When people ask me where I’m from originally, I don’t just tell them New York City or Manhattan – I specify Hell’s Kitchen.
Why so proud of a neighborhood portrayed in West Side Story as a borderline slum inhabited by roving street gangs? Because growing up in what was once a tough, gritty community – and surviving – is a badge of honor. That and for sentimental reasons. More than half a century later, I still have nostalgic memories of my old stomping grounds.
Although our walk-up tenement was a few blocks south of Hell’s Kitchen, surrounded by Garment District factories and dwarfed in the shadow of the looming New Yorker hotel, I spent most of my time in and around the Holy Cross School on 43rd Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, where Dominican nuns taught us reading, writing, ‘rithmetic, and religion to the tune of a yardstick that was far more frightening than Negan’s beloved Lucille.
Perhaps you’ve seen Holy Cross. It’s the red brick building featured prominently in the most memorable scene of the Oscar-winning film Birdman. Across the street is a playground where my classmates and I used to play stickball, tag, ringalevio, and Johnny Rides a Pony after school.
I recall the trek to and from school along Ninth Avenue, passing butcher shops with disemboweled rabbits and ducks hanging in the windows, Manganero’s delicatessen, and the candy store where you could buy the latest issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland and DC comic books for 10 cents. You’d walk under the overpass of the Port Authority, across the street from a Woolworth’s 5 & 10 and hear the echoed roar of buses on their way to the Lincoln Tunnel and New Jersey, wishing you were on one of those buses en route to Palisades Park.
Just west of Ninth on 43rd was the gated church where some of my relatives used to live in an apartment on the top floor, later converted into the nightclub featured in the movie Klute, then an off-Broadway theater.
Down the street was Buckley’s Funeral Home, where many a family wake was held. Around the corner on 44th between Ninth and Tenth was our family doctor’s office, actually an apartment below street level next door to the old Actor’s Studio. That’s where I heard “Spanish Harlem” for the first time on the waiting room radio.
There was a greasy spoon diner I frequented on the corner of the southeast corner of 44th and Ninth that later became the original Improv, where I took my first wife on our first date. And, of course, who could forget seedy, pre-Guliani 42nd Street with its row of marquee movie theatres and assortment of lowlifes, just as it was portrayed in Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver.
Some of the local flavor remains to this day, other details are lost to antiquity. In fact, when I visited the area a few years ago I was saddened by how much things had changed. I guess Thomas Wolff was right: You can’t go home anymore – except in your memories.
Robert Stricklin is an author whose latest book, “Rialto: An Anthology” is a nostalgic noir set in 1950’s Hell’s Kitchen.