One of the formerly most violent neighborhoods in Manhattan has left its mark on film.
“Hell is mild. This is Hell’s Kitchen!” Dutch Fred the Cop declared in 1881. The name and the notoriety stuck. Sometimes known as Clinton, this once congested, volatile, and violent but now gentrifying neighborhood spans Manhattan from West 34th Street to West 57th Street and from Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River, where it straddles several blocks of reclaimed silt.
In film and in life, Hell’s Kitchen has been synonymous with slums, brawling, grisly crime, scrappy survival, sharp ethnic divisions, and some of New York’s most savage gangs, including the Westies. It was once home to African Americans—and then the Irish and Germans who pushed them out—all of whom worked its slaughterhouses, lumberyards, docks, and laid its masonry.
The Puerto Ricans arrived post World War II. The neighborhood’s brick-tenement walkups and railroad flats (many now co-ops) have housed numerous actors who appeared on nearby film, television, and theater sets; Charlton Heston, Sylvester Stallone, Jerry Seinfeld, and Madonna are said to have lived here.
Booze and churches
Hell’s Kitchen films are woven with booze and churches and overshadowed by Catholicism, though the bars win out more often than the confessionals. Onscreen, time seems to have passed by “the Kitchen” and especially its men—a dying breed loyal to a dying creed, who cling to the neighborhood like a life raft. Most are simply getting by. It’s a man’s world run on fists and bravado, and in which women do as they’re told.
With its gritty streets, low-lying rooftops, mesh-fence basketball courts, tribe mentality, and tale of love and revenge, the 1961 musical West Side Story is the most well-known title in the Hell’s Kitchen filmography. Directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, it was shot largely on Hollywood sets, but some exteriors were filmed on West 61st Street (then known as San Juan Hill).
The explosive finale of Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe (1964) features West 54th Street’s stoopside Puerto Rican drummers. Far West 57th Street and its West Side Highway taxi brokers and traverses provide the setting for the opening of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), when Travis Bickle procures his infamous yellow cab—though none of these locations remain.
Phil Joanou’s State of Grace (1990) is also signature Hell’s Kitchen cinema. It’s about a man (Sean Penn) who broke away from the neighborhood and then returns, for reasons only much later revealed, to his first love (Robin Wright) and gangster best friend, Frankie (Gary Oldman), who laments, “I’m the last fuckin’ Irishman in the Kitchen.”
A few notable Hell’s Kitchen film landmarks remain and are easily accessible on foot. Begin with Holy Cross at 329 West 42nd Street. The French gothic revival church was built in 1871: Don’t miss its distinct Italianate interior and domes, which were the setting for a pivotal scene in State of Grace.
Walk to the once bustling Film Center at 630 Ninth Avenue, with its ornate golden Art Deco lobby and its editing suites and film and video suppliers; the building is a remnant of the days when the neighborhood formed the city’s filmmaking heart, with its studios and sound and camera houses. These include Camera Mart—formerly Fox Movietone—which once stood at 456 West 55th Street and provided film equipment and soundstages: The Ramones recorded there, and its indoor pool was where 1940s–’50s sync-swimming star Esther Williams filmed many of her underwater scenes.
Head down West 44th Street to no. 432, the Actors Studio. Film director Elia Kazan was a founder; Lee Strasberg and Sanford Meisner were teachers; actors Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman, and Faye Dunaway were students, and Harvey Keitel, Ellen Burstyn, and Al Pacino remain co-presidents.
Cross 11th Avenue, once known as Death Avenue because its overhead railroad so darkened the street. (It has since been dismantled.) Visit the Intrepid, at the Hudson River and West 46th Street. The battleship and the adjacent and once forbidding Pier 86 set the scene for dramatic turning points in State of Grace; today they are, respectively, a museum and a newly renovated park.
The Hudson piers, now connected via bike and walking paths and surrounded by new construction, all feature prominently in Marvel’s Daredevil (2015– ), in which the entire city becomes a stand-in for the TV series’ Hell’s Kitchen setting.
Return along West 46th Street to the corner Landmark Tavern at 626 11th Avenue, where you can take a break for an Irish beer. The 1868 bar is a former Irish saloon and speakeasy, and appears in Ed Burns’s Ash Wednesday (2002), an emblematic Kitchen film of brotherhood set asunder by gang feuds. Get your mellow on but keep an eye out for ghosts: both a Confederate soldier who died in the upstairs tub after being knifed in a fight, and the actor George Raft, who grew up in the Kitchen, are said to haunt the bar.