedly inspired the initial “Hell’s Kitchen” designation. So I walked back down 9th Avenue to 39th Street and turned right. There was nothing to see — quite literally. The block once considered hotter than hell now consisted of a large vacant lot with construction equipment, parking lots for oversized vehicles and an overpass of some sort. Only two narrow buildings remained standing on the entire long block. They were too forlorn to look hellish.
Maybe next time I should just find a bad neighborhood in my own hometown and give it a colorful name. That would at least save me the bus fare to New York.
Until next time…