En español | Blanca Vázquez, a professor at Hunter College within the City University of New York, remembers vacationing in Greece in the late 1980s and being introduced as a Puerto Rican from New York. The reaction was immediate, says the long-time activist, whose work focuses on Puerto Rican and other Latino issues: “Ah, Puerto Rican? West Side Story! Knives!”
That reaction, she says, was typical of people whose only exposure to the Puerto Rican culture had been the Academy Award-winning 1961 film, which was based on the 1957 musical. “West Side Story was how Puerto Ricans were introduced to the world,” Vázquez says. Ironically, “most Puerto Ricans never saw the musical,” she adds. “We didn’t have the money to go to the theater. We saw the movie. And many non-Puerto Ricans who saw the movie had never met a Puerto Rican.”
Even so, some Puerto Ricans loved the film simply because it made them a key part of the tale. “My family and friends thought ‘Great, a movie that has Puerto Rican characters in it,’” says Angelo Falcón, 57, president of the nonprofit National Institute for Latino Policy. “It wasn’t until after the civil rights movement and the Puerto Rican empowerment movement [from the 1960s to the 1980s] that we viewed it in retrospect and thought, ‘Oh my God, it makes us look like we’re all in a gang.’”
A new bilingual production of West Side Story coming to Broadway this spring could deepen that perception. Written and directed by its original librettist, Arthur Laurents, the new production aims for a more realistic portrayal of 1950s New York, including dialogue in Spanish and an unvarnished look at the Sharks and the Jets. “Both sides were villains,” says Laurents, 90. “They’re so poor, they fight over who’s king of the hill of this particular block. It makes them vicious. That attitude is not restricted to any one nationality. The gang members were all out and out killers.”
Violence, a hallmark of the turf wars that historically dominated New York City, earned one section of Manhattan’s West Side the alias of Hell’s Kitchen even before the West Side Story era. Spanning roughly from 34th to 59th streets, and Eighth Avenue to the Hudson River, Hell’s Kitchen was a gritty, rough place that was true to its unofficial name.
Now a ritzy enclave known as Midtown West, from the 1930s through the 1960s Hell’s Kitchen was the bastion of working-class Puerto Ricans and immigrants from Ireland, Poland, Greece, and Italy—and anything but glamorous. Families lived hand to mouth; many teenagers dropped out of high school to work and help their parents make ends meet. Gangs claimed blocks or park sections as their turf. A few fights ended tragically, making headlines. By the late 1950s, in fact, gang culture had proliferated beyond the boundaries of Hell’s Kitchen to all five boroughs of New York City.
But contrary to the exotic, foreign image that the film and musical versions of West Side Story projected of the Puerto Rican Sharks versus the “American” Jets, many immigrant kids in Hell’s Kitchen were bilingual and bicultural: “Everyone except the Irish spoke a foreign language at home with their parents,” says John Montero, a former West Side resident whose story follows.
And despite the tensions that West Side Story highlighted between Puerto Ricans and the kids of European immigrants, members of both communities often mingled and even married. “The fifties was actually a time when, for Puerto Ricans, you said you were American, not Puerto Rican,” Vázquez says. “The Puerto Rican movement didn’t really start until later, with the Young Lords in the 1960s.”
In fact, the West Side even beyond Hell’s Kitchen, say those who know best—the people who lived there—was much more than gang rivalries. Rather, it was also an endearing place full of characters, immigrant optimism, a strong work ethic, and friendships that would last a lifetime.
Here, in their own words, is what it was really like.
Being a skinny kid and carrying a violin case around Hell’s Kitchen could have attracted trouble in a place where a tough exterior was an asset. But John Montero, who was born to a Puerto Rican custodian and a seamstress in Manhattan, got by on his quiet charm and likeability.
He lived in a Hell’s Kitchen tenement for a decade, until 1940, before Puerto Ricans moved into the area in large numbers about 20 years later. He hung around with a group of mostly Greek American kids who lived on his block, 53rd Street, between Ninth and Tenth avenues.
The best way to stay out of trouble was to know your place, which generally was the block you lived on, he says. “One block was Italian, another block was Polish, and the Irish block—you didn’t want to just wander in there, where the Irish were,” says Montero, 82, during an interview in his warm, airy home in suburban Bergenfield, New Jersey—about 25 miles from where he grew up. “The Irish were the toughest, and you’d find trouble if you went into their territory” on 54th Street, just one short block away from his own home, he recalls.
Growing up on the West Side meant playing stickball, stoopball, and marbles in the middle of the street with your friends. A highlight was riding scooters down the incline between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, which spanned the length of about three city blocks. “We were poor, so we’d make the scooters ourselves,” Montero says. “We’d get discarded fruit crates from the supermarkets, cut out a two-by-four for the base. Then we put the box on top, and nail on wheels from old roller skates, and you had yourself a scooter that ran pretty well.”
Montero did not see the original Broadway production of West Side Story, but remembers thinking the film was “strange” and “nothing like the place and people—that includes the Greeks, Italians, Puerto Ricans—I knew.
“The film had a part where one guy took a knife and attacked someone with it, and another part where a gun was used to kill Tony,” Montero says. “The truth is, we didn’t have weapons. In fact, the groups looked down on weapons. You were considered a coward if someone thought you had a weapon; and I never knew or even heard about anyone who did… Like you weren’t tough enough to fight natural, with your fists.”
Then again, Montero says with a laugh, “Our group had Tony.”
Tony Emanuel was Montero’s best friend, and his alter ego. “He was tall, big; he could take anybody down,” Montero says. “He had hands that looked like boxing gloves and fingers that were as thick as thumbs, each of them.”
TONY and EDITH EMANUEL
To this day, 81-year-old Tony Emanuel’s right index finger is slightly bent. It’s a reminder of the time he got into a rumble with a group of about five teenagers who were looking for trouble.
“It was Central Park, where my two friends and I went, and there were these guys picking on us,” says Emanuel, who lives in Titusville, Florida. “I fought them off. I hit one guy on the head and my finger’s still not right.”
He thinks it was fractured, he says. But for boys in Hell’s Kitchen, suffering through a fracture was nothing compared to the alternative—the wrath of your parents if they learned that you’d been in a fight. “Most of all, I didn’t want my mother to find out,” he says, his New York accent still as sharp as the Empire State Building on the city skyline.
Emanuel is the son of Greek immigrants and, from 1927 to 1950, he lived in a building where the tenants of all 12 apartments were Greek. The loud rumble of the “el” train formed part of the everyday sounds of the neighborhood, along with the conversations that took place across streets and from window to window as people yelled out greetings and gossip. It was part of the cacophony of Hell’s Kitchen, taken in stride by the residents. “Sometimes drunks would start singing under our window at 3 a.m.,” Emanuel says, citing the only noise that annoyed him. “We’d take a bucket of water and dump the water out the window on them, then quickly hide inside. They’d get quiet.”
His father was a cobbler, his mother crocheted baby clothes. Emanuel divided most of his teenage years between school and work to help his parents pay the bills. “We were all kids of immigrants in Hell’s Kitchen,” he says. “We didn’t have much, and we worked hard for everything we did have.”
At six feet tall in his early teens, Emanuel was not one of the tough guys of Hell’s Kitchen. He did not prowl the streets looking for trouble, as many groups of kids did at that time. But when trouble found him, he didn’t shrink from it. “There were snotty kids, the showoffs,” he says, “but I wasn’t afraid. I was streetwise; I wasn’t going to fool around when things got serious, when they got rough.”
While West Side Story focused on hatred between Puerto Rican youths and the sons of European immigrants, the reality was that, for a long time, the bitterest enmities existed between groups of young men of different European roots. Puerto Ricans, who largely were an enigma in Hell’s Kitchen before their population grew, often were, in essence, adopted into various non-Latino gangs. “We didn’t know what a Puerto Rican was or even think about it until a Puerto Rican restaurant opened,” Emanuel says.
So when Emanuel began dating a Puerto Rican girl named Edith Garcia, whom he first saw at a wedding he crashed, the reaction among his friends and relatives was nothing like the condemnation that befell Tony in West Side Story. “Edith was fair-skinned and so was her family,” Emanuel says of his wife of 58 years. “She looked like every other girl in the neighborhood, except many of the Greek girls weren’t nearly as pretty.”
Like most girls, Garcia was mostly a homebody—by design. “My parents wanted me and my sisters home, not in the street,” she says. “My parents liked Tony; it wasn’t an issue that we were from different backgrounds.”
Reuben Torres never had schoolyard recess when he was a student at Blessed Sacrament Catholic School on Manhattan’s West Side. The nuns kept the children in the gym, safely away from the pimps, drug dealers, and prostitutes lurking in the neighborhood. “The whole area was very rough,” says Torres, 47. His parents, Colombian immigrants, allowed him to walk home from school until the day he was mugged.
“I was seven years old, and I was leaving the McDonald’s near my building,” Torres says. “As I was going toward the playground, these two guys came toward me and said ‘Close your eyes and give me money; don’t open your eyes.’”
Torres sobbed as he walked home. Along the way, members of a gang he often saw in the area asked him what had happened. They asked him to describe the thieves. “They said, ‘If they belong to another gang, we’ll find them and take care of them.’”
After that, Torres’s parents never again allowed him to walk the streets unaccompanied or to play outside. “It seemed so drastic at the time, [that] my mother not let me go out,” he says. “I tried to rebel against it when I was a teenager.”
The gangs, he recalls, had a certain allure. “They wore their black leather jackets with their insignias,” he says. “They were mean, tough; they had their girls. You grew up thinking, ‘I’m going to become just like them.’” Looking back, he says, “I’m grateful that my parents kept me home. It kept me out of trouble.”
West Side Story’s portrayal of Hell’s Kitchen resonated with Torres, who’s looking forward to the new Broadway production. “I didn’t see the musical, but the film was pretty reflective of the environment when I lived there,” says Torres, who now lives in a leafy New Jersey suburb and hosts an Internet radio show called Let’s Get Real with Reuben Torres.
Both he and his aunt, Elsa Acosta, who still lives on the West Side, liked the movie. “It showed the truth; there were gangs, there was danger,” he says. “I remember that in my school, a lot of kids were proud, actually, that they made a movie about the West Side, about their area.”
Now, as he waits for West Side Story’s return to Broadway, Torres reflects on the irony of the city boy enjoying a completely ordinary suburban life. “Growing up in an urban area, I never thought I’d live in the suburbs or in a place like Maplewood,” he says. “And I go back [to the West Side] to visit my aunt and it’s an expensive, very chic place now. It’s the place to be.”
Elsa Acosta, 82, says there were two West Sides: the warm, rich and friendly one that existed in the buildings, in the shops, and in the ethnic eateries, and the one in the streets, characterized by drugs, depravity, vagabonds, and violence.
“You just couldn’t be outside, out in the street around here after dark,” says Acosta, who still lives in Manhattan, right where she always has, on 72nd Street and Broadway. “The vice and danger would control the streets and, if you weren’t a part of it, you had no business being out; you made sure to stay inside, safe, away from that world.”
Acosta arrived in New York from Colombia in 1963, five years after West Side Story debuted on Broadway and a year after it hit the movie theaters. Hot dogs sold for 5 cents, and rent for her studio apartment was $58 a month. By then, many parts of New York City brimmed with Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics.
“Everyone in my building was Latino, from all over the Caribbean and Latin America,” Acosta says in Spanish, the language she still feels most comfortable speaking. “We entertained one another with stories about our native countries; we tasted dishes from one another’s countries. It was really a rich, learning experience.”
Segregation set in, as it often does with what sociologists call the “tipping point,” when one group becomes 15 percent of the population of one area and forms enclaves, seeking social and cultural support. “I never really talked to Americans,” says Acosta, who worked in a toy factory. “I couldn’t speak English and I didn’t like being in an awkward situation where I can’t get the thoughts or feelings out in words.”
By now, the streets of New York were extremely dangerous—no longer a place where bands of bored youth roamed around the neighborhoods waiting for another group to look at them the wrong way to start a rumble. There were weapons, heavy drug use, prostitution. Annoyances of wayward youth had given way to crimes, the kind that lead to prison, sometimes hard time, and even to death. “Across the street from me was el parque de la aguja [Needle Park],” because of all the “druggies” who gathered there, she says.
Coming home at night from her job meant stepping over inebriated “hobos,” she says. “They just slept around the buildings, in the hallways, wherever they plopped down and passed out,” she adds. “The police were everywhere. It felt like a police state, almost, but that made the rest of us feel safe. You’d have these big, massive Irish cops standing on corners.”
In the mid-seventies, city officials targeted Hell’s Kitchen and its surrounding neighborhoods for gentrification, pricing many of the poorest out of the area. Rent control allowed a few, such as Acosta, to stay and see the West Side transform from a slum to a fashionable, high-priced area.
Studio apartments in her building now rent for at least $2,000 a month, not including utilities. One of the hottest properties is The 505, a luxury condominium building at 505 West 47th Street, where a 637-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment is priced at $730,000—not including a $625 monthly condo fee, and a yearly tax bill of $6,000. The building, typical of other ritzy high-rises that replaced immigrant tenements, boasts kitchens with Italian crafted cabinets and Calcatta gold marble countertops, and carbonized bamboo flooring.
“It’s a different place,” Acosta says of her Manhattan neighborhood. “There are very few Hispanics here anymore, not many people to talk to. But the danger is gone, and who can complain about that? I’m proud to walk into my building at nearly any time of day or night. And those Irish cops, they’re nowhere around now.”
Then, reflecting, she adds: “I still have the memory of the camaraderie and good times; and that was part of the West Side too.”