Turf of Gangs and Gangsters
Weekend Explorer is a new feature that will appear occasionally in the Weekend section. It begins with a series of walking tours through areas of New York, in which a reporter, guided by a longtime resident of a neighborhood, seeks out still-visible traces of the city’s layers of history.
NEW YORK is a walking city. People walk everywhere: to work, to school, to shop, to worship. And usually we’re in such a hurry, with the whole city rushing headlong around us, that we can miss what we’re walking past.
It’s the past itself — fragments and layers of New York’s history unceremoniously preserved in its streetscapes, in stories told on park benches and bar stools, in ghosts glimpsed in shadowed doorways. Hell’s Kitchen is one such neighborhood. Walking it with a longtime denizen offers a chance to bring alive some of that history.
Several legends compete to explain how Hell’s Kitchen got its name, but there’s no dispute about why. From the mid-1800s into the 1980s, this Midtown area, from 34th Street to 59th Street between Eighth Avenue and the Hudson River, was one tough neighborhood. Though it’s now known by many for its Off Broadway theaters, chic restaurants and luxury condominium towers (and as the name of a reality TV show), Hell’s Kitchen has a history that’s rich with gangsters and ghosts, streetwalkers and speakeasies, mysterious disappearances and gruesome murders.
“It isn’t Hell’s Kitchen anymore, it’s Hell’s Canyon,” Todd Robbins recently remarked, standing on the corner of West 39th Street and squinting up Eighth Avenue at the skyscrapers. As he led me around the neighborhood, he said that he rarely used the more genteel name, Clinton, first proposed in the 1960s. To him the older name better suits an area he fondly described as a place of “diamonds on top of a dung heap.”
Mr. Robbins has lived in the same one-bedroom apartment in a Ninth Avenue tenement since he moved there from Southern California 26 years ago. He could fairly claim to be holding up the neighborhood’s reputation for colorful characters: he eats lightbulbs and swallows swords for a living, is dean of the Coney Island Sideshow School, and ambles through Hell’s Kitchen wearing a straw boater and high-button shoes.
As we strolled west along busy, noisy 39th Street, from Eighth Avenue toward the waterfront, it was hard to imagine that the area was once green meadows that the Dutch settlers called Bloemendael (later anglicized as Bloomingdale), the Vale of Flowers.
African-American workers completing the Croton Aqueduct lived here in the 1840s. They were followed in the 1850s by a surge of Irish and German immigrants, who worked on the Hudson River docks and in the area’s slaughterhouses, factories and lumberyards, and for the Hudson River Railroad, later the New York Central, whose tracks ran down 10th and 11th Avenues.
Some worked as West Side cowboys, riding horses ahead of the trains, waving lanterns or red flags to shoo off pedestrians, horse carriages and later automobiles. Still, there were enough accidents that 11th Avenue came to be known as Death Avenue before the tracks were moved in the 1930s.
Tenements to house the workers and their families were hastily thrown up from the 1850s on, and out of them roamed gangs of youths who ruled the streets after the Civil War. The Hell’s Kitchen Gang, whom Herbert Asbury called “a collection of the most desperate ruffians in the city” in his 1927 book “The Gangs of New York” (inspiration for the Martin Scorsese film), fought constantly with the police and with rivals like the Gorillas, the Parlor Mob, and the Gophers. Members had names like Stumpy Malarkey, Goo Goo Knox, Happy Jack Mulraney, and One Lung Curran, who, when his girlfriend complained of the cold, walked out to the street, “blackjacked the first policeman he encountered,” according to Asbury, and stole his coat.
The block of West 39th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues saw so much fighting it was nicknamed Battle Row. In 1881 an article in The New York Times referred to a particularly scurrilous tenement on the block as Hell’s Kitchen, its first known use in print. Today those tenements are gone; the street lies between auto body shops and a Lincoln Tunnel ramp.
Many blocks of tenements were razed during the tunnel’s construction in the 1930s and expansion in the ’40s and ’50s. Yet examples still dot the neighborhood. Mr. Robbins’s block, on the east side of Ninth Avenue between 45th and 46th Streets, is an almost intact row.
During Prohibition it was said there were more speakeasies than children in the Irish Catholic area. On Restaurant Row (West 46th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues) the long-popular Barbetta is one of the establishments in former speakeasy locations. (Danny’s Grand Sea Palace, now, sadly, closed, was another.) The speakeasies were run by gangsters like the dapper Owney (the Killer) Madden, who held the controlling interest in the Cotton Club in Harlem and consorted with the notorious Mafia boss Lucky Luciano.
The Landmark Tavern, which opened in 1868 at the corner of 11th Avenue and West 46th Street, was a speakeasy favored by George Raft, the Hollywood tough guy who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen. His ghost is said to haunt the bar, along with that of a Confederate Civil War veteran who, knifed in a fight, staggered up to the second floor to die in a bathtub that’s still there. The ghost of an Irish immigrant girl who died in her bed wanders the third floor.
Mr. Robbins noted another Prohibition-era site, on the east side of the neighborhood. The plain brick building at 330 West 45th Street (between Eighth and Ninth Avenues) is at the former site of Billy Haas’s Chophouse. In 1930 Judge Joseph Crater stepped out of the restaurant, into a cab, and vanished. The unsolved mystery made him one of the most famous missing persons of the century.
“For decades, ‘pulling a Crater’ was common slang for disappearing without a trace,” Mr. Robbins said.
After World War II, low rents drew new waves of immigrants to Hell’s Kitchen, including many new arrivals from Puerto Rico. Their turf wars with their Irish neighbors were romanticized in the 1957 musical “West Side Story.”
In 1959, while “West Side Story” played two blocks away on the stage of the Majestic Theater, May Matthews Park (now Playground) on West 46th Street (between 9th and 10th Avenues) became the site of real gang murders. A member of the Puerto Rican Vampires, spoiling for a fight with the Norsemen, an Irish gang, knifed two innocent teenagers to death there. The killer, Salvador Agron, a k a the Capeman, got his own musical in 1998 thanks to Paul Simon.
Two generations of Irish gangsters, nicknamed the Westies by the police and the press, operated in the neighborhood into the late 1980s. Murder, theft, arson, extortion, gambling, loan-sharking, liquor, drugs, nightclubs — the Westies did it all.
The “gentleman gangster” Mickey Spillane (no relation to the novelist) ran the neighborhood like an Irish Godfather in the 1960s and married into the local political dynasty, the McManus family (known as “the McMani”). The wedding was held at Sacred Heart of Jesus, the beautiful brick and terra-cotta Roman Catholic church on West 51st Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. The Romanesque church, which still holds masses every day for a congregation of Irish, Italian and Hispanic worshipers, was built in 1885 and designed by Napoleon Lebrun, architect of the Metropolitan Life building at Madison Square.
A war between Mr. Spillane and Jimmy Coonan, a younger rival, littered Hell’s Kitchen with corpses from the late 1960s until Mr. Spillane was shot dead in Queens in 1977. His murder was an apparent mob hit; he’d been feuding with the Mafia boss Fat Tony Salerno over the lucrative racketeering opportunities presented by the planned Jacob K. Javits Convention Center between 11th and 12th Avenues.
Mr. Coonan’s reign was savage. The appropriately grim-looking Hudsonview Terrace apartment tower (747 10th Avenue, between West 50th and West 51st Streets), built in 1976 under the Mitchell-Lama affordable housing program, was the scene of one of his infamously grisly killings. On Jan. 18, 1978, in a Hudsonview apartment, he and two associates murdered Rickey Tassiello, a small-time gambler who owed Mr. Coonan $1,250. Then they dismembered the body in the bathtub and hauled out the pieces in garbage bags — all except the hands, which Mr. Coonan put in baggies and placed in the refrigerator’s freezer. He planned to retrieve them later to put Mr. Tassiello’s fingerprints on a pistol he would use in another murder, to throw off investigators.
The Westies hatched many capers in the booths of the Market Diner, a classic early-60s greasy spoon on the corner of 11th Avenue and West 43rd Street. It closed in 2006 and now sits behind a chain-link fence, waiting to be demolished — or, fans hope, relocated — to make way for a planned high-rise.
One block east, the Mr. Biggs Bar & Grill at 10th Avenue and West 43rd Street is on the site of a dive bar, the 596 Club, which Mr. Coonan owned in the 1970s. In 1977 he and his crew murdered and dismembered the loan shark Ruby Stein there. The torso was later retrieved from the East River.
Mr. Robbins said macabre stories about the 596 Club still float around Hell’s Kitchen. Old-timers remember jars behind the bar that held the severed fingers of guys who had crossed the Westies. There’s the one about gangsters rolling a severed head down the bar.
“I’ve heard a lot of that kind of stuff,” T. J. English, author of “The Westies,” said in a recent interview. “Normally you’d dismiss it as absurd, but since it was the Westies, who knows? That place was certainly the proverbial bucket of blood.”
Scott Rudnick, owner of Mr. Biggs, said the place had its share of ghosts when he first opened 13 years ago, but the introduction of karaoke nights “spooked the spooks out.”
There were plenty of sinners in the neighborhood, but Hell’s Kitchen also had a plenitude of churches. Several former churches are now devoted to theater. They include the Theater at St. Clement’s (423 West 46th Street), where Mr. Robbins serves as host of a weekly revue, “Monday Night Magic,” as well as the Actors Studio (432 West 44th Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues) and the nearby New Dramatists (424 West 44th Street).
Adaptive reuse of another sort can be seen at 421 West 54th Street (between 9th and 10th Avenues), home of the legendary Hit Factory recording studio from 1991 to 2006. It is now condominiums, with the advertising slogan “Live in the House That Rock Built.” Although many of the Hit Factory stars (including Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon and Stevie Wonder) actually made their records at an earlier location, this is the site where 50 Cent was stabbed — a suitably Hell’s Kitchen historical grace note.
In many ways the Westies’ reign was the last hurrah of the old Hell’s Kitchen. By the late 1980s Rudolph W. Giuliani, at the time a federal prosecutor, had put Mr. Coonan and his crew in prison. With the cleanup of neighboring Times Square in the 1990s the upscaling of Hell’s Kitchen commenced in earnest.
More blocks of old tenements were demolished to make way for a growing forest of condominium towers. Dark bars became friendly bistros. The declining waterfront, where the International Longshoremen’s Association once had so many neighborhood felons on its rolls that it was known as the Pistol Local, is now part of Hudson River Park.
Walking along the Capeman block of West 46th Street Mr. Robbins recalled that well into the 1980s the now-prim residential street was infamous for its strolling prostitutes and bordellos. At Mr. Biggs, Mr. Rudnick said that his clientele now consisted of young professionals “who wouldn’t set foot in this neighborhood” when he first opened.
It’s still tawdry where it borders Times Square along Eighth Avenue, and the long, lonely blocks by the waterfront can still feel haunted at night. But much of the old Hell’s Kitchen has vanished in the shadows of Hell’s Canyon.“New York City is so gloriously unsentimental and forward leaning that it doesn’t appreciate its past, “ Mr. Robbins said. “People need to know what happened here, while they can sti