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Dirty laundry – the story of Old Hell's Kitchen, and the pigeons of Port Authority

516 10th Avenue, 1932


IMAGE: Charles Von Urban/MCNY

For nine months in 1932, Charles Von Urban scoured the island of Manhattan in an effort to document its few remaining wood-frame buildings. Because of devastating fires, the city had already outlawed wood-frame construction in its denser sections.


This photograph shows the rear of 516 10th Ave (the south-east corner with W39th St), which was demolished to make way for the Lincoln Tunnel in 1937. The site is synonymous with the neighborhood, as over the road was the eponymous rookery dubbed "Hell's Kitchen."


W39th St was also known as Abattoir Place, and the bawling of cattle being herded to the bludgeons and knives of the butcher , not to mention the particularly pungent aroma of the stockyards, filled the air. Right next door were the soap factories and fat-boiling plants.


One health inspector reported: "He spotted 46 slaughter houses, which drained blood and offal into the gutters instead of sewers. Children by the droves splashed in these same gutters." This child was lucky to be sitting with the laundry.


Owney "The Killer" Madden

It was on these streets that ten-year- old Owney "The Killer" Madden landed in June 1902, after leaving Liverpool to join his Irish-born mother, Frances, in New York. Donald L Miller describes the scene that would have greeted him in the book Supreme City. "Dead cats and bloated brown rats lay rotting in the gutters; the streets were littered with garbage and steaming piles of horse manure."


By the age of 16, Madden had joined the infamous Gophers gang and was a terrifying local figure. His weapons of choice were a lead pipe wrapped in a newspaper or a .38 Smith & Wesson. He came to control the area at the age of 18.


Madden was a leading underworld figure in Manhattan (he was recently featured in HBO's Boardwalk Empire), most notable for his involvement in organized crime during Prohibition. He also ran the famous Cotton Club and was a leading boxing promoter in the 1930s


He left his marks on Hell's Kitchen in more ways than violence and terror Even the demolition of the housing couldn't stop one element of his life remaining. Madden and his fellow gang members raised homing pigeons, caring for them in lofts above the 10th Ave tenements. Miller reports: "Madden liked to watch his birds soar over there rooftops of the West Side, bank in tight formation to avoid the towering brick chimney of slaughter mills, and disappear into the gray haze over the Hudson."


So, when you see those pigeons rising from behind Port Authority bus station, remember they're the legacy of the Madden Gang.


This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of W42ST magazine. Be first to read stories like this when you join our daily newsletter at w42st.com.



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