Hell’s Kitchen: Where East Village Grit Meets the Artsy West Side

Tucked behind the playhouses along Broadway, Hell’s Kitchen has long attracted theater people. For Holly-Anne Devlin, a 37-year-old producer and director, the relationship began when she studied theater at the Fordham University Lincoln Center campus, one block north of the neighborhood’s West 59th Street border. Ms. Devlin lived in rented walk-ups, including a tiny, dark loft that she and her two roommates called “the bat cave.”

Now, in addition to having worked on Broadway shows, she owns production companies that have toured with entertainment like “Wine Lovers: The Musical,” where a ticket includes six glasses of wine. Two years ago, she bought a one-bedroom apartment in a high-rise on West 42nd Street with views of the Statue of Liberty. She paid $770,000 for it, an estate-sale bargain, she said, that was appraised in January at $925,000.

“I was pleased, and then this happened,” she said, referring to the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit this neighborhood harder than most. “I had 111 employees, and I had to lay everybody off.”

But in “show-must-go-on” spirit, Ms. Devlin created the Hell’s Kitchen Happiness Krewe, which pays performers to visit restaurants and other small businesses to help bring in customers. “My emphasis is on joy and revival,” she said. She used her savings and donations to start the program, she said, and has since brought it to other neighborhoods. Over the summer, she also organized, with Marisa Redanty, the Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Action Committee, which has worked with police and other organizations to bring more safety measures to the area, where many homeless people are now housed in hotels.

There has been some pushback from residents about the homeless situation, said Corey Johnson, the speaker of the New York City Council, where he represents the district that includes Hell’s Kitchen. Ms. Devlin, he said, is a “really good community activist” in what has been a vibrant and “welcoming neighborhood to the vulnerable.”

Community engagement came to Chana Widawski while she sat on the steps of the building where she has lived for nearly 15 years, in a small rent-stabilized apartment. “It happened from my front stoop, where I was having tea or reading,” she said. “I met the person on the next stoop,” who encouraged her to join Hells Kitchen Commons and the West 45th and 46th Street Block Associations, linked groups. She has organized swap events, food-scrap collections, free outdoor film screenings, play readings and many other events that are now only virtual or canceled.

Most took place in the Mathews-Palmer Playground, “our outdoor community center,” she said. The playground, between 45th and 46th Streets, has been refurbished but is still short of funds needed to recreate its historic mural, “Against Domestic Colonialism.” Denise Penizzotto, the artist who got the commission several years ago, said that the widow of Arnold Belkin, the muralist, gave her his original drawings.

Ms. Widawski, who is in her 40s and works at Transportation Alternatives in the financial district (she commutes by bicycle), said Hell’s Kitchen “still felt like an old-school neighborhood,” when she first moved there, especially along her row of tenements. “It’s a nice little community of these small apartments, where we can always borrow an egg or a tool from our neighbor.”

There were “more mom-and-pop shops, more affordable groceries, more character,” she said. “Now there are more chains, more bars and more high-rises.”

Stretching from Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River (busy commercial thoroughfare to sublime park) and from West 59th to West 41st Streets (sleek Time Warner Center to scruffy Port Authority bus terminal), Hell’s Kitchen is a jumble of contrasts. In recent years, it has become “more attractive and more diverse on every level,” said Steven Gottlieb, an agent with Warburg Realty. “It has this really interesting balance between the best of East Village grit and the artsy, intellectual West Side.”

For many years, rentals in walk-up tenements dominated, and they are still there. But recently, chic new buildings have brought more upscale residents, Mr. Gottlieb said, many feeling priced out of the West Village or Chelsea. “It is cheaper,” he said, “but not as cheap as people think it is.”

The building boom is continuing, said David Chang, the sales director of Bloom on Forty Fifth, an eight-story, modernist-style condominium at the corner of 10th Avenue that curves around a courtyard. It is about to begin sales, with studios starting at $750,000.

“Two years ago or so, this was a Hess gas station,” he said. It will join other brand-new structures, including The West, a condo at West 47th Street and 11th Avenue that isn’t quite finished, and Charlie West, a condo and rental on West 43rd Street near 10th Avenue.

Like much of New York, Hell’s Kitchen saw huge spikes in inventory in July, August and September, following a lockdown period when prospective buyers were prohibited from touring apartments, said John Walkup, the chief operating officer and a founder of UrbanDigs, a real estate analytics website. Only 14 contracts, representing $14.161 million in sales, were signed in September, a big drop from the 26 contracts, representing $43.582 million in sales, signed in September 2019. Generally, Mr. Walkup said, apartments listed at “under $2 million are moving, but anything over that is dead in the water, or almost.”

At the end of October, 231 Hell’s Kitchen apartments were listed for sale on UrbanDigs. The least expensive was a studio in a 1929 co-op with a full-time doorman, at 457 West 57th Street, listed for $255,000; the costliest was a five-bedroom, six-and-a-half-bathroom penthouse in the Time Warner Center, at 25 Columbus Circle, listed for $62.5 million.

Of the 378 apartments for rent, the least expensive was a studio in a doorman building listed for $1,400 a month; the most expensive was another penthouse at the Time Warner Center, offered furnished for $59,500 (and listed for sale for $35 million).

West 42nd Street is home to many Off Broadway theaters, including Playwrights Horizons and Signature Theatre Company (in a Frank Gehry-designed building). All are temporarily closed because of the pandemic.

Restaurant Row, on West 46th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, has been a hub for hungry theatergoers and now caters to local diners. The block is closed to automobile traffic much of the day. Other restaurants abound, and Ninth Avenue has emerged as a center for lively gay bars.

“Hell’s Kitchen now probably has the biggest L.G.B.T.Q. concentration of any neighborhood in the city,” Mr. Johnson said, noting that it includes many younger people who fit in with the area’s creative community.

His City Council office recently aided Hartley House, a nonprofit center on West 46th Street offering services for children and seniors in a row of townhouses, which was in financial danger about a year and a half ago. The agreement that allows the nonprofit to stay in the townhouses keeps the bottom level as a community center, Mr. Johnson said, and will create 23 new affordable apartments to be marketed with a focus on L.G.B.T.Q. seniors.

Hudson River Park winds along the waterfront and provides paths for walkers, runners and bicyclists. The Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum (open for limited visits now) is on Pier 86, near West 46th Street. DeWitt Clinton Park, between West 52nd and West 54th Streets, is the neighborhood’s largest park east of 12th Avenue. Other smaller parks dot the area, including Hell’s Kitchen Park and Ramon Aponte Park. A new park is slated to be built at 10th Avenue and West 48th Street.

P.S. 51, The Elias Howe School, at 525 West 44th Street, has 467 students in prekindergarten through fifth grade. According to the 2018-19 School Quality Snapshot, 41 percent met state standards in English, versus 48 percent citywide, and 47 percent met standards in math, versus 50 percent citywide.

P.S. 111, the Adolph S. Ochs School, at 440 West 53rd Street, has 407 students in prekindergarten through fifth grade. On 2018-19 state tests, 52 percent met state standards in English, and 49 percent met them in math.

P.S. 212, Midtown West School, at 328 West 48th Street, has 339 students. On 2018-19 tests, 78 percent met state English standards and 75 percent met math standards.

Among the subway lines that stop in or near the neighborhood are the A, B, C, D, E, N, R, Q, S, W, 1, 2, 3 and 7.

In the mid-1800s, Hell’s Kitchen was home to industries that served the Hudson River piers, including slaughterhouses, lumberyards, warehouses and factories, according to the New York City Parks Department. Many immigrants moved into shacks and tenements in the area to work at the factories, and some formed rival gangs. By the 1960s, civic leaders seeking to improve the area’s image began referring to it as Clinton, after a family that owned property there in the 19th century. Most residents, however, prefer Hell’s Kitchen.

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