If You're Thinking of Living In/Clinton; Gritty Gives Way to Gentrification · Joyce Cohen

The New York Times

May 7, 2000

THOUGH the western chunk of Midtown that its boosters call Clinton may be proud of its gritty Hell's Kitchen past, the streets where gangs once roamed are yielding to the tides of gentrification. Housing prices may be lower than in other areas of Manhattan, but now they are catching up, real estate brokers say.

Luxury high-rises have sprouted along the edges of the neighborhood, joining the walk-ups that have lined Clinton's streets since the mid-19th century. And young executives, eager to walk to their jobs at the corporate headquarters that now fill Times Square, are joining the working-class immigrant families that have lived in the neighborhood for generations.

''Hell's Kitchen is in transition and has been for 30 years,'' said James Kaplan, who will help lead the 92nd Street Y's annual tour of the area on May 21. ''For 30 years, it has been the view that the area is the next for development.''

Back in 1974, that view helped bring about the creation of the Clinton Special District, and since then, new buildings have been limited in height to 66 feet or seven stories. The idea was ''to keep the high-rises in certain areas and to protect the traditional Hell's Kitchen resident,'' Mr. Kaplan said.

Now, proposed changes that would allow for more high-rise development along Eighth Avenue are galvanizing residents. ''We are trying to keep it as a low-density community,'' said Simone Sindin, the chairwoman of Community Board 4's Clinton land-use committee. ''This is one of the last moderate- to low-income areas that is ready for development, and the developers are salivating to build, build, build.''

Ms. Sindin called Clinton a ''multinational family neighborhood'' and a ''bedroom community of the theater district, where the actors, stagehands and electricians live.'' It's also one of the city's most politically active areas.

Chuck Spence, the president of the West 44th Street Block Association, who moved to Clinton in 1997, said: ''It's a true community, more so than I experienced on the Upper West Side. There were people in my old building who wouldn't talk to me.''

In Clinton, people talk. The area is rife with block associations and community groups. One clearinghouse for information is the Web site, run by John Fisher.

''This is a neighborhood, not just land,'' Mr. Fisher said. ''This is where people know each other, and third or fourth generations sit on their stoops, and if you're short on cash, you can go to the deli for a quart of milk and pay another day."

The boundaries of the neighborhood are, roughly, Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River and 59th Street to 42nd Street, although some people say that the southern boundary should be 34th Street.

To many, Clinton is still known by its historic name, Hell's Kitchen. It's not clear just where that name came from. It may have been the name of an Irish street gang in the 1860's, or it may have come from a policeman's summertime remark that the place was hotter than hell's kitchen.

In 1959, after two children were killed in gang violence, residents rallied to improve the area's image by renaming it after De Witt Clinton Park.

''Traditionally, it was a slum area,'' said Mr. Kaplan, who lived on West 56th Street for 22 years before moving to New Rochelle, N.Y., in 1997. ''When I moved in in 1975, it was relatively cheap. I was looking for a one-bedroom with a great view for under $300. At the time, it was considered a tough neighborhood.''

In the 19th century, the streets were filled with warehouses, factories and tenements populated largely by Irish and German immigrants. ''Until 1900, the Irish street gangs were very important,'' Mr. Kaplan said. ''After prohibition, it was the center for the speakeasy and illicit liquor industry.''

The theaters, the docks, and Madison Square Garden, formerly at 50th Street and Eighth Avenue, ''were sources of blue-collar jobs,'' Mr. Kaplan said. ''There was this mix of the church, the political club and the underworld.'' The political club was the McManus Midtown Democratic Association, currently run by James McManus, a great-nephew of Thomas McManus, who founded the group in 1890.

Today, the association also functions as a neighborhood ombudsman, and it was instrumental in turning Manhattan Plaza into federally subsidized housing. The two high-rise towers occupy the block bounded by 9th and 10th Avenues and 42nd and 43rd Streets, with a complex of shops and a health club at their base. Seventy percent of its 1,688 coveted apartments are reserved for tenants involved in the performing arts, 15 percent for the elderly and 15 percent for people who already live in the neighborhood. (The waiting list is so long that it has been closed for years.)

TO the north, the blocks in the West 50's are dense with more recently built high-rise co-ops and condominiums. At Worldwide Plaza, an office and condominium complex, there is a spacious outdoor sitting area and the Loews Cineplex Odeon Worldwide, where recent movies play at reduced prices (they just rose to $4). Two new rental buildings, the 26-story Long acre House and the 41-story Gershwin, are Worldwide Plaza's neighbors.

Low-rise tenements fill most of Clinton south of 49th Street. Toward the Hudson River, the blocks grow more commercial, with gas stations, body shops, parking lots and lumberyards.

At Clinton's southeast corner are the Strand, a condominium tower at 500 West 43rd Street, and Riverbank West, a rental tower at 560 West 43rd.

Rentals in tenement buildings do exist at bargain prices but rarely come to market. Brokers say unless they are very lucky, prospective tenants should expect to pay $1,400 to $2,000 for a 500-square-foot one-bedroom.

A one-bedroom rental under $2,000 has a ''shelf life of a week or two,'' said James Fegan, the assistant manager of Citi Habitats' West Side office. ''People are asking to live in the area,'' he added. ''It used to be taboo.''

Luxury rentals are higher: $1,900 to $2,400 for studios and $2,500 to $3,000 for one-bedrooms, said David Schlamm, the owner of City Connections Realty.

The price range for co-ops and condominiums is broad. In the high-end high-rise West 50's, a one-bedroom co-op might go for $260,000 to $280,000, said Asher Remy-Toledo, a broker at the Halstead Property Company, and a one-bedroom condominium might go for $400,000 to $425,000.

Low-rise buildings like the Piano Factory, a co-op at 457 West 45th Street, and Townhouse 47, a condo at 446 West 47th Street, have several dozen apartments. ''They don't have all the bells and whistles as the luxury buildings, but they are get lots of light and sun,'' said Robert Clepper, an associate broker at William B. May.

Studio co-ops in such smaller buildings sell in the low $100,000 range, and one-bedrooms for about $200,000, Mr. Clepper said. Studio condominiums are around $200,000, and one-bedroom condominiums around $300,000.

People like Clinton, Mr. Clepper said, because ''its character has remained identifiably New York.'' And its location is convenient. ''You can walk to the theater and to Lincoln Center,'' said Ms. Sindin of the community board. ''You have all the culture in the world, all the shopping in the world.''

Not to mention food. Ninth Avenue is known for its global mix of restaurants and for its annual Food Festival, scheduled this year on May 20 and 21.

In Clinton, ''you can eat for several dollars to several hundred dollars,'' said Mr. Spence, the block association president. ''You can walk in without a reservation after 8 o'clock when people head to the theaters.''

Some residents fear that rising commercial rents will drive out the area's homey restaurants and businesses. Trendy clubs and bars are already attracting rowdy customers, Ms. Sindin said. Other concerns are heavy traffic, and tour buses that rumble down the streets or park with their engines idling.

STILL, the area's long-term problems with drugs and prostitution have abated, said Jean-Daniel Noland, the president of the West 47th/48th Streets Block Association, a resident for 15 years.

''It changed maybe three years ago,'' Mr. Noland said. ''I remember walking home at 11 p.m. and counting 27 drug dealers and prostitutes on the three-quarters of the block before I got to my apartment. Older-time residents remember gunfire.''

There are two public elementary schools that serve the neighborhood. Children who live north of 48th Street go to P.S. 111, and those south of 48th Street attend P.S. 51. Both have kindergarten or prekindergarten through the eighth grade.

P.S. 51 is known for its reading program, and in five years reading scores have risen from the 29th to the 68th percentile, said the principal, Barbara Gambino.

There are two Roman Catholic schools. At Holy Cross Parochial Elementary School on West 43rd Street, with an enrollment of 550, tuition is $175 a month for Roman Catholic children, $190 for others. The Sacred Heart of Jesus School on West 52nd Street has 265 students. Annual tuition is $1,700 for parishioners, $2,000 for others (additional children from the same family pay $1,400).

Although Clinton has several well-tended community gardens, there is little parkland. Besides the six-acre De Witt Clinton Park there are just three half-acre playgrounds. But the Hudson River Park, still under construction, will extend along the river northward to 59th Street, and will include a recreational area at Pier 84, at 44th Street.

''That will be dedicated parkland,'' said Mr. Spence, an officer of Friends of Pier 84. Plans for its use are not complete, but it could include an outdoor theater, a playground, a dog run and boats to rent.

David Schlamm

David Schlamm

Office 212-994-3206

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