By Joseph Varga
What does it mean to live in a “bad neighborhood”? How do urban dwellers themselves produce urban space as history, in the changing modes of perception, in the shifting conceptual ideas that are literally the result of the numerous encounters with the everyday physical paths, nodes, and routes. Here in urban laboratories like New York’s Hell's Kitchen, we see the actual creation of the Progressive Era reformer, forged in the encounter with the space of tenement life. We see the emergence of a new politics, of an urban working class aware of its role as object of study, performing the routine of urban “problem” by insisting that their collective voice be heard. We see the space itself being produced in everyday use, and altered by the demands of economy, of culture, of politics, spaces that then act themselves, framing the new conceptual ideas that would drive future restructurings.
Click below to read an excerpt from “Hell, Death, and Urban Politics,” Chapter Six of Hell’s Kitchen and the Battle for Urban Space (Monthly Review Press, 2013)
The “Avenue of Death,” Eleventh Avenue, maintained dangerous conditions for Hell’s Kitchen residents. With the advent of steam locomotives in the 1860s, the slow-moving horse-drawn trains were replaced by a fast-moving menace, particularly in the area between 23rd Street and Riverside Park. Though no accurate statistics exist for death and injury totals, opponents of the rail line claimed up to one hundred people per year were killed or injured by the trains, many in Hell’s Kitchen. The property of the Central and Hudson Rail Company, the line brought freight from Albany to the city, often for shipment from the New York piers to their ultimate destination. The large locomotives were equipped with hand brakes operated by a single brakeman from the top of the car, and stopping depended on his skill and alertness, as the trains often reached speeds of 25 miles per hour. As early as 1866, a state senator referred to the operation of freight trains on street surfaces as “an evil which has already endured too long.”327 The only concessions made by the Central Hudson to public safety was to pay mounted flagmen, usually from outside of the city, to ride in front of the trains warning of their approach.328 The riders became a favorite sight among Hell’s Kitchen youth and were often the target of rock throwing, and were often blamed for lax performance at the scene of an accident. The fight against the rail line, at a peak between 1906 and 1914, would linger on until the 1930s, when it was finally replaced by a series of compromise structures, including the West Side high line.
The fight over removal of the tracks had a long history, but no serious action had ever been proposed before 1900. A report to the Board of Estimate by city engineer Ernest C. Moore expressed the frustrations and difficulties in considering proposals for removal. Moore acknowledged that nearly forty years of proposed plans had amounted to stalemate, as the land had been the private property of the Central Hudson Rail Company, and its commerce important to city businesses and employees. Moore points out that the rock layer along the avenue made a submerged line unfeasible, and the cost of connecting the trains to docks through short elevated lines was financially prohibitive. In spite of “aesthetic objections,” Moore recommended a four-track elevated line running from lower Manhattan to Riverside Park, a plan that would not be adopted for another twenty years.329 So though the issue for most local residents was the clear danger imposed by the freight trains moving through the center of their street, the process of their actual removal involved legal questions of property rights, the right of the city to seize it for the public good, the costs of redirecting the lines, and the economic impact on both suppliers and consumers of freight goods.
Pressure to improve general conditions in areas like Hell’s Kitchen combined with a number of local incidents to cause an increase in activism against the rail line between 1906 and 1911.330 Though no reliable statistics on accidents involving pedestrians exist, the increase in the area’s population and the increased visibility of poor neighborhoods due to urban reformers brought more attention to the issue after 1900. However, it does appear that the push for city authority to force the Central Hudson Company to remove the tracks through condemnation originated in pressure brought by N.Y. State Senator Martin Saxe, a representative of the powerful Upper West Side and associate of the West End Association, which wanted the tracks adjacent to Riverside Park removed. Saxe credited the occurrence of Hell’s Kitchen fatalities with swaying his fellow senators to support his 1906 legislation, which granted the city the right to demand removal or move toward condemnation.331 According to Saxe’s account, the transportation committee of the State Assembly was in a late meeting on the very issue when word of the gruesome death of another young person crossing the tracks altered the terms of the debate. Saxe reports that on the evening the bill was debated by the Cities Committee of the N.Y. State Senate, news of the death, on 30th Street and Eleventh Avenue, swayed his fellow committee members to vote the bill to the floor, where it passed by majority vote. Saxe’s bill allowed the city to proceed with condemnation of the New York Central’s property on Eleventh Avenue if no compromise plan could be worked out.
As the city headed for a legal showdown with the rail company, a particularly gruesome “Death Avenue” incident made the headlines. On September 25, 1908, seven-year-old Seth Low Hascamp, named for a former mayor of the city, was crossing Eleventh Avenue on his way to St. Ambrose School when a freight train hit him, “tearing his small body in half.” By witness accounts, Hascamp had tried to pass over the connecting apparatus of a stopped train, followed by a group of friends. When the train started forward, the boy was thrown to the tracks and cut in two. Though it was illegal for trains to stop on Eleventh Avenue to avoid just such incidents, a coroner’s inquest exonerated the engineer and his crew and placed the blame on Hascamp’s “own negligence.” The decision by city coroner Shrady on October 25 ignited a wave of protest in Hell’s Kitchen, as groups of children paraded up Eleventh Avenue, banging makeshift drums and lighting firecrackers. They were led by Henry Shroeder, secretary of the Track Removal Association, who claimed that 198 children had been killed in a ten-year span, many in the late afternoon in winter, when visibility was difficult, and many children crossed the tracks while they were “carrying dinners to their fathers at work.”334
The organized protest continued for several days after the coroner’s decision was made public, and Shroeder and his organization vowed to continue the public demonstrations until “this dangerous hazard is finally removed.” The march appeared to be spontaneous and the cause of track removal was popular in the area. In a canny tactic, Shroeder utilized the image of the deserving poor, merely bringing dinner to hardworking fathers, in an appeal to the wider public for action. The protest action continued for several weeks, eventually drawing smaller crowds of marchers. But the incident served to bring more local residents into the fight and altered the tactics of the opposition, who changed their name from the less-threatening Track Removal Association to the “League to End Death Avenue.” Shroeder and other activists emphasized the “protection of schoolchildren” in their campaigns, although many adults were killed or injured by the trains, and made concerted efforts to involve more Hell’s Kitchen residents in the protests. “We are determined to make use of the indignation which has been aroused among the dwellers in this neighborhood to obtain removal of the deadly tracks.”335
While the battle over track removal was clearly fought at the level of economic and legal interests unconcerned with the hazards of Eleventh Avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, the dangerous conditions provided local residents with sites to perform political acts expressing their demands for improved conditions. The protests of October 1908, following the death of Seth Hascamp, provided young Hell’s Kitchen residents with an opportunity to display their genuine displeasure with existing conditions and a disciplined approach to public protest that clearly impressed news reporters attending the events. In an area where local journalists often went to great lengths to describe locals in “colorful” and often demeaning terms, the news accounts all noted the solemnity, good order, and determination of schoolchildren marching with American flags draped in mourning bunting.
327. Commerce and Industry Association, Disposal of the West Side Tracks (New York: Merchants Association of New York, 1908).
328. Much of this history of the Eleventh Avenue track is drawn from Calvin Tompkins’s report to the New York City Department of Docks and Ferries, January 26, 1911.
329. Report to the Board of Estimate and Apportion on the Removal of Eleventh Avenue Tracks, December 1910, City of New York Hall of Records.
330. Tompkins, 1911.
331. “West Side Meeting Cheers Senator Saxe,” New York Times, March 2, 1906.
332. “Long Fight Likely on Track Removal,” New York Times, March 3, 1907.
333. Mayor William J. Gaynor, Report to the New York Board of Estimate, July 1910.
334. “Children Parade against Death Avenue,” New York Times, October 25, 1908.
335. New York Times, October 29, 1908.
336. New York Times, May 11, 1911.
Joseph Varga is Assistant Professor of Labor Studies at Indiana University. A former resident of Brooklyn, and a New Jersey native, his first book, Hell’s Kitchen and the Battle for Urban Space: Class Struggle and Progressive Reform in New York City, 1894-1914, reflects his long-standing interest in working class culture and politics, and with urban space. Joe is a former Teamster truck driver and long-time labor activist. He is currently working on a second book on the geography of precarious labor in the Midwest, while also writing on and researching anti-union laws, new forms of militant activism, and on-line labor education.