Peculiar Allure Hell's Kitchen is Hot

"We’ve lived in this neighborhood for 17 years," says Bob Berkow, a Clinton resident and co-op owner at the 48-unit Piano Factory at 454 West 46th Street. The Piano Factory was originally built as Wessell, Nickel & Gross Company in 1888, a manufacturing site for the interior components of pianos. Construction was in the style of a New England mill building with an inner courtyard accessed through a Romanesque revival arch. Converted to co-ops in 1980, the courtyard is now used for barbeques and parties by residents and children play outside during the warm months. "It’s the kind of place," says Berkow, "where I can attach a hose to our building and wash the car in shorts or jeans without feeling out of place."

This cozy ambience is described over and over by various residents and real estate brokers in the area. "It’s a great neighborhood," says Robert Clepper, an associate broker with William B. May, who has sold apartments in Hell’s Kitchen for ten years. "People used to choose Clinton for its value," he says. "Now, it’s become a primary choice for people."

Berkow would agree. "We moved here because it was convenient to get to Midtown, had great transportation, was relatively inexpensive, culturally and economically diverse and had an informal feel. The neighborhood has not changed so much that it has lost its original attraction to us, yet is a more interesting place to live. Hell’s Kitchen still has the sense of the old neighborhood in terms of houses, stores and a wonderful street life."

The Evolution of a Name

Life on the streets of Clinton, or Hell’s Kitchen as it was known until 1959–and is the preferred name of the residents–has always been colorful. The boundaries of the area are roughly 30th to 59th Streets west of Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River. The early settlers to the area farmed the land until the construction of a railroad station at 30th Street and Eleventh Avenue in 1851. Soon afterwards, factories, warehouses, lumberyards and tenements sprinkled the area. The population was largely immigrant; people looking for and able to find work nearby. In 1876, an elevated railroad was built along Ninth Avenue and the neighborhood, nicknamed "Hell’s Kitchen" became known for its rough and tough gangs. Rumors about the name run from two policemen during the Civil War naming the district Hell’s Kitchen after a particularly gruesome day dealing with hoodlums, to taking the name from a gang called "The Hell’s Kitchen Gang," to the gritty community being named after a similarly course area in London. The Italian Mafia had a presence on the streets during the Prohibition Era. Both the ballet Slaughter on Tenth Avenue and the musical play and movie West Side Story are situated in Hell’s Kitchen.

By 1959, after the death of two youngsters in gang wars, the area was re-named "Clinton" after DeWitt Clinton, the governor of New York from 1817 to 1823, as a public relations tact to disassociate the neighborhood from the negative connotations of "Hell’s Kitchen." Most area residents prefer the old name; as Harriet Joynes, a resident at The Westmore, a 170-unit co-op at 333 West 57th Street remarks, "Hell’s Kitchen is definitely a sexier name than Clinton!" Real estate brokers tend to label the area Clinton instead, although Clepper thinks that "Hell’s Kitchen is a just a delightful" moniker.

Housing Haven

"West 55th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues has always been known as the most wonderful block in Clinton," says Adele Brechner, a vice president at Douglas Elliman. Brechner says that a West 55th Street two-bedroom, two-bath co-op she sold in 1996 for $130,000 would "now go easily in the $400,000’s." A one-bedroom in the same building sold for $112,000 in 1996 and recently sold for over $300,000.

"The things that interest me most are the smaller buildings that have become little jewels in the area," says Brechner. Two of her clients, Stephen Plescia and Keith Muller, moved into the 55-unit Sherwood, a co-op at 340 West 55th Street five years ago. Muller is on the board. The duo chose Hell’s Kitchen because they said it fit their life. "We said no to Chelsea, the Village and the Upper West Side." As a couple, Plescia says, "we are very comfortable as this is a gay-friendly community."

In response to renewed interest in the district, a few developments are on the rise: The Foundry, a 222-unit two-building rental project at 505 West 54th Street and 510 West 55th Street on Tenth Avenue; The New Gotham, a 375-unit rental project at 520 West 43rd Street; and the two-tower, 921-unit River Place on 42nd Street and Twelfth Avenue.

"There have always been premiere buildings such as the Park Vendome (at 350 West 57th Street) and the Piano Factory has been in a peg of its own, but in the past two or three years since Disney, values have gone up significantly throughout the area," says Brechner. Bonnie Berkow, Bob’s wife, says, "We paid $115,000 in 1983 and put about $150,000 into it over the years. The last sale in the building was for a one-bedroom on the first floor that had no renovations from the original condition that went for $500,000. Based on that, I’d say ours would probably be worth about $800,000 to $850,000."

The Way Things Were… and Are

Disney’s impact on Times Square extends well into the Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen area. 42nd Street has been completely transformed from a pornographic playpen into a playgoer’s paradise. In the early 1980s, the 42nd Street Development Project was established to restore many theatres in Broadway’s Theatre District. On 42nd Street, Disney renovated the New Amsterdam Theatre, The Lyric Theatre was gutted and completely redone as The Ford Center for the Performing Arts by the Livent, Inc. and the Roundabout Theatre transformed the Selwyn Theatre into their new permanent home, the American Airlines Theatre. On the same block, BB King has opened a restaurant and blues club, Loew’s has opened its 42nd Street E Walk, a 12-screen movie theatre and across the street is the 25-screen AMC Empire 25 movie building. These "state-of-the art" movie houses feature stadium seating, comfort and extraordinary sound systems. Tourists, and even people from other neighborhoods in the city, are being drawn to these entertainment palaces. As a result, the tone of life for the people who live on the surrounding streets has changed. "We like to stay in the neighborhood now," says Bonnie Berkow. "There are a lot more good restaurants, such as 44&X, Amarone, and Esca. We go to the Health Club at Manhattan Plaza. We shop at Food Emporium at Manhattan Plaza and sometimes at the Amish Market on 9th Ave and 50th Street."

Life wasn’t always so much fun in the neighborhood for the Berkow family. "Years ago, when my partner came to pick me up in the car to go to the office, a prostitute would get to the car before I could get there from the door of my building," recalls Bonnie Berkow. Now, the prostitution problem is much less. They are still out there occasionally, but only very early in the morning on 45th Street. Extensive police presence as well as strong community pressure, has helped tremendously. Now I don’t find that as much–I can stand at the corner waiting to cross the street at the light without feeling subjected to that kind of scrutiny from passing cars."

The Stadium Possibility

Strong community pressure is a given among Hell’s Kitchen residents. Plescia and Muller feel strongly that the neighborhood remains on a small scale per the "Special Clinton District," legislation that "retains Clinton’s working class, mixed-income, mixed-use community in a low rise neighborhood," according to Nancy Kyriacou, a Housing Conservation Coordinator. Plescia and Muller say that they when community issues arise, "we surface." One issue that may be facing the neighborhood is the Jets Corporation’s announcement to build a stadium located between Eleventh and Twelfth Avenues, from 30th to 34th Streets. With this plan, the Javits Center would be expanded north to 41st Street, with a hotel developed reaching up to 42nd Street. Expectations are, that if this stadium is built, it will serve as the attraction for a New York City bid for the 2012 Olympics.

Reactions within Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen run the gamut. Bonnie Berkow feels that "it is close enough to have a significant impact on my neighborhood and hopefully will bring in other types of businesses that will improve the West 30’s, which are still pretty desolate."Bob Berkow feels "it will radically change the neighborhood, dramatically increase traffic and noise and raise the transient population." And Harriet Joynes on West 57th Street, feels the project "is too far away" to affect her personally.

And West 57th Street, although technically Clinton, does have a different feel than the atmosphere a few blocks south. "I’ve lived on the block for 21 years," she says, "and chose it for convenience and because it feels like a neighborhood unto itself. I feel more associated with Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center and connected to the Upper West Side." Another major development, the complete overhaul to Columbus Circle and the Coliseum, Joynes feels, "will complete the neighborhood." Adele Brechner finds a great interest in the area from out-of town buys. "Suddenly, I have many pied-a-terre buyers; people who want to be close to the theatre and Carnegie Hall," says Brechner. "People from Mississippi, Atlanta and Westchester all want to be here."

Ms. Wagner is a freelance writer living in Manhattan.

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