Hollywood screenwriter Bobby Moresco spoke in Dickensian terms about growing up Irish in Hell’s Kitchen back in the mob-ruled pre-condo era. “For me, it was the greatest life on the face of the earth,” he told The Observer. “It turned into the worst life on the face of the earth.”
Mr. Moresco’s wonderfully tragic young life in Hell’s Kitchen inspired him to produce The Black Donnellys, a TV drama created alongside longtime partner-in-crime Paul Haggis—the same scriptwriting duo who conspired to steal last year’s Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay with Crash.
“We took experiences and people and things that I went through growing up in Hell’s Kitchen and then turned it inside out and created a fictional world,” Mr. Moresco said of the story of four brothers—operators of a local dive bar—who become entangled in a bloody turf war between rival Irish and Italian gang-bangers.
The now 54-year-old scribe, himself one of six brothers, formerly slung suds at several Hell’s Kitchen watering holes, including the long-gone White House Bar, onetime hangout of the notorious Westies gang.
Viewers, however, didn’t quite relate to Mr. Moresco’s homage to the old pre-gentrified, mob-controlled, rough-and-tumble neighborhood where, apparently, no one ever uttered the F-word.
NBC canceled the series last week. In its place, the network will unveil a new reality show: The Real Wedding Crashers.
What about The Real Hell’s Kitchen? Would a present-day post-gentrified setting better resonate?
MEET TONEY EDWARDS: A NICE GUY with a big smile and a Texas accent, who’s owned the little French bistro on West 43rd Street since back in the day when breakfast sold at about the same rate as sexual favors around the corner. “Sex always wins out over breakfast,” Mr. Edwards once told The Observer. “So I ceased doing breakfast.”
Mr. Edwards is presently a contestant in a real-life modern-day Hell’s Kitchen turf war that we’ll call The Eviction.
Evil landlord Mark Scharfman is plotting to tear down Mr. Edwards’ beloved restaurant and build a bigger building with apartments and new retail. Maybe Duane Reade!
See Mr. Edwards sue! See Mr. Edwards call the media! See Mr. Edwards serve duck confit in the face of impending doom!
“UNBELIEVABLE," MR. MORESCO SAID about the way that Hell’s Kitchen—or, er, Clinton, to invoke the toned-down realtor term—has changed since the days when he and other local kids played ball in the street: “We used to shut down 10th Avenue between 50th and 52nd Street. We put garbage cans across 50th Street, garbage cans across 52nd, and all traffic was diverted. And on Sunday afternoon, it was stickball for the neighborhood.”
Nowadays, those trash bins and stickballers would be tragically mowed down amid the constant onslaught of taxicabs and tourist buses. Maybe not on 10th Avenue, specifically, but perhaps over on Ninth.
“Five hundred pedestrians were injured on Ninth Avenue in the last five years,” reported neighborhood anti-traffic activist Christine Berthet. A recent Internet (and by no means scientific) survey by her group, the Clinton–Hell’s Kitchen Pedestrian Safety Coalition, found more local respondents who were afraid of getting hit by a car than getting mugged or murdered.
How’s that for the negative effects of gentrification?
This high-traffic neighborhood would be an ideal setting for some twisted reality show blending the concept of TV’s Survivor with the old Atari video game Frogger. But a crime drama? Not so much.
Since 1990, the numbers of assaults, murders, robberies, burglaries and grand larcenies have dropped by huge percentages in all three police precincts that cover Hell’s Kitchen’s roughly defined boundaries: west of Eighth Avenue, north of 34th Street, south of 59th Street, and westward to the docks along the Hudson River.
Homicides appear in the single digits annually on each precinct’s statistics sheet—a far cry from the weekly slaughters that occur in Mr. Moresco’s flickering, fictional realm.
Meanwhile, the historically working-class neighborhood is becoming increasingly more affluent. Census figures show that between 1990 and 2000, the average household income nearly doubled, to $72,109—a statistic destined to spike again, given the recent boom in area luxury-housing development.
West 54th Street landmark the Hit Factory—which, prior to closing in 2005, famously catered to the recording needs of such hallowed musicians as John Lennon, Stevie Wonder, and the Notorious B.I.G.—will reopen this June as a high-end condo building, with available units priced from $1,255,000 to $4,250,000.
A tiny 444-square-foot studio apartment in the newly constructed Archstone Clinton building on West 52nd Street can be leased for a stiff $2,660 per month. The luxury of having an actual bedroom in the building will set you back a minimum of $3,260 per month.
AT STREET LEVEL, A TRENDY UPSCALE eateries are proliferating, running the culinary gamut from Thai and French fare to Thai-French fusion.
At the chic American bistro Eatery NYC, located at the corner of Ninth Avenue and 53rd Street, twenty- to thirtysomethings in skinny jeans quaff Bacardi Gold mojitos and martinis made with freshly muddled watermelon.
It’s a picturesque location for scenes from some slick MTV-style docudrama probing the glamorous social lives of young, hip Manhattanites, but not in the least bit indicative of the gangland of yore.
To find a decently grungy Irish bar these days, Mr. Moresco’s Black Donnellys crew had to schlep out to Long Island City.
“All the old places are gone: the Market Diner, the White House Bar, Eddie’s Bar, the 596 Club—they’re all gone,” he said. “There’s a place called Coppersmith’s that still has the feel of the old neighborhood, but not quite as much as it should. The actual bar that we used is [in Long Island City.]”
In fact, to properly resurrect the anciently seedy Hell’s Kitchen vibe, Mr. Moresco & Co. had to get the hell out of the old ’hood altogether.
“Over by East Harlem—Pleasant Avenue, 115th, 116th, much of 117th—looks a lot like where I grew up,” he said. “Hell’s Kitchen, even though the architecture’s the same, the people are all different and the signs are different. You can’t shoot on a street that’s not internationally designated in terms of signs.”
“PROHIBIDO EL PASO” said one sign on Mr. Moresco’s old 51st Street block, during a recent stroll through the neighborhood. Next-door to the Sacred Heart School across the street stood Azuri Cafe, a kebab and falafel joint. Fliers posted all along Ninth and 10th avenues announced the neighborhood’s forthcoming two-day international food festival in May.
So much for the old Irish enclave.
“There is definitely a movie to be made in Hell’s Kitchen today,” said Mr. Moresco. “And it would be about immigrants. It would be about people thrown into the mix. It would be a microcosm about what the world is dealing with today. There would be Iraqis, there would be Iranians, there would be Pakistanis, there would be Yugoslavs, there would be Russians, there would be Irish, there would be Italians. And they’d all be thrown into the mix and say, ‘O.K., now that you have to live together in this small neighborhood, what the hell are you gonna do about it? Because you can’t kill each other forever.’”
Wait. People from different backgrounds. Cultures colliding. Isn’t that basically the same storyline as Crash?
Consider Real World: Hell’s Kitchen. Eight strangers, representing eight nationalities, selected to share a small apartment in the Archstone Clinton building. What happens when people stop being nice and start paying rent?