August 17, 2007
The history of crime in Hell's Kitchen
The Times offers a new feature series today called Weekend Explorer, in which a reporter does a sort of walking tour of a neighborhood with a local long-time resident, and describes the layers of history they can still see.
The first in the series focuses on our beloved Hell's Kitchen. The piece starts with a history of the working-class 19th century era, with Irish and German immigrants working on the docks and in factories. But the really interesting stuff is all about the criminal history: the neighborhood was a center of gangs, speakeasies and murder for the 100 years or so from the post-Civil War era through the '80's.
A few especially wonderful excerpts:
Two generations of Irish gangsters, nicknamed the Westies by the police and the press, operated in the neighborhood into the late 1980s. Murder, theft, arson, extortion, gambling, loan-sharking, liquor, drugs, nightclubs — the Westies did it all.
Mr. Robbins [local resident] said macabre stories about the 596 Club [formerly at the corner of 10th Ave of 43rd St] still float around Hell’s Kitchen. Old-timers remember jars behind the bar that held the severed fingers of guys who had crossed the Westies. There’s the one about gangsters rolling a severed head down the bar.
"I’ve heard a lot of that kind of stuff," T. J. English, author of The Westies, said in a recent interview. "Normally you’d dismiss it as absurd, but since it was the Westies, who knows? That place was certainly the proverbial bucket of blood."
The whole article is full of great, detailed, and often violent old-time stories like these, as well as descriptions of the gentrification that has made the neighborhood safer, though a lot less colorful.
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