Legend has it that a pair of 19th-century cops were once patrolling a particularly crime-ridden stretch of 39th Street when the rookie remarked, “it’s hot as hell along here,” to which the veteran replied, “it’s hotter than hell, it’s hell’s kitchen.” For years, New York City’s real estate interests have been trying—mostly in vain—to rename Hell’s Kitchen as Clinton, after an unremarkable local park itself named for a former New York governor. But maybe they shouldn’t be so insistent – today it is Hell’s Kitchen’s real estate, not its crime rate, that is on fire.
There is arguably no other neighborhood in New York City undergoing so dramatic a transformation as Hell’s Kitchen South. Over the next decade or so, upwards of 13 million square feet of office, residential, retail, cultural and park space will rise over what is today a sprawling parking lot for idling Long Island Rail Road trains. In time, the High Line will curve up from the south, the 7 subway line will slink in from the east, and Manhattan’s newest street – tree-lined Hudson Boulevard – will materialize.
But that not-so-distant future was difficult to imagine last Sunday, when I joined about a dozen others on a Municipal Art Society-led tour of the neighborhood. The upper terminus of the High Line and the western reaches of 42nd Street served as two bustling bookends to a section of Midtown otherwise dominated by slumpy old tenement buildings and a tangle of Lincoln Tunnel off-ramps.
Hell’s Kitchen is a neighborhood that has long been defined and redefined by external forces, from the construction of the Lincoln Tunnel in the 1930s to the arrival of gentrifying artists and gays in the 1990s. So it is maybe not surprising that there was a palpable unease among my fellow tour-goers, many of whom live in the area. They have grown leery of politicians’ promises of parks and public transportation, and have been shocked by the pace at which skyscrapers have sprouted in their backyards. At nearly every corner, there was dismay at MTA’s decision to leave the neighborhood without a station on the new 7 line extension, or speculation about the future of one parking lot-turned-construction site or another. We were visiting just before the completion of the new pocket park at the Lincoln Tunnel, a push from neighborhood groups.
One of the biggest changes of late – and perhaps a taste of things to come – is the MiMA apartment/hotel/theater tower on 42nd Street and Tenth Avenue, built by the Related Companies (also behind the much bigger Hudson Yards project). Designed by Miami-based Arquitectonica, the 63-story black glass tower is relatively buttoned-up for a firm better known for flamboyant designs like the Westin Times Square down the street. With one-bedroom apartments starting at $4,695/month and amenities including a dog spa, MiMA was a rather conspicuous addition to the low-slung neighborhood when it opened last year. Nevertheless, one hardened local on our tour conceded that MiMA’s hotel does boast a “wonderful” rooftop restaurant. MiMA has also won over skeptics with its Frank Gehry-designed Signature Theater Center, home to a nonprofit theater company of the same name, and a tradeoff for the demolition of two smaller theaters that occupied the site previously.
Just three blocks south is another, decidedly less flashy, neighborhood landmark: the Hell’s Kitchen Flea Market. Relocated from its former location in Chelsea in 2003, boosters hoped the market would help drive off the drug dealers and prostitutes that have long clustered along the same stretch of 39th Street allegedly stalked by the cops all those years ago. The Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association helped commission a block-long mural on the site, featuring fork, spoon, and knife imagery the group hoped would bring attention to the area’s burgeoning restaurant scene. Its yellows and blues aim to evoke the vibrant markets of old Morocco on a little patch of windswept concrete in the shadow of Midtown’s skyscrapers.
Our tour ended on the 30th Street entrance to the High Line, where the view over the vast rail yard to the north is increasingly obscured by cranes and orange construction netting. Mobs of forlorn tourists were turned away by the chain link fence that abruptly marks the end of the elevated park’s second phase. “Hudson Yards: New York’s Next Great Neighborhood” shouts text on the ten-foot wall encircling the construction zone. I couldn’t help but notice that here, at the end of our three-hour trek, the group’s chatter rang more of excitement than of dread.
The Related Companies says it will build 5,000 residential units on the site over the next several years. But an untold number of smaller developments are popping up all around the Hudson Yards project, hoping to capitalize on the area’s newfound hype. The future of the much-reviled Javits Center is uncertain, as is Penn Station’s Moynihan Station replacement. In Hell’s Kitchen South, the only constant, as they say, is change.