Up on the Roof, Hell’s Kitchen Stories and Much S’more | chelseanow.com

Up on the Roof, Hell’s Kitchen Stories and Much S’more

Michelle Diaz, center, a fifth generation Hell’s Kitchen resident, brought pictures of basketball players in 1960s Hell’s Kitchen. Photo by Rebecca Fiore.

BY REBECCA FIORE | In the summer of 1977, lightning struck an electrical substation on the Hudson River, which tripped two circuit breakers. Then a second bolt of lightning struck and cut two transmission lines. Con Edison tried to fast-start remotely, but it failed since no one was manning the station. A third bolt of lightning later cut two critical transmission lines and what proceeded was a 25-hour blackout spread across New York City.

One Hell’s Kitchen resident remembered the July 13-14 blackout as something other than a time of widespread looting and arson.

“Hell’s Kitchen was a bit gritty back then, but 44th Street was kind of an anomaly,” Linda Ashley told a group of approximately 50 people, young and old. “While people were looting and raiding grocery stores and delis, on 44th Street we were having ice cream socials on the steps since we knew that the ice cream was going to melt.”

The infamous blackout triggered violence throughout the city, with tensions high from a severe financial crisis to the Son of Sam murders to a brutal heat wave.

“But while there was craziness going over on Ninth and 10th Avenue and we were just, ‘Oh you want some strawberry?’ It’s going to melt anyway!” Ashley recalled.

John Newsome, whose family has been in Hell’s Kitchen since 1880, said he was at summer camp during the blackout.

“When I got home I was amazed all my friends had brand new mopeds,” he said. “There was moped shop on 55th and 10th Avenue and when I came home they were all around riding mopeds.” 

“I was always wondering who’d done it,” an older man interjected.

On the rooftop of 445 W. 45th Street’s Maravel Arts Center, fresh and seasoned residents drank wine and ate s’mores on the night of June 26, as they swapped stories of living in Hell’s Kitchen.

Danny DePamphilis, manager of Rudy’s Bar & Grill (627 Ninth Ave.), told stories of the iconic local dive. Photo by Rebecca Fiore.

Hell’s Kitchen Commons, an alliance of the West 45th/46th Street Block Associations and the Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association, held the soiree to create an opportunity for storytelling and reminiscing.

Thecla Harris, a 22-year Hell’s Kitchen resident who serves as artistic director for the Maravel-based arts education nonprofit Rosie’s Theater Kids, said the idea for “Hell’s Kitchen Stories” came about after planning for this past May 20/21’s Ninth Avenue International Food Festival.

“Last event here, we were all talking about Hell’s Kitchen and how much it has changed,” she recalled. “People say it doesn’t feel like a neighborhood, but it is.”

“We really wanted to create a space to get people together,” Chana Widawski, Hell’s Kitchen resident and member of Hell’s Kitchen Commons said. Previously, the group held a similar event called “West Side Stories.”

“The idea is to connect people through the generations,” she said. “It’s the characters of Hell’s Kitchen that make it. This is what a neighborhood is.”

Julio Rosario Sanchez, also known as the Professor of Hell’s Kitchen, told a story passed down by his parents of the neighborhood’s namesake.

“A small area on 41st between Ninth Street and Dyer Ave; there was a tenement there and next to that tenement was a shantytown,” Sanchez said. “In that shanty town, lived a lot of thugs. One night a big fight broke out. There was an altercation where somebody got hurt, their jaw was broken, I think I remember reading, and I believe the cops were called and when the police came they did not want to enter into that shantytown. One of them commented to the other police officer that that was where the Devil did his cooking. So hence the name, Hell’s Kitchen.”

The Arts Center, which overlooks the Mathews-Palmer Playground (between 45th & 46th Sts. and Ninth & 10th Aves.), was the place to be for many of the older residents, as it still is to some, young and old, today.

“The first time I came to the park was about 1972, because we weren’t allowed to go further than 43rd Street at that time,” Sanchez said. “As I got older I got more adventurous and I came to 46th Street Park, where I’d hang most of the time.”

Michelle Diaz, a fifth generation Hell’s Kitchen resident, on her mother’s side, the Irish side said, “When you have lived here for generations, all of us West Siders call [parks] by the street that they were on. So we have always called it 46th Street Park. De Witt Clinton is 52nd Street Park.” 

Both Diaz and Sanchez remembered their old stomping grounds fondly saying all around you was more than just a community, but a family.

“We knew everybody. We knew everybody’s parents. In fact, if you were there after hours you got told on,” Sanchez said. “I remember coming home and my father saying to me, ‘Why were you at the park at 10 o’clock at night?’ or ‘Why were you there during the day when you should be in school?’ ”

Diaz said, “We all went to school here. Families knew each other. A lot of us are related actually.”

“Probably cousins,” Newsome added with a laugh.

Diaz came to the rooftop with her hands full of black and white photos printed out on computer paper. Some were from the library, archives of what the streets used to be, and some were from her personal collection. She had photos of the public baths on W. 51st St. and the Hudson River from 1902, a horse-drawn carriage ambulance from the former Roosevelt Hospital, and of her family with their dog standing outside during a street fair. The audience passed around her photos while she recollected.

A Hell’s Kitchen native discussed his ever-changing neighborhood. Photo by Rebecca Fiore.

“You mentioned 44th Street being an anomaly,” Diaz said. “It was an anomaly for us in a certain way as that’s where the rich people lived, on that block. None of us had elevators where we lived. We all lived in tenements, five-story walk-ups, bathtub in the kitchen, toilet in the hallway… built in 1800-whatever. Up on the roof was our ‘tar beach.’ ”

“We were like a little bunch of Hell’s Kitchen hoodlums, I guess you could say. That was our life. That’s all we knew. It was the time of our lives, you know, when I think back at it. It’s not like that anymore here, but an abandoned building was a dream to us.”

Diaz talked about how an old toy factory on 44th St. and 10th Ave. had burned down, so her friends and her decided to go inside and poke around.

“We went in there and we jumped on the boxes, jumped in the holes in the ground, and we left there with bags and bags of novelty toys. This is how we lived. We were not rich people,” she said.

She said she loves posting these older pictures to Facebook groups such as Hell’s Kitchen Generations and All the Cool Kids Live in Hell’s Kitchen NYC.

“This brings back so much memory for us. Even when it was like that, it was our place. This,” she said with her arms open. “Because it was a community. It was a family.”

Widawski said the soiree was crucial to the community because “this is a medicine for everybody, to share and to connect… coming together, sharing our personal stories will help heal us in our incredibly toxic world.”

The stories went on through the night as the cast of characters recollected their memories of their ever-changing neighborhood.

On the roof was a donation jar, to help restore the mural at the Mathews-Palmer Playground. In the 1973 painting, “Against Domestic Colonialism” by Arnold Belkin, a sign reads, “We the people demand control of our communities.” Years later, generations later, community members are still looking after one another and their beloved landmarks.

Hell’s Kitchen Commons is raising money to restore the 1972 Arnold Belkin mural outside of Mathews-Palmer Playground called “Against Domestic Colonialism.” Photo by Rebecca Fiore.


On top of the Maravel Arts Center, overlooking Mathews-Palmer Playground, community members gathered to share stories passed through generations. Photo by Rebecca Fiore.h


Photo by Rebecca Fiore