Hell's Kitchen is Burning

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

It's not unexpected that the Eighth Avenue corridor is burgeoning, since it arguably belongs more to Midtown and the theater district than to Clinton. It's the area west of Eighth Avenue and off 42nd Street, along the low-rise side streets that slope to the river, where the boom is more surprising.

Between Eighth and Tenth avenues, tenants are paying $2000-plus rents not for luxury high-rises, but for renovated tenements. Even west of Tenth Avenue, where 1996 rents in low-rise rehabbed buildings ran from $800 for a studio to $1550 for two-bedrooms, they now range from $1100 to $1900. Studios there in relatively new high-rise buildings ran from $1200 and two-bedrooms were $2200 in 1996; now, they fetch $1500 to $2800.

Erich Giebelhaus, a 28-year-old who works in public relations for a health care association, came to Hell's Kitchen two years ago to snag what he calls a deal: a $1200 studio loft on 39th near Ninth Avenue. "This was my first New York apartment," says Giebelhaus, who moved from Minnesota, "and I went door-to-door in the neighborhood because I heard you could get more for your money in Hell's Kitchen, and I found that to be true."

Giebelhaus appreciates the "true and honest specialty shops and the real neighborhood feel here; it's very genuine." And he's happy he arrived when he did. "This area has definitely priced up since I got here, so now it's not much different from most of Manhattan."

Still, Giebelhaus knows he's not living on Sutton Place. He finds some stretches "a little rough around the edges," and, sounding more like an old-timer than a newcomer, reminds: "Not too long ago, even Ninth Avenue was not a place for the fainthearted."

In fact, just west of Ninth Avenue on 45th Street is the site of a rough bit of Hell's Kitchen history that is not unrelated to the neighborhood's current housing dilemma. Just after midnight on August 29, 1959, a handful of Puerto Rican teens came to the May Mathews Playground, a lot that spans 45th to 46th streets, "to beat up Irish and Italians," according to a police report. Among the youths was 16-year-old Salvatore Agron, a member of the Vampires gang who made it a habit to wear a cape to rumbles. Agron stabbed to death two Hell's Kitchen teens, who stumbled into a pair of West 45th Street tenements to die. Agron entered legend as the Capeman.

The Capeman murders ultimately prompted something more successful and long-lasting than Paul Simon's Broadway musical. In response to the violence, the community formed the Clinton Planning Council. One of its most enduring accomplishments came in 1974, when the council and other community groups got the city to create the Special Clinton District (SCD), a series of laws designed to keep the neighborhood's housing supply solid and affordable.

Under the SCD's rules, Clinton landlords cannot get alteration permits unless they prove to the city that they have not harassed tenants. And the SCD attempts to keep the neighborhood's low-rise character, in part by limiting buildings to the standard tenement height of six stories. The presumption was that if old tenements were preserved and new towers prevented, the gentry would be kept away.

That presumption was wrong. "People who were attracted to the neighborhood in the mid '80s were interested in living in the city," says Restuccia. "I remember someone telling me how wonderful it was to have a tub in the kitchen, how convenient!"

Restuccia says that until recently, the district succeeded in keeping development at an even pace, but he asserts that now, the SCD has been compromised, and not by the charm of the cold-water flat. Instead, he says, the Department of Buildings (DOB) readily gives permits to owners who, for a number of reasons, should not have them, or allows those with permits to do construction and demolition work well beyond what the permit allows. DOB did not return calls for this story.

The results are varied: sometimes, a 30-unit SRO becomes a 12-unit rental apartment; other times, apartments are split to make several units out of one. In the process, tenants are sometimes endangered. In one West 47th Street building, subdivided apartments left people in five units with not a single means of secondary egress in case of a fire; two others had no fire escape at all.

Hell's Kitchen resident Meg Black says it's "extremely frustrating" to combat illegal alterations when the city is unwilling to enforce its own laws. "The attitude of this administration," says Black, "is that it will lie down for developers any day but refuse to ever stand up for the community."

Sources say one particular Clinton building shows how the SCD has eroded and suggests that DOB will cave in to pressure from landlords. The building, at 364 West 51st Street near Ninth Avenue, is owned by James Kinsey. He bought it in 1994 and, since 1995, has purchased 10 other buildings in Hell's Kitchen, including so many on West 47th between Eighth and Ninth avenues that he owns practically the whole block. Kinsey did not return calls.

Shortly after Kinsey bought the 51st Street building, DOB granted permits to install new partitions and renovate kitchen and bathroom fixtures. But in the summer of 1996, DOB revoked the permits, saying that the building's location within the SCD required Kinsey to get a "certificate of no harassment" to prove tenants had not been forced out. (In 1981, the city had found that a previous landlord had indeed harassed tenants.)

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