Neighborhoods

Documenting the New Towers of Old Hell’s Kitchen

Artist Gwyneth Leech recounts her favorite neighborhood sites to paint, and to shop in

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The artist Gwyneth Leech has lived and worked in Hell’s Kitchen for nineteen years. Her installations and paintings record the dynamic changes in the skyline and spirit of her neighborhood. Currently, she is exhibiting works that take a detailed look at local construction sites, and how a new era is being shaped in an old ’hood.

On my way to the studio, I have a choice of coffee places: Empire Coffee and Tea (568 Ninth Avenue) or Corvo (542 Ninth Avenue). I like that they both use plain white cups without logos, which I prefer for drawing on them.

The best construction sites to watch at the moment are in Lower Hell’s Kitchen. I go out with my easel and paints and see how they change, with new shapes, patterns, light effects, and human dramas every day. If you’re out and about in the area, it’s good to know that Hudson Yards Park has a nice new public toilet!

The construction site that I think is most interesting, though, is on Eleventh Avenue at 59th Street. I was actually on the street, painting, when a couple of tailors who work nearby told me there’d just been a murder there. After that, I found another site to paint for a while.

If you love to make art in this neighborhood, sooner or later you’ll find yourself in Garden Hardware (701 Tenth Avenue). It’s a treasure of a shop, with screws and wires and all kinds of bits and pieces in drawers, and enormous rolls of chicken wire in the basement. I was in there the other week, browsing around, and I ended up leaving with 24 mirror plates in a paper bag.

Esposito (500 Ninth Avenue) is another old-school institution. The guys who work there wear white jackets, which seems just how it should be. You take a numbered ticket, and they’ll talk with you about anything to do with ham hocks and Christmas turkeys. Nearby is Ninth Avenue International Grocery (543 Ninth Avenue), which has a terrific range of spices and beans and other things in barrels as well as spanakopita, baklava, taramasalata, and hummus. Every inch of space is packed with something interesting to see. There’s even produce hanging from the ceiling.

Tulcingo Del Valle (665 Tenth Avenue) is the place to get chicken mole and fish soup, sitting at bright patterned oilcloth tables, and doing some people watching. It’s been in the neighborhood since 2001…and we’ve been going there almost every week since 2001! Lali (630 Tenth Avenue) is another Hell’s Kitchen classic. It’s a Dominican café, with the best pork and rice, and a lunch special that’s different every day. We sit up at the counter, with our backs to the bright lilac wall, and practice our Spanish. When my daughter Megan comes back from college, this is the place she wants to go to first.

Now it’s just my younger daughter Grace at home; we seem to spend a lot of time at Pier 84. In the summer the Manhattan Kayak Club organizes free kayaking, or we just visit the dog park — it’s really more of a singles pickup place, but even so, there are dogs, and Grace Loves Dogs, so we like to visit. Afterward, we go to Underwest Donuts (638 West 47th Street), which is inside a car wash. You buy the donuts freshly baked and still warm, and watch the cars while you eat.

If your priority is dog watching — understandable — you should really go to De Witt Clinton Park (West 52nd Street to West 54th Street, Eleventh Avenue to Twelfth Avenue). There’s one section for small dogs and one for big dogs, and Grace knows a lot of them by name. A bit controversial, but just over the street, you can also watch the carriage horses going in and out of their stables (618 West 52nd Street). I find that fascinating.

During the week, my favorite thing to do is walk from my apartment to Amy’s Bread (672 Ninth Avenue), pick up an Irish breakfast tea and a golden raisin oat bran twist, then sit in the Community Garden and draw. Afterward, I sweep the sidewalk.

Anyone who lives in the neighborhood can get a key to the garden, but there’s usually a wait for plots. I was on the list for seven years. Being an artist, one tends to be in the studio alone for a big chunk of the day, so it’s interesting to have other things to do, like growing herbs and the odd cherry tomato, and sweeping the sidewalk, where you really experience the community. People see me drawing and get curious. Once a taxi driver offered me money to copy a Rembrandt.

If you volunteer for face painting at a neighborhood fundraiser, then Alcone (322 West 49th Street), which has been around since the Fifties, is the place you should know about. I pride myself on my glittery butterflies, and I always find the perfect colors there that will really stand out on all the different skin tones of the human rainbow of beautiful children I get to use as a canvas.

The Village Voice is exploring one borough per day for the week of April 2, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Neighborhoods Week 2018 page.

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