Immigration and Social Histories

In the early 19th century the area now known as Hell’s Kitchen was inhabited by wealthy New Yorkers in their summer estates. With industrialization during the second half of the 19th century came housing and industry development. A railroad was built along the Hudson River, resulting in lumberyards, stables, distilleries, brickyards, warehouses and slaughterhouses, drawing in English immigrants who were amongst the first to settle in neighborhood.

New York City 1855; viewed from the North, where southern Central Park is today. Hell's Kitchen can be seen on the right side with several slaughterhouses.

The 1860’s brought with them an influx of Irish and German immigrants, migrating to the United States as a result of the Great Potato Famine in Europe. The large increase in population caused a quick growth of tenement buildings and thus horrible living conditions for the newly arrived. As a result, many riots and protests erupted between the fiery and opinionated new residents. A civil war draft targeting mainly poor citizens due to their inability to pay the fee necessary to be removed from the draft pool, caused immigrants to riot even more. Hell’s Kitchen was an especially violent area of New York, and many battles were fought within its boundaries to ensue its residents’ rights.

Post-war living conditions were similar, if not worse than before, giving rise to gangs and increased street fighting, with little or no interference from the police. Prostitutes, pick pockets and eventually assassins ran amuck; homeless and abandoned children were abundant, forming criminal gangs that pick-pocketed and committed petty crimes. In 1871 the upper class of Manhattan began taking special interest in neighborhood, trying to uncover what exactly was happening within its borders. Residents did not approve however, and quickly ran out all philanthropic parties.

Children huddling together near a basement window; Courtesy of "How the Other Half Lives"

In the mid-to-late 19th century, many new industries moved into the area bringing with them many new workers. Extreme sanitary issues including disease, lack of waste disposal, and slaughterhouse carelessness created an unhealthy living environment for inhabitants. Despite this, inhabitants grew quite attached to their neighborhood and community, stating that they would rather stay in the horrific conditions of Hell’s Kitchen but still be able to live in New York, than move and live in a fully furnished and clean small town in Connecticut.

Differences in religion and national sects of the Irish peoples caused massive riots within Hell’s Kitchen. Battles were waged in the neighborhood over their strong-held beliefs, and police interference was minimal and ineffective. During these “street wars,” these important battle avenues were transformed into a loose space, as described by Frank and Stevens. The streets and alleys emanated a “freedom of choice,” allowing people to riot for their rights, and their beliefs.

The Battle of the Orangemen; Depiction of the famous battle between two Irish sects.

Battle of the Orangemen

During the post-Civil War era, ferocious gangs ruled Hell’s Kitchen for half a century, up until the start of World War I. Some gangs were violent purely for violence sake, while others were more concerned with robbery and the vast amount of loot coming from the ferry lines in the South. First came the 19th Street gang, who concerned themselves with robbery, mayhem and extortion. Many of its members graduated from the 19th Street gang to the 10th Avenue gang, who were more extensive in their activities and better organized. Eventually, the Hell’s Kitchen gang absorbed the 10th Avenue gang. They were much stronger and bolder, committing burglaries in broad daylight, forcing shopkeepers to pay protection, and holding strangers who entered the neighborhood at gun and knifepoint. The Gophers, known locally as the Goofers, were one of the toughest and largest gangs in New York, with numbers up to 500 strong. The police had little success in checking the gangs, who often harassed and attacked officers. Widespread contempt for authority kept the forces from implementing few successful rules.

The infamous gang, the Gophers.

With the lack of effective authority in the district, strong government influence was greatly needed, but corrupt politicians in the late 19th century only complicated issues. As Jane Jacobs describes, “There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.” Laws were broken left and right out of revenge, hatred, passion, racial or national pride, and from the desperation of poverty. However, Hell’s Kitchen was beginning to further diversify culturally. The Germans, who typically before the turn of the century were hard working and generally peaceful people, calmed matters in the neighborhood some. After being forced away from nearly every neighborhood in New York, mobs of African Americans gathered at the north end of Hell’s Kitchen around San Juan Hill, attacking white men who were resentful for their moving into the neighborhood.

Larger issues arose when gangs began offering their services, such as murder, shootings, or robberies, for money. Members were careless; gang life gave them a sense of pride and identity from the depths of their horrible conditions. The women of the neighborhood supported the men’s fighting, carrying ammunition and treating the wounded.

Some rambunctious women partook in gang life; here we see some of the ladies of the Gopher gang.

After the turn of the century police began retaliations against the gangs, trying to calm their intense activity. New York Central organized a special task force of railroad police to stop gangsters from looting railcars and the storehouses located near the waterfront. Police attacked gangsters individually, often killing or seriously injuring them, but the stockyards gradually became more safe, and gang activity decreased some.

Just before World War I, social workers were assigned to Hell’s Kitchen to attempt to figure out what caused such widespread gang activity. The conclusion reached was the lack of decent living conditions, but little was done to update the tenements. However, World War I resulted in higher wages and unionization, helping to improve the standard of living. By the end of WWI, most gangs had been broken up, and the streets were safer due to higher police activity, social agencies, and church involvement. One priest even took it so far as to go about horse whipping those loitering or committing other illicit activities, and kicking out of pubs those who should have instead been home with their families.

Post-war speakeasies flourished during prohibition in Hell’s Kitchen. It was said that there were more speakeasies than children in the neighborhood, and most residents supported their presence. Gun usage also became more common, with old weapons such as knifes and clubs largely abandoned.

A typical Speakeasy of the prohibition era.

During the 1930’s social reforms caused great upheaval in the independent and strong-headed neighborhood. Landlords began demanding that tenants conduct themselves more civilly, and would no longer tolerate their extent of illegal activities. Commercially and industrially, the area was becoming more respectable, with railroads and steamships flourishing in the neighborhood.

In 1937 the first objections about the name “Hell’s Kitchen” surfaced. To this day, debates are still held over the less-than-politically correct name.  The older residents of the district nursed some nostalgia for “old days,” what with the newer cultures beginning to roll in. Artists had begun infiltrating the district, with show business taking several recruits from the area.

Despite the apparent growth, Hell’s Kitchen was still considered a depressed area with many gangs still present, having grown largely again after WWII. Post-war, Puerto Ricans and African Americans came in large numbers to New York, and many Puerto Ricans settled in Hell’s Kitchen. During the 1950’s gang life rose again, although this time less extreme than before, and with large numbers of teenage gangs. Jacobs explains that, “As children get older, this incidental outdoor activity–say, while waiting to be called to eat–becomes less bumptious, physically and entails more loitering with others, sizing people up, flirting, talking, pushing, shoving and horseplay. Adolescents are always being criticized for this kind of loitering, but they can hardly grow up without it. The trouble comes when it is done not within society, but as a form of outlaw life,” which is precisely what happened in Hell’s Kitchen. The residential Irish gangs often fought the newly immigrated Puerto Rican gangs, inspiring the well-known musical West Side Story, which took place in Hell’s Kitchen. Gangs would rumble (set organized fights) and terrorize citizens to prove their toughness.

The rumble scene from the musical "West Side Story;" although exaggerated, the storyline was not far from real life in Hell's Kitchen during the 1950's.

By the 1960’s gang life had been depressed, largely due to concern of New York citizens concerns about juvenile delinquency. There was a brief period of slightly more calm, however by the 1970’s gangs emerged again largely throughout the city, this time focusing around the drug trade and utilizing much harsher weapons.

Man peers out of his disintegrating building overlooking Hell's Kitchen in the 1970's.

During the 1980’s gangs once again became less prevalent, but crack houses popped up throughout the area causing extreme social problems and safety issues. Gang life declined sharply however in 1986 after the passing of the RICO act, in which gangs were targeted city wide. Although without as strong a gang presence, unsafe conditions continued during the early 1990’s, where drugs were still largely present in the area and major crime was quite high. By the beginning of the 2000’s, Hell’s Kitchen has begun cleaning up, and the extensive issue of gentrification that is still being hotly debated today began.


Sources Cited:

“” Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen. DNAinfo, 2011. Web. 9 Nov. 2013.

“Historic Westside & Theater District.” Irish Voice [New York] 4 Nov. 2003, 17th ed., sec. 44: 23. Print.

Kendall, Paul. “50 Years of West Side Story: The Real Gangs of New York.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 20 July 2008. Web. 9 Nov. 2013.

O’Connor, Richard. Hell’s Kitchen; the Roaring Days of New York’s Wild West Side.Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1958. Print.