History of Hell’s Kitchen
February 05 2018 | Culture
Spanning from 34th Street to 59th Street + Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River—and bordering the Theater District—Hell’s Kitchen boasts an engaging history befitting its name. Here’s the story of how the neighborhood evolved into the bustling metropolis we enjoy today, and home to the Washington Jefferson Hotel.
Hell’s Kitchen became populated in the 17th century by Dutch settlers, starting out as a pastoral area with freshwater streams and grassy meadows. Over a decade later in 1851, the Hudson River Railroad established a station at what is now 39th Street and Tenth Avenue, bringing with it an influx of Irish and German immigrants to work in the rail yards. As the industry throughout the city thrived, Hell’s Kitchen became a hub for breweries, factories, slaughterhouses, brickyards, warehouses, and docks.
By the start of the Civil War, more than 350,000 people inhabited the neighborhood, largely housed in poorly built tenements. Riots overtook the neighborhood in 1863, as residents took to the streets in protests of the Conscription Act. Chaos ensued, as the people of the neighborhood, as well as the infrastructure of the neighborhood itself, were assaulted at large. Estimates of those who died during the riots vary widely, from 2,000 up to 20,000, as countless others were injured and an estimated $5 million in property damage was done.
Homeless children were abundant in the years after the Civil War, forming the origins of what would become the notorious gangs of the Tenderloin District. From the infamous 19th Street Gang to the Gophers and the Dead Rabbits, gang activity contributed to the neighborhood’s gritty reputation.
In the 1950s, the once flourishing industry on the waterfront began to decline, and many longshoremen in the neighborhood were out of work. The "Clinton" name became a popular nickname of the neighborhood during this time, used by the municipality of New York City in 1959 in an attempt to link the area to DeWitt Clinton Park at 52nd and Eleventh Avenue.
However, continued interest from the city and changing demographics during this time marked a changing of the tide for the neighborhood. With projects like the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center and the curbing of organized crime by the 1980s, Hell’s Kitchen began to see an improvement in living conditions, combined with a growth of hotels, restaurants, and arts hubs.
Today, the neighborhood is home to corporate headquarters for the likes of Kenneth Cole, Prada, and more, along with stylish hotels and luxury apartments. Its adjacent location to the renowned theaters of Broadway and the Theater District make the area a hub for entertainers and artists of all kinds, and home to a number of broadcast and music recording studios and TV shows.
The origin of the neighborhood’s curious moniker is still up for debate, and is as intriguing as its historical roots. According to the Irish Cultural Society of the Garden City area, the name can be attributed to a quote by Davy Crockett referring to the Irish men of the neighborhood as being “too mean to swab hell’s kitchen.” “Hell’s Kitchen” first appeared in print on September 22, 1881 when a New York Times reporter went to West 30s Streets with a police guide to obtain details of a multiple murder. In the article, he referred to an infamous tenement at 39th Street and Tenth Avenue as "Hell's Kitchen,” noting the area as “probably the lowest and filthiest in the city." Another version credits the origin to a German restaurant in the area known as Heil's Kitchen, paying tribute to its proprietors. But of the many variations, the most popular lore derives from "Dutch Fred the Cop," a veteran policeman, who was watching a small riot on West 39th Street near Tenth Avenue with a rookie assistant. The rookie is rumored to have said, "This place is hell itself," of which the cop replied, "Hell's a mild climate. This is Hell's Kitchen."
Hell’s Kitchen’s rich history and now thriving entertainment community makes it one of New York City’s most unique and engaging neighborhoods today. Explore the area for yourself and enjoy a free walking tour hosted by Streetwise New York Tours when book a stay with us at the Washington Jefferson Hotel!