Hell's Kitchen is Burning

With a ravenous market and a pro-development mayor, West Side tenants say they don't stand a chance

On a map, Hell's Kitchen looks like a perfectly squared-off and straightforward neighborhood, a grid par excellence. Especially in its northern end, from 42nd to 59th streets, block after block is gridded out with die-cut precision from Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River. But the West Side community's cartographic clarity belies the complications it faces as an onslaught of development promises--or perhaps threatens--to permanently reshape it.

"This place is arguably the most pressurized urban area in the city, maybe even the country," says Bob Kalin, who for 19 years has worked as a local housing organizer. "As we head into the next century, who knows where we'll end up, with all that's going on?"

What's going on is the pairing of an unbridled real estate market coupled with a mayor whose policies spur rather than control that market. The combination leaves tenants in Hell's Kitchen, long a neighborhood of affordable and even cheap rents, in a squeeze. Increasingly, the low-rise community finds itself surrounded by megaprojects like the Disneyfied Times Square, Trump's Riverside South, a proposed Yankee Stadium and convention center expansion, and an ever-rising wall of luxury towers moving in from the east.

And next week, top real estate moguls will meet to contemplate bidding on a city-sponsored market-rate development project on Tenth Avenue. Bids are due at the end of this month.

"It's amazing," says Marge Pearson, a broker for Douglas Elliman, Manhattan's biggest high-end realty agency. "You're moving the East Side over to the West, and it's going farther West than it has ever gone before. Very clearly, the whole city is becoming one."

Not everyone shares Pearson's enthusiasm for such a unified New York. "When everything becomes the same, when tourists rule and Ranch One is the main restaurant, you have to ask if this is really a place that will attract people with different kinds of talents, interests, and new ideas," asks Joe Restuccia, who heads a local nonprofit housing group. "Will it still be a city? It looks like it's going to be Afghan Kebab House or Ranch One."

Longterm Hell's Kitchen residents and activists are wary of media pronouncements--whether by The New York Times or Time Out New York--that their neighborhood is "hot." Indeed, in a neighborhood steeped in history--the dominant political club is 106 years old and local gangs have been the stuff of Hollywood movies and Broadway plays--being declared a cutting-edge community is itself a tradition.

For 15 years, the Times has regularly deemed Hell's Kitchen--or Clinton, as it is also known--as up-and-coming, a backwater where renters could still enjoy the ambience of an authentic immigrant neighborhood without spending Uptown sums for rent. And it's true that, though rare, a few two-digit rents survive in some Clinton tenements; many old-timers shriek at the $1000 walk-up studios that many New Yorkers consider standard. But while rents and co-op and condo prices have crept up over the years, more often than not, the Kitchen has cooled off as regularly as it has heated up.

But the same West Siders who shun media labels for their neighborhood agree--in fact, fear--that this time, those labels might stick. That's because the robust market is bolstered by an unprecedentedly clear shift in city policy that backs developers and landlords. In early August, for instance, the City Council rezoned Clinton's Eighth Avenue border to allow larger buildings, despite bitter community opposition. In the upcoming months, the city department of Housing Preservation and Development will be carving up the Clinton Urban Renewal Area, and on one site has already scrapped plans for affordable housing, instead seeking a predominantly luxury building. All this happens as community members complain that the city's Department of Buildings has abandoned a law intended to protect their neighborhood.

"This is the moment that I think people have feared the most since the 1960s, when the city condemned land and wanted to bulldoze the entire neighborhood," says Mary Brendle, a longtime resident who has written a history of Clinton. "There was a time when Robert Moses wanted the People Mover, which would be a second-level street with commercial buildings underneath it and luxury residentials on top. Now, on 42nd Street beyond Tenth Avenue, suddenly there's luxury towers. Trump is moving down, Eighth Avenue is getting much bigger, and we'll be left stuck inside this little box."

For 35 years, Anna Soares has lived in a studio on 53rd Street just off Eighth Avenue. There's nothing fancy about the place--Soares's kitchen features a dorm-style half refrigerator and hot-plate stove--but Soares, who, at 76, still works as a secretary, says it's always been plenty for her.

But recently, she's had complaints. Increasingly, new tenants are arriving in groups to share rents of $1500--more than three times Soares's own rent. And they're young, playing "I don't know what you'd call it; I guess it's music," loud enough to send Soares shopping for another place to live.

"I go to 888 Eighth Avenue every time my lease expires," she says, referring to a nearby 22-storypostwar building down the street. "I'm there so often they know me. But the studios are $1500!" She's shopped at the soon-to-be- opened Gershwin, a tower built by developer Jack Resnick at 50th and Eighth Avenue. "But they want $2200 for a one-bedroom!" gasps Soares. "The sign outside did say 'Luxury.' I guess I was warned."

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