Growing up fast in Hell's Kitchen
“That's the thing about growing up in Hell's Kitchen,” says Kimani Ashley, “you grow up fast.”
He sweeps his eyes across Hell’s Kitchen Park, a neighborhood playground on 10th Ave - 47th/48th St, where kids run through the sprinklers and elderly people sit on benches in the shade. It was an altogether different, darker place in the late 1990s/early 2000s.
“It definitely was not like this when I was growing up,” he says. “It was famous for crack, dealing heroin. Just walking by, you’d see people strung out."
There was an uptown Hell's Kitchen, and a downtown Hell's Kitchen," he says. "If you go from W45th St down, that's where all the more Broadway people live – people who are the writers, directors, and so on. From W45th St on up, this is the old school Hell's Kitchen; much more urban."
And, for any young person living in that environment, the magnetic pull of drugs and gang culture could be strong.
“I'm fortunate to have my parents,” he says. "Growing up fast could be a negative or it could be a positive; they used it as a positive, and got me to channel all that energy.”
The 52nd Street Project saved his life. An acting program in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen, it takes young people from the age of ten through their teens, and connects them with theater professionals to make art ranging from poetry and photography, to dance, stage combat, and filmmaking.
"My brother was in it, I was in it, my niece was in it,” says Kimani. “Just right there, in the middle of ‘uptown’ Hell's Kitchen, was a mecca of creativity. It was one of the biggest life-changing periods in my life. They took me when I was 10, a massive stutterer – I had a huge speech impediment, couldn't speak a full sentence without stuttering – to be able to write and direct my first play.
“From there, they take you into actually performing plays, and when I was on stage, I never stuttered. As someone who couldn't even have a conversation, to be able to speak with such clarity – that's something they taught me that I’ll be forever grateful.
“It was a beautiful time.”
His parents had moved into a loft on W45th St, when the rent was just $25 a month. “Back then, no one really wanted to live in Hell's Kitchen unless you were a struggling artist,” laughs Kimani. But the cheap rent came with a responsibility. “The landlord wanted him to watch his gold. 'Make sure no one breaks in. I got you.’”
That apartment was a magnet for New York's artistic and creative scene, and his parents’ parties were legendary.
“My dad [Ed Ashley] went to college for filmmaking, film directing. From there, he worked at ABC and HBO. My mom comes from communications, and she owned a home catering business. So the two of them coming together – they used to throw these amazing, beautiful events. If you fell into the music/art scene in New York City during the ‘80s,” says Kimani, “you were definitely in that house.
“I guess my creative event planning comes from them.”
He grew up surrounded by music and arts, culture and fashion. “I feel like if I was ever to say my parents, ‘I want to be a lawyer or a doctor,’ they'd be like, ‘Where did we go wrong?’”
He'd mapped out a career in art therapy when, at the age of 21, he broke his leg. “That definitely put my life on pause. When you're on bed rest, you have a lot of time to think about what your life’s going to be like, what your career’s going to be like.
“Then my dad was like, 'Yo, Kimani, you really like fashion, right? You want to go to Paris?'" He said, ‘Once you get healed up, if you could save up money and find a contact there, I will pay for the rest.' And I wrote to everyone and anyone who’d ever even heard the word Paris, who even knew any lick of French, and I made it happen. I was able to get in contact with one of my uncles who does couture design out there. He put me in contact with this woman named Alvina Ben-Kara who is an amazing fashion creator, actress, big sister, life-changer. She took me under her wing. I was out there for two and a half months, and helped produce four fashion shows.”
He came back home to work for New York Fashion Week, with Audrey Smaltz. "She owns the oldest black-owned fashion production firm in New York City. I did Dior at Brooklyn Navy Yard because of her.”
Working backstage, he learned the value of networking and connections; bringing creatives together from different industries with a common purpose. It was the inspiration for Kimani's Loft, he says. “I don't like saying it’s a ‘networking event’, I just like saying a house gathering of like-minded people.”
In 2017, he held a two-day event at the Ace Hotel for people working in fashion. “I took posters from my house, hung them up in the room, my mom made some food, we played some music … we made it like it was just my house and everyone there would talk. It was organic, like, 'Oh, you're a designer? Well I'm a stylist.’
“Then I did another one in 2019, geared to film. My cousin, Angele Cooper, is a Black, lesbian filmmaker, and her first short was called Love in the Shadows, which focused on the struggle of this young Black lesbian growing up, falling in love, being persecuted.
“I really wanted this to be her a platform. My dad did a little documentary about the event and it's nothing but beautiful, Black, lesbian women, all in one room, bonding over the same struggle, and also over the same creativity.”
He's still pondering the theme of the third event, but he’s certain of what he wants to achieve through the concept: “I want to have a creative space – a physical space – that could highlight different designers, people who are underrepresented.
“My goal is to do it in my own apartment, to carry that history, and also because it's right here in Hell's Kitchen – you don't need to go all the way down to Soho and get lost somewhere. You're in a space that has cultural history. And that's what my friends say when they come over, ‘I just feel comfortable in your house.’ They feel that energy."
"I don't like the fact that we now get looked at differently, especially as a Black person living here. The amount of times I’ve been like, ‘No, I'm not an Uber Eats worker.’"
But, as the neighborhood changes, is he still proud to say he lives here?
“It's a double-edged sword,” he says. “I'm glad that my niece, who is now 19, was able to walk through the neighborhood safely when she was growing up, and there wasn't all that danger around.
“But I don't like the fact that we now get looked at differently, especially as a Black person living here. The amount of times I’ve been like, ‘No, I'm not an Uber Eats worker.’
“When I see people who have lived here all their lives, how they get treated, how they get looked at, it's not OK. There have been moments that my mom would walk down the block and people will make comments as if she doesn't belong here.
"Hell's Kitchen has always had a huge population of homelessness," he adds. "We have the largest rate of mentally challenged people. These shelters have always been here. It's nothing new. If anything, I'm glad the hotels are actually being used, because at least it's giving homeless people a place to stay, for them to be safe.
"Let's start helping and let's stop judging. What is judging going to do? It's just going to make everyone feel uncomfortable."
Be first to read stories like this when you join our daily newsletter at w42st.com.