Good Intentions Pave the Way to Hell’s Kitchen

In 1993, two students moved to New York City to find their fame and fortune. They ended up finding each other and falling in love. (Insert collective “awwww” here.) No, not the basis of a romance novel, just my life! Fast forward almost twenty years later: we’ve since gained a cat, a kid, a few pounds, and a mortgage in the suburbs…

But New York City will always be home.

I was in Manhattan last week for the most pleasurable part of my business: a CD Release party for moe. – gotta love when your work day begins and ends with sushi, open bar, and a night of raging rock and roll! While there, I ventured into my old hood of Hell’s Kitchen. Ah, hell. I remember it well.

During the time I lived on 47th and 9th, the area still insisted on being called the less-controversial ‘Clinton’. It has since taken pride in its older, grittier name, yet ironically it’s been scrubbed clean of some of its grubby landmarks. Most of the peep shows and XXX theaters that used to line 8th Avenue have vanished. My DH (he wasn’t a ‘dear husband’ back then, more like ‘dirty hippie’) used to joke that he would bring a pocket full of quarters while traveling cross-town to court me.

Sadly, my neighborhood coffee joint The Coffee Pot recently shuttered its doors, but its predictable predecessor Starbucks is brewing right on my old corner now. I think Bruno Ravioli, responsible for my love of pumpkin ravioli, is gone as well.

Some things have not changed a bit. Amy’s Bread is still rocking and rolling out their delicious dough. The Amish Market, where I would spend way too much on exotic pastas and ten kinds of mushrooms just ‘cuz they were there, still stands. While only three blocks from my apartment, the market instilled a rule in my head that I still follow today: buy only what you can easily carry. Shit gets heavy when you lug it three blocks down and five flights up!

Speaking of five story walk-ups, a unique part of my old neighborhood was its strict zoning laws. No buildings higher than seven stories were allowed to be built, which protected its low-rise character. And allowed the sunlight to filter through the buildings in the most glorious way. I think the zoning laws have been lifted post-9/11, but as soon as I hit my old block it still feels cozy and quaint.

Hell's Kitchen apartment

Scaffolding may come and go, but the buildings remain. My first Manhattan apartment.

I think everyone should have the chance to live in Manhattan for at least a year of their life. Preferably in their 20s, when they are young and idealistic, like I was. And hungry and energetic and egocentric! I remember the moment it really dawned on me that I actually LIVED in the greatest city in the world. I left my apartment early on Sunday morning, heading out for coffee and the New York Times and it struck me. Pure quiet. The city that never sleeps was snoozing like a baby. I was the only person on the street – and NYC was mine.

Almost twenty years later, NYC still pulls me. Although, like one of my novel’s characters once commented, New York is now like a love affair I can’t bring myself to fully commit to. I look forward to its embrace each time I visit, but I’m usually more than ready to slip out of bed and out of town soon after. Too loud, too dirty, too fast. People sitting too close on the subway. (See what the suburbs have done to this city girl?)

But I love writing New York City. I constantly find my stories gravitating toward its setting. Although I only lived there for a handful of years, it’s always in my mind’s eye. Probably because there is a story in every stone statue, each beeping horn, within the clattering subway cars and behind every tag of graffiti or shouted obscenity on the street corner. I love that I can write that the train station smells like piss and bologna without having to actually smell it. I can create train delays without having to experience the inconvenience of them. And when I find myself missing Central Park, I love that I can create Central Park on the page for my characters to frolick in. Or to fight in. Or to fall in love in.

I have a feeling I will end up living back in Manhattan one day. My husband faithfully buys lottery tickets and talks about a pied-à-terre, but I can’t quite invest my dollars or dreams in that direction quite yet. I do see my daughter living there someday. She was born there, and three generations of her family got their start or made their living in the entertainment business there. So perhaps she will move there to find her fame and fortune too…


10 thoughts on “Good Intentions Pave the Way to Hell’s Kitchen

  1. Alison Stone says:

    After reading this, I want to move to NYC! My brother left WNY to go to college in NYC. Twenty years later, he calls NYC home. It has a certain allure, it seems.

  2. Sadly, I’ve only been once and I will not tell you how close I used to live to Manhattan. It’s embarrassing how close I lived and didn’t visit once while I lived there. But I blame that on the women I worked with…they had this 20-year old so paranoid to visit the city for fear of being mugged. But I am completely intrigued with NYC and need to get there one day soon. I know I will love it. It’s been the setting for my two full-length books and in one of my novellas, she takes a trip there and eventually moves there.

    Wasn’t there a song that talked about living in NY but leaving before you get hard, and living in LA but leaving before you get soft??? I’d love to move and live other places, but with the kids, can’t do it. When they are grown though, we will be traveling all over the country…stay somewhere for a month..then go somewhere else! LOL!

    • jesstopper says:

      The fact that you can write it convincingly, without really having spent much time there, is a sign of a good writer, Stephanie! 🙂 Can’t wait to here where you lived (you don’t have to share such secrets here, but maybe next time I see you)… It’s not uncommon – I met people at my first job on Staten Island who hadn’t left the borough in 20 years!

      • Thank you. Someone else once told me that and it really made me happy that I could write it, and make it believable, without having experienced it. Or only experiencing it once as I drove through on a large bus. LOL!

        I used to live in Middletown, which I’m told is like an hour outside the city. 🙂 My husband (fiance at the time) was working at Sing Sing so when I graduated from college I moved down there to be with him. Was only there for like 8 months. I hated Middletown though. So boring. I actually came home a couple months before he transferred home..I couldn’t take it anymore! It didn’t help that we were living with my mom and step dad at the time, and they annoyed the crap out of me! LOL!

  3. Pat Hatt says:

    I have never even crossed the border, but you surely make me want to go for a visit.

  4. What a great post, Jess. I’ve only been to NYC for RWA conferences. Your post makes me want to live there for a while, get to know the neighborhood, take advantage of all the theaters and restaurants. Thanks for giving us a peek at your NYC.

  5. jadejourdan says:

    i lived there for a couple of years. i loved it…still do love it. wish i could get back there more often.

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