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NYC Neighborhoods

A Helluva Town: The Origins of New York’s Hellish Place Names

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Ensemble in On the Town., Digital ID ps_the_2045, New York Public Library

"New York, New York, a helluva town. The Bronx is up but the Battery's down." —On the Town

With at least three "Hell" based place names within its boundaries—Hell Gate, Hell's Kitchen, and Hell's Hundred Acres—New York City is indeed a helluva town. But in spite of name and reputation, these places are now far from infernal.

Hell Gate Bridge, New York City, Digital ID 836107, New York Public Library
Hell Gate 

Hell Gate is the oldest place name of these three.  Dating back to New Amsterdam's Dutch colonial period, Hell Gate is a corruption of the Dutch name "Hellegat" which meant "hell channel." It refers to the narrow and treacherous strait of water separating Astoria, Queens, from Ward's Island, and connecting the Long Island Sound to the East River.  

The Encyclopedia of New York City tells us that Hell Gate earned its name from sailors navigating the shallow channel's strong currents and rocky reef. Hundreds of ships have sunk into Hell Gate, including the British ship Hussar, which in 1780 shipwrecked whilst carrying a significant amount of silver and gold. Its treasure is still sought by divers.  

The Army Corps of Engineers widened and deepened the channel in the nineteenth century using "the greatest quantity of explosives ever attempted in a single operation." The feat drew over fifty thousand spectators to the shores of the East River to watch the geyser-like spectacle caused by the detonation.

Spanning the waterway is the Hell Gate Bridge, a picturesque railroad bridge which links New York City to New England.  Although some places in the city take their name from Hell Gate, such as the Hell Gate Station Post Office, Hell Gate officially refers to the waterway and its bridge, not to a neighborhood or other piece of land.  
 

West Side Highway and Piers 95-96-97-98, looking west from roof of 619 West 54th Street, Manhattan., Digital ID 482645, New York Public Library
Hell's Kitchen

Bounded by Eighth Avenue to the east, the Hudson River to the west, 59th Street to the north, and 30th Street to the south is a neighborhood that some might say is "Midtown West." A taxi map will tell you that it is called "Clinton," but almost any New Yorker will still refer to this place as Hell's Kitchen.

The Encyclopedia of New York City opens its entry for Hell's Kitchen by referring to it as an "obsolete term," though we certainly still hear it in pop culture.  The area acquired this name sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, either from a neighborhood gang or the local police. By the time of the American Civil War, Hell's Kitchen was known as violent, impoverished slum. It has been home to several different ethnic groups over the years: Irish, Scots, Germans, African Americans, Greeks, Eastern Europeans, Puerto Ricans, and others. Gangs such as the Gophers and the Westies have domineered there. In fact, it was a gang-related murder in 1959 that prompted local officials to begin calling the neighborhood "Clinton" in efforts to improve its image. The name was derived from De Witt Clinton Park, located at Eleventh Avenue between 52nd and 54th Streets.

Nonetheless, the Hell's Kitchen moniker persists in common parlance.  Its mean past is remembered in films such as West Side Story, countless murder-mystery books, and invoked in chef Gordon Ramsay's books and television programs.  Currently the neighborhood is home to a diverse and rich restaurant scene along Ninth Avenue, Comedy Central's Daily Show Studios, CBS Broadcast Center, the Hearst Tower, and the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum.  This abundant array of cultural and commercial establishments affirms that tourists are definitely not afraid to wander there. Whether or not they call it "Clinton," "Midtown West," or "Hell's Kitchen," only taxi drivers know for sure.
 
Broadway near Broome Street, Manhattan., Digital ID 482846, New York Public LibraryHell's Hundred Acres

Unlike the previous two areas, the nickname Hell's Hundred Acres was actually born of fire. Following a series of terrible fires in the environs, some of which cost the lives of several firefighters, Fire Commissioner Edward Cavanagh coined the name to express his feelings about the major fire hazards and deteriorated conditions he considered perilous.
 

Today the neighborhood is remembered for its stylish dwellings and innovative art scene—and it is called SoHo. You can follow the neighborhood's transition in the New York Times Historical database by searching the term "Hell's Hundred Acres."  If you read the resulting articles in chronological order, you'll see the stories shift from reports of fire violations, warnings from Cavanagh, and descriptions of hazards, to stories of artists organizing, urban renewal, and eventually creation of the term "SoHo."  In late 1962, the City Planning Commission called for a "South Houston Street survey," a study that surprisingly showed the neighborhood to be economically thriving despite its run-down reputation. Subsequent articles use the term "South Houston Industrial Area," and by 1970, "SoHo."  Unlike "Hell's Kitchen", the moniker "Hell's Hundred Acres" practically disappears.

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The 4th

This is really interesting! I don't think it ever achieved purchase in the common parlance like the above three names, but I was told by a patron an area east of Columbia and south of Houston on the Lower East Side was known in the 1970s as "Hell Hill". Know anything more about this?

I'm not familiar with that

I'm not familiar with that one, but if I come across any info, I'll be sure to update!

"Hell Hill"

It that were true, it must have been earlier than 1970. I lived and worked in that area in the late 60's and never heard that term. After I moved out, I still kept an eye on stories about the area in both the Times and the Village Voice and never saw that name used. That area is remarkably flat.

Hell Hill

The area known as Hell Hill is a triangular section of lower Manhattan that is bordered by the East River, Delancey Street and Clinton Street. The reference to a hill is that if you walk south on Columbia Street towards Grand Street there is a small incline and if you walk South on Madison Street from Montgomery there is a small decline in the geography, thus a hill. This area is mainly the Vladeck Houses and several city parks that the Hell Hill Boys controlled during the 80's and 90's to sell drugs and other illicit items. They were known as a tough, tight knit group of young men who although small in number did not back down from anyone, including the NYPD. Most have served prison time, a few are still in prison but most survived those times to become productive, although not always law-abiding citizens.

Addendum

Ok, after discussing it with our security guard at Hamilton Fish Park (who grew up on the Lower East Side) the story is the LES gang the "Hell Hill Boys" in the 1970s and the 1980s called the area surrounding Madison and Jackson "Hell Hill" to make the area more foreboding to rival gangs (the Allen (Street) Boys), who they later joined together with. Some residual evidence exists in a local rapper named "Jesse da Body L.E.S." and the vBlock Mafia, where vBlock stands for Vladeck Houses (housing project on the LES). However, no one outside the immediate vicinity of LES really ever geographically referred to "Hill Hill" except for neighborhood people and the gangs. Apparently after years of intimidating the neighborhood for quite some time and growing in power, a NYPD gang task force in the '90s took on a concerted campaign against the Hell Hill Boys, most of them are locked up today or just old. Thus no one really refers to area as "Hell Hill" anymore. Q.E.D.

Great Post!

Really informative, had no idea SoHo was "Hell's Hundred Acres", that should be brought back into usage. Living a block south of Hell's Kitchen I think the area should be called Hell's Cellar... it's a lot cooler (hotter?) then North West Chelsea... Thanks for the great read.

Thanks Shawn! I agree,

Thanks Shawn! I agree, Hell's Hundred Acres is a lot more fun as a neighborhood name than SoHo, especially since London claimed that one first.

Very interesting and

Very interesting and informative!

Hell Gate

I've live in the East Harlem area all of my life. Hell Gate Station is my are'a PO. Love my neighborhood and everyone here. It's a close knit area where everyone is family. The food, the people...I wouldn't want to live anywhere else. <3 Hell gate is my home <3

NY City's Hellish Places

How about "Spuyten Duyvil" as another hellish place? Also, to straighten out your word usage, might I suggest that a narrow water channel is known as a "strait," not a "straight."

Hell's Kitchen - name origin

There's a joke that you tell your Aunt Bea that you live in Clinton, but you tell your friends you live in Hell's Kitchen. Depending on which you decide to believe, the name Hell's Kitchen either came from a London neighborhood (as did Chelsea to our south), or that it was taken from a riverfront German restaurant called Heil's Kitchen, or that two cops were watching a riot in and one called the neighborhood hell, the other said, ”No, this is Hell's kitchen!” Some civic leaders tried to change the name to Clinton in the mid-60's. They named it after the twice-governor of New York State (famous for the Erie Canal. But, it never quite stuck. The debate continues! But listen to any local elected official….they refer to the `hood as Hell’s Kitchen/Clinton or visa versa.

West Chelsea Referred to as Hell's Kitchen in 1943 Mrkt Analysis

I live in what is today West Chelsea; however, in 1943, area (narrow strip from Tenth Ave. to Hudson River, 42nd to 14th Street) was apparently referred to as Hell's Kitchen. See following link. https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/346364-manhattan-profiles.html#pages Anyone want to take a stab at explaining this (which doesn't seem to comport w/ other definitions of area of Hell's Kitchen)?

ALLENBOYS

so what ever happen to the ALLEN STREET GANG.?

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