West 46th Street Block Association, Inc.

A Story from a Former Resident Henry Mikaelian (Hank Mika)


Hell’s Kitchen 1942-64

I was born in 1942 and lived at 426 West 46 Street until a young teenager when we moved to 455 West 46 Street. The best part about these two apartments was that my mother could yell out the window and I was able to hear her in the playground. The 426 apartment consisted of two rooms and on occasion the landlord provided hot water. We had to produce our own heat, which was accomplished with a kerosene stove in the kitchen/bedroom. When my second sibling was born, my brother, the apartment became too small for five people. A 4-room apartment became available at 455. In order to move in we had to pay the former tenant $50.00 ransom money. Fortunately I had the money saved from my meager earnings shining shoes, opening cab doors at the Port Authority Bus Terminal, selling shopping bags in the produce market along Ninth Avenue and other such enterprises. We thought we moved to heaven. After all we now had twice as much space and there was always hot water and steam heat.

Hell’s Kitchen was a blue-collar neighborhood during this time. I surmise the adult’s were the first and second generation of the immigrants who arrived at the turn of the century, for the most part, from Italy and Ireland. While the area could be considered in the low social-economic range, during the earlier years of my childhood the residents took pride in their neighborhood. I recall the tenants washing the stoop, sidewalks and curbs. The men worked on the docks as long shore men, truck drivers, cab drivers and such. Many of the mothers worked in the evening as usherettes in the theaters on Times Square. Both Ninth and Tenth Avenues appeared to have at least one bar between every block. In some cases there was two bars per block. During my many walking tours through my old stomping grounds I noted many of these establishments still existed. This came as a surprise to me considering how up scale the neighborhood had become.

We had our share of crime in the areas but it was of the “not bothering anyone” type. There were card and crap games, bookmaking abounded with sports and numbers betting and of course this all necessitated the friendly neighborhood loan shark. Even with this going on and the number of saloons, Hell’s Kitchen was a safe place to live. I credit this to the elements we had in the neighborhood where outsiders would not dare to invade our streets and commit crimes against person or property. Over the 20 or so years I lived there all this changed. I suppose the rent control laws served a good by providing a place for us to live. At the same time it lead to the deterioration of the tenements since the landlords could not afford to maintain the buildings. At the same time the earlier residents were improving their lot and were able to move to places like Long Island and New Jersey. This left us with run down tenements and only the poorest of the poor new immigrants moved in, mainly from the Caribbean. They didn’t have the social commitment the older residents had. This was the downfall of the neighborhood, as we knew it. It streets became filthy, public drunkenness became rampart and crime increased. A book was written some years ago titled The Westies. It was written by T.J. English, who was a cab driver at the time. I have a copy and found it quite interesting as well as horrifying. After all I went to elementary and junior high school with many of the characters in his book. Most were a couple of years younger them me so I didn’t hang out with them but I did know them. They were criminals even in school.

As I was making my escape from Hells Kitchen many of the tenements were in such poor condition they became inhabitable. I have been out of New York for about 40 years. Over this time I visited the old neighborhood whenever I have the opportunity. For the longest time a number of buildings were vacant and boarded up. I don’t know if the City took the property for taxes or investors were sitting on it waiting for the revival. Whatever the reason I am happy to see how it has evolved into what it has become. If I could I would move back to West 46 Street in a heartbeat. Who would have thought a tenement would someday become a Bed & Breakfast.
Or would you believe a pent house on the roof of my old building at 455. I take great pleasure in seeing Hartley House is still in operation. I spent much of my childhood there. I still remember going to HH and getting a cup of hot cocoa and gram crackers for a few pennies. Seeing movies there and shooting pool on the second floor of the building in the rear. I even spent a week or two at their summer camp in New Jersey. This was my first time away from home as well as being in the country. I recall not being able to sleep at night because of all the noise. When I asked about it I was told they were crickets. Interesting, here is a kid from Hell’s Kitchen, sleeping though sirens, trucks, speeding cars and motorcycles being kept awake by crickets.

Now that I put this short synopsis down on paper a thought occurred to me “is it possible there is a book in my experiences in Hell’s Kitchen”. Why I may even have a good rags-to-not-quite-riches story.

Hell’s Kitchen Prodigy
Henry Mikaelian (Hank Mika)

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Posted by darricksampson on 02/03/2007
Last updated by dbachner on 01/11/2010
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