03.11.09HISTORY OF HK & HALL OF GOOD NEIGHBORS
HISTORY OF WEST 44th STREET & HELL’S KITCHEN
According to a local Hell’s Kitchen historian, Joe Zito, the midtown area that encompasses West 44th Street was developed sometime in the mid 1800’s. Many of the tenement buildings were constructed to house the families of workers that were employed in the downtown Manhattan area at the southernmost tip of the island. Because travel was so slow to get downtown by horse and carriage on dirt paths, and the working hours were extremely long, many of the fathers would go downtown to work and stay all week in company provided bunks. They would come home to their families in Midtown for the weekends, according to Joe.
In the mid to late 1800’s, the invention of the steam locomotive train was the advent to ‘daily commuting’ as the train tracks were laid in the middle of the New York Avenues. As pedestrians, cars, horses and carriages competed for space with the trains on the streets, many of the trains were ultimately built on elevated tracks, above the local traffic. As the trains were transitioned from steam to electric motors, the tracks were ultimately moved underground in the late 1800’s, which was the creation of the first NY ‘subway’. To this day many of the subway routes are in the same exact location as the original steam locomotives that ran in the 1800’s.
As the city was developed over the past two centuries, West 44th Street became a mixture of commercial space in the core of Manhattan to residential space past 8th Avenue to ultimately manufacturing and shipping space on the far Westside. Most of the historic buildings that still exist in this area were built between1850 and 1870.
During the Civil War (in approximately 1860), the City of New York recognized the dire shortage of physicians in the city. To solve this problem, the buildings from 438 through 458 West 44th Street were constructed by the city and designated as ‘Doctor’s Row’. The city recruited doctors from Ireland and gave them use of these homes for their families and their doctor’s practices. The doctor’s offices were on the ground floor and the residence of the families was located above in the upper 3 floors. Generation after generation of doctors passed their knowledge and right to residence in these homes on to their children.
Ultimately the buildings were transferred to the doctor’s families that resided in them and for many decades thousands upon thousands of New Yorkers were treated by these doctors over the years. Incredibly, doctor’s kept active practices in many of these homes from inception (1860) all the way through until the last doctor closed his practice and sold his home in 2000. That was an amazing span of 140 years. The last practicing doctor was Dr. Bertero at 438 West 44th Street. (Please see the write-up on Dr. Bertero below in our ‘Hall of Good Neighbors’.)
The buildings have outlasted the practices and many still have original features. In fact in 442, one of the original wood burning stoves remains intact with a badge that says “Patented 1852". (Each floor of the brownstone typically had two wood burning stoves). As these homes were built by the city with budgets in mind, the city did not put separate walls on each home. Instead, they built ‘party walls’, meaning one wall shared by both homes. This is common on many of these residences. So if ever one of these historic homes is razed (we hope not for many more centuries to come) the party walls must remain intact so that the neighboring building will still stand. These homes were built on the infamous Manhattan Schist that is the bedrock. When the foundations were laid, it was done by blasting out the schist and then using the broken pieces of schist to form the foundation walls of the cellars.
Pier 84 at the end of West 44th Street was an immigration entry point in the late 1800’s through the early 1900’s for the more affluent immigrants from Europe. All of the other immigrants were processed through Ellis Island. Around this time, the Broadway theaters evolved from vaudeville entertainment centers and remain one of the main industries in the city. With the long coexistence of West 44th Street and Broadway, a very long theatrical history exists for the block.
The Westies, A Short History
(Source for much of this recap is ‘The Westies, Inside New York's Irish Mob’, by T. J. English)
During and after WWII, the West Side of New York was in an ideal position to reap the benefits of booming dockside commerce. The local 824 of the International Longshoremen’s Association became a hotbed of corruption for the local Irish Mob. The foreman picked crews, and he would get kick backs for favorable schedules. The kickbacks could total 10 to 20 percent of a week’s wages. In order to be able to afford such a kickback, many workers were forced to turn to loansharks, who were always ready to loan money at usurious rates.
Enter the Irish Mob, known as The Westies, who controlled Hell’s Kitchen through loansharking, number running, murdering competitors, shaking down the construction company that built the Jacob Javits Covention Center and arranging for “no show jobs at the Intrepid Museum, among other things.
The names of Jimmy Coonan, Eddie Sullivan, Mickey Spillane, Tommy Ryan and Mickey (Francis) Featherstone to name a few, are all fine Irish names of those that lived and some died in Hell’s Kitchen in the mid 1960’s to late 1989.
These men controlled many of the bars that dot 9th and 10th Avenues. What is now Mr. Biggs was the 596 Club at 43rd and 10th. The Pony Bar at 45th and 10th was known as The White House Bar. The Market Dinner at 45th and 11th was a frequent dining spot. Close to Mickey Featherstone’s childhood home at 501 ½ West 43rd Street.
Jimmy Coonan and Mickey Featherstone dabbled briefly in laundering counterfeit money and dealing cocaine with Carl Castellano of the Gambino crime family. That went sour when “La Familia" murdered one of the Westies, forcing them to kill Rickey Tassiello to make an example of him. The Westies were spinning out of control.
What ultimately brought the Westies down was the slow gentrification of Hell’s Kitchen. With the opening of Manhattan Plaza, tenements being torn down, or being renovated, the old neighborhood was changing. The Westies weren’t. Their history of their past crimes came to the attention of the FBI. After a series of stings and wire tapings, the FBI enforced the RICO laws against the Mob.
Featherstone, having spent several stints in prison was offered a deal. He was not getting any younger and he decided to turn states evidence and “ratted" on his old gang. After spending six uncomfortable weeks on the stand; and sending most of the Westies up the river, Featherstone is now in an undisclosed location with his wife and children under the Witness Protection Program.
If you wish to know more about The WESTIES, By T.J. English, read the whole book. It’s a fascinating read for anyone who lives in the “hood."
The Great White Way
As mentioned earlier, the Vaudeville Houses of the late 1800’s evolved into what we now know as modern theater. The Broadway Theater was the rage throughout the first half of the 1900’s but as New York City became crime ridden and more dangerous in the 1960’s and eventually evolved into bankruptcy in the 1970’s, many theaters were converted to pornographic theater space and surrounded by ‘strip clubs’.
But the seeds of revitalization were also planted in the 1960’s with the New Dramatists making their home at the Lutheran Church at 424 West 44th Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues. Legend has it that June Havoc, a resident of West 44th Street introduced the august organization to the real estate transaction when they bought the church that put its property up for sale. The Actors Studio ultimately followed by purchasing the Second Presbyterian Church on the same block. Theater Row at 424 West 42nd Street was taken from a house of prostitution and established as a house for non-profit theater companies. Manhattan Plaza was built as affordable housing and rented only to artists under the HUD Program Section 8 Housing.
In the 1970’s, the community that lived and worked in Hell’s Kitchen also cried out for help and formed block associations as the first grass root organizations to clean up the neighborhood of crime and crumbling buildings. (See the section below for the history of the block association)
In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, a slow but steady revitalization occurred for the theater industry. The most significant spark of what we now know to be today’s very vibrant and hot theater industry came in 1995 when Disney announced they were buying the New Amsterdam Theater.
With corporate capital flowing into the community, the residents launched programs to clean up the neighborhood, such as RASP, Residents against Street Prostitution and other neighborhood organizations. The local block associations banded together and fought for more resources from the city such as police coverage, sanitation and infrastructure. The battle for resources was successful and a massive transformation of being a community where people once said ‘never go west of 8th Avenue’ to now being a strong point of attraction to thousands for the City of New York.
Since then the community has exploded as a nightlife destination of theaters, restaurants and bars. It has been catapulted even higher with the massive attraction of tourists from all parts of the world. And now we have the fortune of living in the ‘Crossroads of the World’.
HISTORY OF THE WEST 44th STREET BETTER BLOCK ASSOCIATION
With the decrepit condition of the New York communities in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, the residents, frustrated with living in crime ridden conditions, formed organizations to fight back and reclaim their neighborhoods. The City of New York sanctioned the first block associations in the early 1970’s. This is the beginning of our history as an activist community organization.
The West 44th Street Better Block Association was formed in approximately 1973 and is one of the first block associations ever formed in the city. The ‘territory’ covered by the association reaches along West 44th Street from 8th Avenue all the way out past ‘12th’ Avenue (Westside Highway) and into the Hudson River with Pier 84.
Partnering with New Dramatists in the early 1970’s, the alliance with the august playwright’s organization on the street, proved fruitful as it gave the Block Association a home. From 1973 through current day the Block Association holds their monthly meetings and annual holiday party in the New Dramatists. To the left of the front door of the New Dramatists you will find a plaque that commemorates our alliance with their organization, as well as our success in installing the “Bishops Crook Street Lamps" These are modern replicas of the historic street lamps that were originally placed in our community in the 1800’s. You can find these replicas on the West 44th Street block between 9th and 10th Avenues.
The block associations became the grass roots of politics for many communities and soon the need for a more ‘official’ organization to coordinate and liaise with NYC government evolved. The birth of the Community Boards came to fruition with an all volunteer board of 50 residents and business owners now comprising them. Our Block Association resides within Community Board 4. The CB’s, as they are called, are the responsibility of the Borough Presidents. They provide the initial input from the community in a more ‘official’ manner on items from Land Use to Parks & Recreation to Business Licenses (Liquor and Sidewalk Café) to Quality of Life as well as Historical Preservation.
The Hell’s Kitchen block associations are well known to be highly motivated and effective and extremely active. That is why to this day, our meetings are regularly visited by City Council members, Borough Presidents and State Senators.
In 1995, Mayor Giuliani wanted to take over Pier 84 as city property and park an aircraft carrier next to it that would serve as a giant heliport for the city. Knowing what life would be like with the constant sounds of helicopters hovering over us, the West 44th Street Better Block Association mounted a campaign to fight the ‘Guadalcanal’ (the aircraft carrier that was intended to be parked there). Ultimately, ‘Friends of Pier 84’ was launched from our Block Association. After several years of fighting the placement of a heliport in our back yard, success was won as Mayor Giuliani’s efforts failed. But the community and FOP84 battled on and got Pier 84 dedicated as permanent park land so it can never be confiscated in the future without major effort. Additionally, this organization sparked the effort to successfully develop the Westside waterfront with Hudson River Park. HRP reaches from Battery Park City all the way up to West 72nd Street along the Hudson and is a thriving tourist and resident attraction for recreation and sightseeing. As many of the piers were owned by a variety of entities, such as NYC, NY State and private companies, HRP was no easy task to coordinate and build. All of the pier ownerships were transferred into a trust called Hudson River Park Trust.
To think, much of this came as a result of our little Block Association fighting a mighty US aircraft carrier. With the battle won, today the FOP84 organization has been rolled back into West 44th Street Better Block Association and many community functions on Pier 84 are put together by the hardworking volunteers on our board. You can enjoy Pet Parade or the Autumnal Equinox Festival on Pier 84 thanks to the hard work of our volunteers and an organization that emulates FOP84 called FOHRP or Friends of Hudson River Park.
HALL OF GOOD NEIGHBORS
The following residents of West 44th Street have all had a lasting impact on this block and the Hell’s Kitchen community or society at large. These are all people that have lived on the block for a long period of time and either passed on or moved away (still living).
Once a year, the board of the West 44th Street Better Block Association takes nominations for new entrants. The board discusses the names put forth and votes on their addition to this very historic and powerful list. We do this to preserve a bit of history and to give a flavor of what the community was like in the past. We hope you’ll find this list and the stories as fascinating as we do.
Following each person’s name, you will find a short story and description of each resident’s significance. The information was compiled from various sources and long time residents. While we cannot guarantee all of the write-ups are 100% accurate, we share these knowing that it is as accurate as it can be, to the best of our knowledge. Again, much of the description is hearsay and cannot be held as fully factual. It's merely an attempt to preserve the rich culture of this block.
We give great honor to the following people that once resided on West 44th Street:
Bret Adams and his partner Dr. Paul Reisch moved to the block around 1982. They purchased 448, a rooming house. This elegant looking brownstone soon housed Bret Adams LTD.
It also became their home. Bret Adams, a talent and literary agent for over 50 years, started his agency in 1970. He handled all areas of show business – theater, film, television and he worked with actors, writers, directors, and composers. In the early 1950’s he represented Tippi Hedren and Ellen Burstyn at the start of their careers.
Over the years his client list included Sherman Helmsley, Valerine Perrine, George Peppard, Eve Arden, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Jane Wyman and Kathy Bates.
Tall, upbeat, affable, a special friend and major supporter of the block association Bret enjoyed brisk walks in Hell’s Kitchen with Dr. Reisch and his beloved golden retriever Ollie. He died in 2006 at 76.
Dr. Norman Applezweig
Dr. Applezweig was one of the inventors of steroids in the 1950’s. His success evolved into a company he formed called Progenics, Inc. In 1960, Dr. Applezweig bought 442 West 44th Street, right in the middle of Doctor’s Row. In this humble brownstone, he put a laboratory along with his study, office space and a medical library on the first two floors. The residence was located above the business on the top two floors. At the height of the company, as many as 17 employees worked in this space. Dr. Applezweig died in the early 1990’s. His 5th and final wife, Lenore, survived him. Lenore resided in the home until she sold it in 1995 and was an active member of the West 44th Street Better Block Association.
Italian towns have piazzas. Small town America has a barbershop or coffee house – a place where neighbors chat and hang out. Years ago 44th Street had Sam’s candy store. Sam was a nice man but once you finished your cherry coke or egg cream he expected you to vacate your stool at his counter. Besides the candy store was a kid’s hangout.
For three decades, beginning 1968 Rudy Barth and his R & L Espresso Machine Shop, at 402, was the heart and soul of the West of the block. It is hard to imagine a busy shop consisting of two small stores cluttered with espresso machines, scores of tools, hundreds of parts, a couple of technicians, Carlos and Luis, plus Rudy and his wife Lena, and friends like Ana Freiberg and Eliot Traica, and his self-taught expertise repairing and selling machines, would become that kind of place.
Why did this did happen? Was it due to its proximity to Ninth Avenue or because of its location on the shady side of the bock? No it was the magnitude of Rudy Barth’s generous, and good-natured personality- never mind the delicious platters of lasagna he prepared for the annual holiday party. He enjoyed people. He was gracious, gentle and he welcomed all to his store. That’s why so many people hung inside or outside his store over the years.
Before moving into the espresso business Rudy had a fine jewelry and watch shop at the corner of 43rd and Ninth. Fortunately for us that building was torn down. Our block gained from 43rd street’s loss. Rudy lived in 402. He died in 1998. He was 86. Two years later Lena and his grand-son-in-law moved the business to 51St.
Dr. George Bertero
Dr. Bertero was the last doctor to have an active practice on Doctors Row at 438 West 44th Street. George is quite the character as he firmly believed in small government that does not interfere in peoples’ lives. Sources on the block advise that Dr. Bertero treated many of the Westies for gunshot wounds in the day of their existence.
Upon moving out of his home and practice in 2000, it is told that George showed a neighbor the cellar where a gun boring tool was used to drill out the barrel so that ballistics could not trace any bullets to the gun. Dr. Bertero never advised if he ever used the device for himself, just that it existed in his home.
Upon retiring and selling his residence and place of practice in 2000, Dr. Bertero moved to Switzerland to live with his long time girlfriend.
A longtime resident of Hell’s Kitchen and president of the West 45th Block Association Kevin’s move to 437 proved a godsend for 44th Street. In the year prior to his arrival the block held meetings sporadically and skipped its annual garage sale.
Kevin, an actor earlier in life, had appeared in several Off-Broadway productions. He was a lifetime member of Equity. He also worked at the NYC Board of Elections for 20 years. Upon his arrival here Kevin got involved immediately and almost single-handedly revived the block association and the garage sale. He also served on Community Board 4 and Friends of Pier 84. Under his direction the block developed an active voice in Hell’s Kitchen’s fight against quality of life issues.
As president of the Secular Franciscans religious order, his volunteer efforts focused on peace, justice and humanity and his goodwill stretched far beyond 44th & Hell’s Kitchen. He died in 2000. He was 67.
Ana’s believed in helping others. Although she regularly attended the Spanish Mass at Holy Cross, Anna’s personal and private mission was offering the gift of her friendship to neighbors and to many who only knew her in passing. Her acts of kindness transcended her faith for Ana was born this way.
Many times she would send over fruits or bananas or juice to apartment bound neighbors. Ana “banana" she was called in a playful way by a few friends had other special qualities. She never had a “bad" day. If she did she never let on because the Ana we all knew and loved always radiated joy – was always smiling, always laughing - as she sat of her favorite stoop, the side steps of the New Dramatist, with Francis Vavosa. Ana lived at 415 and she died in 2008. She was 71.
Russ, as everyone on block called him, lived on 43rd Street for many years where he was a superintendent before moving to 451 and assuming a similar role.
Although sometimes grumpy and rarely smiling, Russ, a stoop sitter, his favorites were his own 444, 460 and 435, always said “hello" whether you were on his side of the street or the opposite. He always made room for neighbors to sit and chat with him. And when you did, you discovered a good-natured man who was funny and who did indeed smile.
Sturdy, reliable and trustworthy Russ maintained several other buildings on the block besides 451. Every year Russ assisted with the association with marking the street for the annual garage sale. And every year Russ earned more many money than anyone else or he ranked very near the top of all neighbors selling at the garage sale. He was the only some granted the water concession; and he sold hundreds of bottles every year. Often he did so well he closed his table a couple of hours before the event ended. In later years he expanded into used furniture and forever the talker with a knack to sell, he sold everything he carted out from his basement.
Russ died on the block when he fell from the steps of his building of an apparent heart attack in 2007. He was in his late 60’s.
Dr. Charles and Michela Catalano
Charles came from a family of doctors. His father and his uncle, Dr. Nicholas Biondi, were beloved family doctors who lived and served Hell’s Kitchen. They had their practices at 430.
Major Charles Catalano was the Chairman of the Department of Astronomy at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He was also the director of the school’s Observatory. His mentor was one of America’s greatest space scientists Dr. James Van Allen, who discovered radiation belts encircling the earth. Charles grew up at 444. The building is still owned by his sister Dr. Michaela Catalano.
He died in 1981, killed by an estranged husband of the woman he was dating. Charlie was 38.
It seemed as if Norma knew everyone or knew something about everyone or almost everyone. Norma was not a busy body but because she was so darn friendly and outgoing, neighbors and those who just moved to the block gravitated to her and shared their life stories with her.
Norma, who lived in 414, became the block association’s invaluable resource. Since she knew a lot of people she always promoted the block association. She enticed, coerced and did whatever she had to do to bring new members to our monthly meetings.
She was a natural at our annual holiday party. One year when two or three local restaurants each refused to donate a platter of food Norma in her very sweet but firm way said, “We’ll see about that." Not only did those restaurants donate food but they delivered the platters as well. As active as Norma was it was hard to imagine she had a history of illness. In the late nineties Norma was hospitalized and went into a nursing home from where she was went back home to Pennsylvania to live with family.
Michael V. Gazzo
The man with the gravelly voice, bushy white mustache wore many hats during his career as a playwright, actor, screenwriter, teacher and the father of three children who grew up at 447. He mentored young acting protégés on the steps of his stoop or the Actor’s Studio during breaks from studio sessions.
While still living on the block Mike received a best supporting Oscar nomination for his role as Frankie Pentangelli in The Godfather Part II in 1974. Other movie roles included Fingers, Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight and Cannonball Run II. In the late seventies he and his family moved to Los Angeles. He appeared in many popular television shows such as Barnaby Jones and LA Law.
Developed and nurtured at the Actor’s Studio his play, A Hatful of Rain, starring Shelley Winters and Ben Gazzara (Tony nomination best actor), opened on Broadway in 1955. It broke new grounds with its horrifying depiction of drug addiction and drug selling. In 1957 the film version hit the screen and Anthony Franciosa received a best supporting actor nomination. Gazzo died in 1995 at 71.
June Havoc, ‘Hungry Lucy’ and 428 West 44th Street
New York City has many haunted places, and we are lucky (?) to have one famous site right here on the block. 428 West 44th was the home of noted actress June Havoc. Born in British Columbia, in 1912, she emigrated to the US, and starred in such shows as Forbidden Melody, and Pal Joey, and had an active career in movies and television. Her mother, Rose, was the inspiration for one of Broadway’s most honored musicals, Gypsy. June was originally unhappy at the way that she, June, was portrayed in the show, but agreed to not protest for the sake of her famous sister, the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. In the 1960’s, she lived on our block, between new Dramatists and the Actor’s Studio. She died in 2010, in Stamford, CT.
The site of 428 was originally a Potters Field, where the indigent poor of the city were buried. So it is ripe for haunting... You can often see tour groups on the street looking at the house as the guide weaves the tale.
Excerpted from mysterymag.com
Over dinner one night in the mid-1960s, Broadway star June Havoc turned to fellow actress Helen Hayes and explained why she had been looking so tired lately.
“I was complaining about a headache I had because of a lack of sleep — I was hearing noises at 3 or 4 in the morning near my bed every single night," says Havoc, who at the time lived in a Victorian-stye townhouse at 428 W. 44th St.
“Someone suggested it might be a ghost, and within 24 hours Hanz Holzer and Sybil Leek appeared at my house."
Holzer is a well-known, self-proclaimed “ghost chaser" who has written dozens of books on the paranormal; Leek was a British psychic whom Holzer often used to conduct seances.
That night, says Havoc, as a film crew borrowed from her TV talk show taped the proceedings, Leek went into a hypnotic trance and contacted the spirit of a young woman who has since been nicknamed “Hungry Lucy" in ghost lore.
Speaking in an Olde English voice, Leek channeled a young woman named Lucy Ryan who died in 1792 in a field where Havoc’s house was later built.
“She was a teenager waiting in this field for her lover," says Havoc. “But she was set upon by drunken soldiers. She was raped and couldn’t walk from her bruises, and she died there."
The spirit of “Lucy," who complained constantly of being hungry, was finally released from her earthly bounds after several more sessions with Holzer and Leek. “Our little seance made her free to go wherever it is you go," says Havoc of the ghost.
Or so she thought. After three nights of blissful sleep, Havoc was again awakened in the middle of a night. But instead of incessant banging and tapping, “there was this hideous screaming, and this time it sounded like it was coming from within a box directly over me," says Havoc.
She immediately called Holzer, who instructed her to be harsh with the spirit. “He told me to tell [Lucy] to ‘Go back!’" says Havoc. “But it came back the next night, too."
Eventually, says Havoc, Lucy’s presence faded away. Yet Havoc, who moved to Connecticut a few years later, surprisingly won’t accept the notion that her experience was otherworldly.
“I am still the stoutest nonbeliever," says Havoc, laughing. “Something had to be doing this, but I didn’t see anything."
Gary Miller/Michael Dunn
Children stopped playing and flocked to him whenever they saw him emerging from 414, where he lived, or ran to the corner to greet and walk with him up from Ninth Avenue.
Although a large part of his appeal had to with his height, 3’10" Gary embraced children. He joked with them. He made them laugh. To the children and mothers of 44th Street – for whom, on occasions he would stop and chat with and with his beautiful voice sing an Italian aria or two as they sat on the steps of the Actor Studio - he was Gary, but to the rest of the world he was Michael Dunn acclaimed actor.
Though small in stature he had enormous talent that enabled him to move past stereotypical parts limited to people of his size. Gary landed major parts in television, movies and theater. Best known for his role as Dr. Miguelito Loveless in TV’s popular Wild West, Gary was nominated for a Tony Award for The Ballad of the Sad Café with Colleen Dewhurst, for which he received a NY critics’ Circle Award. He received a Laurel Award and nominated as the best supporting actor in the 1965 film Ship of Fools. Gary died in London in 1973. He was 38.
Marguerite’s story is one of the most interesting of any who lived on 44th Street. A native of Grenoble France, Marguerite’s never knew her father. He died in WW1 in France when she was an infant. Marguerite arrived in NYC in 1937 months before her nineteenth birthday. She joined her mother, a nurse, who lived on 47th Street. When she settled here the FBI followed her for weeks. They considered here a spy since she came from a war zone and tracked her whereabouts daily – which consisted of school, work, church, visiting friends and home.
During WWII she suffered two losses – her fiancé was killed in battle and a neighbor died at Pearl Harbor. Before leaving for the Pacific, her neighbor asked Marguerite to take care of his white Pekingese, named Murphy. And so began Marguerite’s love affair with white Pekingese dogs (and the New York Mets) – eight in total - over the course of almost 65 years.
In 1978 Marguerite, her mother and Murphy #6 moved to 451. Marguerite, a dressmaker, worked for Faye Hall, a high society bespoke dress shop located on East 52nd for 25 years. She made clothes for Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman and Mrs. Douglas MacArthur among other celebrities. In 1960 a serious car accident – a driver trying to elude a police car jumped the sidewalk - left her in a body cast for six months. The car killed Murphy #4 and three children and mowed down five other people. This ended her dressmaking career. But it did not dampen her spirit. She spent the next the 41 years helping friends. She shopped for apartment bound neighbors and volunteered at the DeWitt Nursing Home where she moved to in 2008 after breaking her hip.
Her courage and perseverance is astounding. A few years back at 89 years old, legally blind, her body riddled with rheumatoid arthritis she still carried Murphy #8, the last one, up and down four flights of stairs, three times a day. Marguerite till asks about her puppy “friends" on the block.
Guido lived in Greenwich Village with his wife Anna and their four children but home was 44th street where he worked long hours seven days a week. Besides the first steps he took when arriving in this country were on 44th Street & 12th Avenue for Guido landed by ship on Pier 84.
A native of Naples, Italy, Guido rented an old shoe repair shop on the SW corner of 44 and opened Mama Mia restaurant in 1971, when Ninth Avenue in the forties, had no eateries, a lot of prostitutes, drugs and muggings. Very few people ventured west of Eighth Avenue after dark in those days. But Guido with his strong work ethic and desire to fulfill his America dream for his family was not discouraged. Next he converted the dress shop next door to Mama Mia into a pizzeria. His business grew. He developed a loyal following and expanded. He merged both places into one tastefully designed place, and thus created Southwest 44, a warm, cozy and delightful Italian family style restaurant and Martini Bar. Today it continues to thrive with Anna and three of his children at the helm.
We remember Guido, a supporter of the block association from its infancy as a fine chef and pizza maker, urban pioneer, and special and gentle-hearted “paisan" respected by all who knew him. He died in 2006, at 76.
Mike grew up on Ninth Avenue back in the day of the Ninth Avenue EL and Paddy’s Market. Mike lived at 414 since the early 1950’s.
After his retirement, in a good sense, Mike became the unofficial concierge of 414. He held packages for neighbors who were out of town and always dropped off mail misdirected by the postal person to the tenant’s door. Mike was well by his neighbors. Active on block affairs he assisted with the marking of the street for the garage sale and helped set-up for the annual holiday party, back when we only three or four people showed up.
Best friends with Tom Shea he enjoyed sitting on the stoops of the New Dramatist’s and 435 and was forever a “watchful" eye for the block association. He died in 2002 at 83.
Some blocks have mayors but fortunately 44th street had Tom Shea, the rock, the foundation for what this block is all about – a village in the heart of midtown. He embraced and welcomed all – whether one had lived on the block fifty years or just moved in the day before - with his caring and friendly manner, and his willingness to get involved hands-on with all block events. A lifelong walker he trekked 3-4-5 miles every Saturday & Sunday into his early 80’s.
A son of Hell’s Kitchen and the longest active member of the block association, Tom, a WWII Navy veteran took part in the first wave of the Battle of Okinawa – the largest amphibious assault in the Pacific and one of the war’s toughest battles. Tom had great love for his family, Holy Cross Church, his Irish heritage and his Hell’s Kitchen. A news story once quoted Tom as saying, “I was born in the kitchen. I am going to die in the kitchen." He did on January 1, 2012, one month shy of his 89th birthday.
Hard to imagine someone nicer and friendlier than Tom, but his younger brother Pat, edges Tom by a stoop step. Patrick was the neighborhood banker. He worked for Franklin Savings, the neighborhood bank, and after several mergers and name changes is now HSBC.
Pat was a manager at its main branch, the neoclassical palatial monument on 42nd & Eighth, demolished in 1975. Pat, who lived with brothers Robert and Tom at 437, enjoyed chatting with his friends on his favorite stoop at 440. A man with a gracious heart he assisted neighbors with their taxes and expenses. He died in 1990. He was 66.
John Nelson Williams
Two Sticks, A String and Four Neighbors
By Renee Stanely and Ashley
Plant a seed and if you are lucky to hang around for a century you may find yourself with a 75-foot-tall evergreen or maybe even a 300-foot-tall sequoia in your backyard.
Fortunately, the West 44th Street Better Block Association did not have to wait 100 years or even fifty to see their efforts pay off. They had results in their very first year just in time to host their 10th Annual Garage Sale. Even then it was Hell’s Kitchen’s most popular and largest event after the Ninth Avenue Food Festival.
The good people who volunteered their time back then certainly did not physically plant any seeds. What they did was roll up their sleeves and worked together as a team. Their goal: make their patch of midtown Manhattan a better place to live. They were visionaries and they laid the foundation for future garage sales and made things a bit easier. This consisted of two sawed off broom handles, an eight foot soiled string, plenty of chalk, and four neighbors.
Without the sticks and strings and those four visionaries – Bill Simon, Joe Spinelli, Eileen Bowie, John Laquette - and the volunteers who followed in future years, 44th Street would have no garage sale and a bank account with sufficient funds to improve and better their block and community by buying street trees, paying for high intensity lighting, new tree guards, bishop crook lampposts, flowers for the tree beds, sponsoring an annual holiday party, events on Pier 84, including the community garden, and helping neighbors and other community organizations.
The script plays out as follows: on the night before the sale four hearty West 44th streeters take this humble measuring device and work their way from Ninth to Tenth Avenues and then back again on the opposite side, carefully marking out the spaces on both sides of the street, where sellers will set up their tables, empty out their apartments and showcase their wares. With towering buildings in the distance, the roar of cars and buses zipping down Ninth Avenue and others shooting up Tenth while visitors march off to Broadway and Off-Broadway theaters or local restaurants and bistros, this dedicated troupe is oblivious to all that goes on around them.
Their sole objective is marking the street up into eight-foot spaces and prepare it for the 120-plus sellers and thousands of people who will flock to the sale the next day.
Hours after they complete their mission, swarms of people flood the block from early morning to late afternoon – making true the old adage that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure."
These people cart off purchases from stacked shelves and racks, overflowing boxes and containers and tables with beautiful displays. The street is filled with a marvelous hodge-podge of goods – trinkets, paintings, books, clothes, jewelry, DVD’s, tables, computers, living room couches and kitchen tables plus so much more.
No commercial sellers are allowed and there are no food vendors or live music. This is an old-fashioned suburban garage sale with a touch of city style and as good as the things and bargains you will find here are it is no match for experiencing that small town atmosphere smack in the middle of the big bustling city and the friendly cheer you will find bouncing from table-to-table.
(From Clinton Chronicle May 2006)