Join Liz Burbach as she enters the world of Hell’s Kitchen and Rudy’s Bar & Grill to explore some of the historical, social, cultural, and economic contexts that shaped them both and that continue to inform their development—like it or not.
Come on in and meet some the people of Hell’s Kitchen and Rudy’s Bar and Grill!
The Author Qualifies:
Hell’s Kitchen is surrounded by lore—stories transmitted person to person—and legend—a passed down story that is presented as fact but is unlikely to be true. But little substantial historical record exists for Hell's Kitchen, which is often the case with populations considered unsavory by the power-holding population. I’ve gone out and talked to people, preferring their stories to the stories of journalists, and I’ve combined them both.
I focus on the underbelly of Hell’s Kitchen, which is the most written about aspect and the aspect outsiders seem most interested in. I do so because that is the theme of this series. But the full history of Hell’s Kitchen is one of people who made homes, raised children, tended gardens, wept and laughed and danced and protected one another. People who did not necessarily perceive Hell’s Kitchen as a slum, but as a home. People who did not conceive themselves as criminals or involved in criminal activities because it, whatever it was, was just how things were done and everyone needed to get by as best they could. People who did notcommit violent acts upon others nor condone them.
Importantly, when asked about “the old days,” most people I spoke with began with beauty, recalling stories of street games and supper clubs and the pride in dressing to the nines to spend an evening out with the lady friend; stories of baseball and family and, yes, the feeling of safety. Even relating the negative was done with an air of nostalgia, highlighting the disparity between the past and the present and the preference for a way of life quickly disappearing.
Welcome to Hell’s Kitchen
If Hell is filled with evil, torment, and unremitting anguish, the hottest, vilest, most horrific place imaginable, where would its worst place be? The kitchen. Hell’s Kitchen.
Countless stories circulate about how Hell’s Kitchen got its name. It’s been said that Hell’s Kitchen is a designation transplanted from a similar slum in South London, or taken from a dive of the same name at Corlear’s Hook on the southern edge of the East River piers, notorious for bad guys, gangs and “river pirates,” or from a diner owned by the Heil family popular with West Side dockworkers in the late 1800’s, and mispronounced as “Hell”—thus Heil’s Kitchen becomes Hell’s Kitchen.
The name may come from the Hell’s Kitchen Gang, established in the late 1860s, one of the first professional and organized criminal gangs in the City, as opposed to gangs who mostly waged war against each other.
Some say the original Hell’s Kitchen was a rookery—an old-law tenement, dilapidated, unfit to live in, the worst of the worst—sometimes said to be located on 54th and 10th and other times on 39th between 9th and 10th. Places and spaces on the West Side were known by many names, such as “Battle Row” and the “House of Blazes,” mostly coined by cops and the press. The name of a physical place, like a rookery, might be extended to a larger space, like the block on which the rookery sat or the larger geographic area in which the rookery resided.
The most repeated tale is of two Irish cops watching a riot on 39th Street. Horrified at what he sees, the rookie cop says: “The place is hell itself.” “Hell’s a mild climate,” replies the veteran cop. “This is Hell’s Kitchen, no less.”
Hell’s Kitchen. The name says it all. From wherever it came, Hell’s Kitchen stuck around the late 1800s.
The bounds of Hell’s Kitchen are debated, and change over time. During some eras and from some perspectives, it was as far down as 23rd Street up to 59th, on 23rd but only up to 40th, or only between 36th and 41st Streets, or from 40th to 59th. Let’s agree for now that Hell’s Kitchen begins at 34th Street and ends at 59th Street, extending west of 8th Avenue, but not including the Avenue itself, to the Hudson River.
The area was once called Bloemendaal, or “vale of flowers.” Bloomingdale covered the west side of Manhattan along the North River (now the Hudson), a vast expanse of beautiful grassy knolls and streams and hills with some patches of outright wilderness from 23rd Street to 125th Street. The Great Kill stream ran through what is now West 42nd Street. For over 200 years, Bloomingdale was predominately farmland with a few hamlets, as well as a place for country estates and suburban mansions for the wealthy.
In 1851, the once beautiful countryside was made into a ghetto almost overnight. It began with the opening of the Hudson River Railroad on 11th Avenue, joining the docks to land in speedier transport of products. Massive industry followed: slaughterhouses, dairies, soap factories, tanneries, breweries, iron foundries, and lumberyards. New immigrants followed the work, mostly German and Irish, who set up shanties in vacant lots between 37th and 50th Streets where they raised pigs and goats, scavenged, worked as day laborers and in the new factories. They joined a previous enclave of African Americans who moved in during the 1840s while working on the Croton Aqueduct.
Poorly constructed tenements were hastily raised to house the immigrant laborers. Tenements were 3 to 5 stories high, holding 4 apartments a floor, each usually equipped with a parlor/kitchen and a bedroom. Quite often multiple families were squeezed into the same dwelling. Tenements had little or no ventilation or plumbing. Communal toilets were located at the back of buildings. Water was fetched from a shared well or faucet, heated on the wood, coal, or gas stove. The bath was the kitchen sink. Chamber pots, garbage, and other waste were often thrown out a window and onto the street. Many of these tenements stand today, refurbished with modern amenities to a greater or lesser degree. This author’s bathtub still stands in her kitchen.
The residential area smack in the heart of industry was toxic—filled with soot, smoke, fumes, and other stink. By 1871 there were 46 slaughterhouses in HK, draining blood and offal into gutters, where children played. The “offal dock” was located at 38th where dead animals from all over the city were taken to be burned or sent to a glue factory. Garbage and other refuse lay piled in gutters along 10th and 11th Avenues. Children hawked newspapers on the street, fought, picked pockets, and flew pigeons from rooftops. Men drank. Goats and hungry dogs wandered the streets. What sunlight industrial waste did not block from the sky, the 9th Avenue El did. The Hudson River Railroad caused so many deaths that 11th Avenue was called Death Avenue.
An 1881 New York Times article described one sector of the new slum in a way that would echo throughout the neighborhood: “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.” Over the decades things changed while remaining the same.
Hell’s Kitchen has had a diverse population, impacted by world events. At the turn of 19th century, the population was still mostly German and Irish. HK had the highest concentration of Irish on the island, seconded in the city by Brooklyn’s Navy Yard and Red Hook. Italians, Greeks, and Eastern Europeans, mostly Polish and Yugoslavian, soon followed. A French enclave held forth on 49th and 50th Streets. Post-WWII saw a wave of African Americans from the south, as well as Puerto Ricans. The neighborhood also attracted immigrants from elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean including Peruvians, Ecuadorians, and Cubans.
A marginal neighborhood composed of marginalized immigrant populations, Hell’s Kitchen developed into an insular community with a specific code of honor, the “West Side Code,” understood and adhered to by all, criminal and non-criminal alike. The Code is grounded on the idea of protecting the Kitchen and its people from outsiders who cared little about it. The Code is simple: In Hell’s Kitchen, we take care of things ourselves, we don’t betray our own, and we don’t rat to the cops. What is of the Kitchen stays in the Kitchen.
By: Elizabeth A. Burbach
UP NEXT: Gangster's Paradise
**Thank you to all who shared their personal stories and insights with me.
Below are a few of the written sources that I referenced that might interest you:
Anonymous. 1881. “A Notorious Locality; Rookeries Which None But The Police Dare Enter.” The New York Times. September 22, 1881.
Herbert Asbury. 1927. Gangs of New York.
Edwin G. Burrows. 1999. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.
City History Club of New York. 1909. Historical Guide to the City of New York.
T. J. English. 1990. The Westies: Inside the Hell’s Kitchen Irish Mob.
The Federal Writers' Project. 1939. The WPA Guide to New York City: The Federal Writers' Project Guide to 1930s New York.
Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association. http://hknanyc.org.
Dennis Hevesi. 2002. “In Hell's Kitchen, a Changing Skyline.” The New York Times. May 12, 2002.
Richard O’Connor. 1958. Hell’s Kitchen: The Riotous Days of New York’s West Side.
John Strausbaugh. 2007. “Turf of Gangs and Gangsters.” The New York Times. August 17, 2007.