Block Association Builds Bridges in Hell’s Kitchen

Photo by Ron Haviv/VII Remember when there was no snow on the ground? Candlelight yoga, soothing reflexology and a challenging boot camp were on the plate, when the West 45/46 St. Block Association hosted “Healthy Hell’s KitcheNights” in Mathews-Palmer Park last July.

Photo by Ron Haviv/VII
Remember when there was no snow on the ground? Candlelight yoga, soothing reflexology and a challenging boot camp were on the plate, when the West 45/46 St. Block Association hosted “Healthy Hell’s KitcheNights” in Mathews-Palmer Park last July.

BY DUSICA SUE MALESEVIC  |  Chana Widawski was sitting on her stoop on W. 45th St. in Hell’s Kitchen when it hit her: a live production of “West Side Story” — populated with local talent — should be mounted at Mathews-Palmer Park (on 45th/46th Sts., btw. 9th & 10th Aves.).

“I thought it would be an incredible idea to do a live production using all our local talent on our own street,” she said.

While a lofty ambition, she figured a more achievable goal would be to show the film at the park’s handball court wall, which she thought would ma

ke an ideal movie screen. A friend made a flyer advertising the event and it was put up in the neighborhood.

“[We] decided to see if anyone would show up or if it would just be us watching a great movie in a cool setting,” she recalled in a phone interview. “We ended up with a really sizable crowd.”

That event blossomed into ten years of showing films and documentaries at the park and marked Widawski’s involvement with the West 45th Street Block Association after a neighbor invited her to a meeting.

The roots of the block association were planted in the ’70s and it has waxed and waned depending on people’s interest and the issues facing the neighborhood.

In the past few years, explained member Allison Tupper, the three block associations, one on W. 46th St. and two on W. 45th St., have worked together on important issues, such as Mathews-Palmer Park. Preservation of the park mural, “Against Domestic Colonialism,” is also a concern. They are now the West 45/46 St. Block Association.

“Forty-Sixth Street had its original history, we had our original history and we’ve been working together,” said Widawski, “As we’ve been working together, we’re been doing [an] expanded type of programming that serves the greater community as well.”

The block association works with other organizations to host a myriad of events at the park that are geared to the entire neighborhood, such as the film and documentary screenings, “Healthy Hell’s KitcheNights” that offers boot camp, candlelight yoga and reflexology, and play readings with the Irish Arts Center.

Widawski explained that they have been calling this broader programming the Hell’s Kitchen Commons, which is an “outgrowth or a project of the West 45/46 St. Block Association.”

Hell’s Kitchen Commons is a newer name for folks, she said, and they have been recently putting that name on their flyers as well.

“One of the core concepts about it is building these bridges and collaborations between community members, local talent, non-profits, art institutions and businesses,” she said.

Widawski says that they have been collaborating with the Ryan Chelsea Clinton Community Health Center, the Irish Arts Center, the Todd Henry Movement — a local choreographer who puts together site-specific performances — and the local nightclub, Pacha, which provides the projection for the film screenings.

Tupper said that they have also worked with Rosie’s Theater Kids, an after-school theater programs for kids citywide. A member from the organization taught the Hell’s Kitchen kids a song and dance, which then they performed in the park.

“The neighborhood kids love it,” said Tupper in a phone interview.

In the works is a spring dance event, “Swing into Spring,” where a local swing band will perform at the park, said Widawski.

In addition to events, Tupper said that the association forms “a link between residents on the block and the city” by reaching out to the appropriate person or agency when there is a problem. For example, she explained, some time ago when a new senior facility was built at the corner of W. 45th St. and 10th Ave., it had a problem with buses that were using that corner for parking.

The association was helpful in getting that changed so that the last bus was no longer blocking the entrance, said Tupper, who has been a block association member for over 15 years. Also, when a new neighbor comes to the block, such as the Ivan Shapiro House, at 459 W. 46th St., the block association paved the way for a smooth introduction to the rest of the neighborhood, she said.

“Sometimes when an institution comes in, neighbors are saying ‘no, no, no, we don’t want it,’” she said.

Another important block project is the maintenance of tree beds, said Tupper. The block association hosted “It’s My Park Day” event in October at the park to clean out tree beds.

Under the Bloomberg administration, the Mathews-Palmer Park received $1.8 million in funding to renovate it. The block association had a “Design Your Park” day where people could make suggestions.

“Chana made a concerted, and very successful, effort to get a lot input about what people wanted from the park,” said Tupper. “A lot of people did participate in that.”

Widawski said that people wanted the park to be less cement and more natural, as well as the addition of safety features, lighting and more places to sit that would be appropriate for all ages.

One of the issues, she said, is that dark areas of the park can attract activities that are not suitable for children, and that has created an environment that parents haven’t wanted to bring their kids to.

“A lot of work that we’ve been doing has been to try to infuse [the park] with positive energy and help make it be a space that everyone wants to come to,” said Widawski.

“We keep people together,” said Tupper. “We keep neighbors in touch with each other.”

Tupper said that part of the uniqueness of the neighborhood lies in its proximity to the theater district and the moniker itself: “It’s an interesting name, all different theories about how it got to be called Hell’s Kitchen.”

The Special Clinton District, from W. 41st to 59th Sts. west of Eight Ave., is also a part of its singularity, explained Tupper, as in order for a landlord to make a major renovation, he or she must have a no harassment certification to insure they are not kicking out tenants and it restricts the height of buildings.

“And that’s very important to us. We like it to stay low-rise,” she said. “We want everybody to know that we have that protection.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *