HELL'S KITCHEN, NY - A Long History of Misbehavior

Hell's Kitchen, an area in mid-Manhattan running approximately from 34th Street to 57th Street, west of Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River, has a long history of crime, sex, and violence. Its first settlers lived in filthy shanytowns which gave birth to street gangs, some of which developed into organized crime rackets during Prohibition. In the 1950's, Puerto Rican immigrants flooded the area and clashed with other lower class ethnicities, inspiring the storyline for "Westside Story". Later, an extremely violent Irish-American gang known as the Westies dominated the area. Today, of course, gentrification has improved the area and yuppy real estate agents prefer to call the area "Clinton" or "Midtown West"… but most people still call it Hell's Kitchen. A century of people murdering each other doesn't rub off easily.

So, a fitting name, but how exactly did the neighborhood get to be called Hell's Kitchen in the first place? There are three likely theories, and a fourth absurd theory I just made up about Gordon Ramsey going back in time and naming the area after his show.

Theory #1: The earliest use of the phrase is actually attributed to American Frontiersman Davy Crocket, in a comment he made about the Irish slum in Manhattan, known Five Points:

"In my part of the country, when you meet an Irishman, you find a first-rate gentleman; but these are worse than savages; they are too mean to swab hell's kitchen."
Although Five Points was located in a different area of Manhattan than Hell's Kitchen, the theory goes that the moniker stuck to and followed all Irish slums in the city, wherever they ended up.

Theory #2: The first time the name appeared in print was September 22, 1881, when a New York Times reporter headed to the West 30's to investigate a multiple murder. According to local historian Mary Clark:

He referred to a particularly infamous tenement at 39th Street and 10th Avenue as "Hell's Kitchen," and said that the entire section was "probably the lowest and filthiest in the city."
The name stuck to this particular block, and grew from there.

Theory #3: Perhaps the most common story traces the name to the story of Dutch Fred the Cop, a veteran police officer, watching a riot on West 39th St. near 10th Avenue with his rookie partner, who commented "This place is hell itself." Fred responded, "Hell's a mild climate. This is Hell's Kitchen."

So which of these explanations is correct? Most likely, all of them are. When an area is dubbed after a founding father or civic contributor, it narrows the explanation for the origin of the name. But when an area is named after how crime-ridden and violent it is, people have millions of chances to think of clever sobriquets, and the most creative and well-suited names will stick. And when your neighborhood has held the reputation for "most murderous area in the country" in not one generation but several, there aren't many more fitting names than Hell's Kitchen.

Sources: 1 - 2 - 3