Join Elizabeth A. Burbach as she enters the world of Hell’s Kitchen and Rudy’s Bar & Grill to explore some of the historical, social, cultural, and economic contexts that shaped them both and that continue to inform their development—like it or not.
Come on in and meet some the people of Hell’s Kitchen and Rudy’s Bar and Grill!
Appearing every Friday morning.
New York is known as much for its low culture as its high art. And since the 19th century, one significant space associated with the underbelly is the dive bar.
But what is a dive bar?
Ask ten people and you’ll receive ten different answers. Some attribute dive-ness to particularities of décor such as year-round Christmas lights or a state of shabbiness, cheap drinks, an ambiance of alcoholic lethargy or drug-induced debauchery. Yet a dive is not determined by its surface. Attaching the word “Dive” to a bar’s name or duct-taping the seating does not a dive bar make.
Simply put, dive bars are about darkness: they are dark spaces where we go to do dark things among like-minded people. The darkness—literal and metaphorical—hides and obscures. The dive offers a cloak of invisibility to keep actions unseen. So when we use the term dive we elicit certain kinds of ideas about spaces and places, who can be found there, and what activities are offered in them.
Dives developed in the 19th century alongside the slightly more reputable saloon. They grew in neighborhoods with high concentrations of the poor. Areas once nice but in decline, such as the Bowery, or neighborhoods that were created to be slums, such as Hell’s Kitchen are, or were, famous for them. Crime was common in these areas of immigrant and transient populations who had limited options and attempted to survive and flourish. Crime and the dive went hand in hand.
In their origins, dives were found below street level, in cellars and basements. A dive was disreputable and considered socially, materially, and behaviorally foul. Patrons descended below public space into the bowels of a building to enter a hidden world where they could conduct themselves in invisibility. Danny DePamphilis, manager of Rudy’s Bar and Grill, was told once that a dive is a bar where one needs “to dive out of the way of bullets.” It all fits. A patron dives physically and socially: to enter the life of a dive is to take a headlong descent into vice.
Dives attracted sailors, traveling merchants, voyagers, husbands looking to cheat on their wives, and anyone who wanted to get down and dirty. Black and Tan dives were spaces where whites and blacks could freely mix. A blind pig was an illegal dive hidden in the back of another business, such as a laundry. A blind tiger was its extra skanky cousin. Dives were good places to lure a mark—like one of those sailors—and roll him; to spend your last dollar gambling on a cock-fight or rat baiting; to buy or sell sex.
To go along with the fun, dives served up glasses of backwash and the dregs of the keg. Drugs were added to produce foam and to keep the customer coming back for more. Dive mixologists sold drinks laced with cocaine, benzene, camphor, turpentine, and formaldehyde. All for mere pennies a glass. Dead houses or morgues were famous for their drugged concoctions; their titles indicate the frequent outcomes of drinking there. Some dives simply offered the patron a hose attached to a keg of beer or whisky or whatnot with the stipulation that, for 5 cents, one could drink one’s fill for as long as one could hold one’s breath. Think 19th century beer bong.
With all that wackiness and more presumably gone, do dive bars still exist? Dive bars don’t die because they go out of fashion. The dark never goes out of fashion. Dive bars die because of gentrification. As a neighborhood changes, so do its bars. Dive bars lose their leases due to escalating rents. The new, more affluent populace drives them out of business. Or dive bars change to accommodate the new populace.
This series looks at the evolution of the dive bar in New York City through the lens of a handful of venues. Join me as I venture out into the City, seeking its underbelly, and learn with me the stories of dive bars and the people that inhabit them.
**Interested in the cultural history of the underbelly of NYC? Start with Luc Sante’s really cool read, Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York.**
The Author Qualifies:
Hell’s Kitchen is surrounded by lore—stories transmitted person to person—and legend—a passed down story that is presented as fact but is unlikely to be true. But little substantial historical record exists for Hell’s Kitchen, which is often the case with populations considered unsavory by the power-holding population. I’ve gone out and talked to people, preferring their stories to the stories of journalists, and I’ve combined them both.
I focus on the underbelly of Hell’s Kitchen, which is the most written about aspect and the aspect outsiders seem most interested in. I do so because that is the theme of this series. But the full history of Hell’s Kitchen is one of people who made homes, raised children, tended gardens, wept and laughed and danced and protected one another. People who did not necessarily perceive Hell’s Kitchen as a slum, but as a home. People who did not conceive themselves as criminals or involved in criminal activities because it, whatever it was, was just how things were done and everyone needed to get by as best they could. People who did not commit violent acts upon others nor condone them.
Importantly, when asked about “the old days,” most people I spoke with began with beauty, recalling stories of street games and supper clubs and the pride in dressing to the nines to spend an evening out with the lady friend; stories of baseball and family and, yes, the feeling of safety. Even relating the negative was done with an air of nostalgia, highlighting the disparity between the past and the present and the preference for a way of life quickly disappearing.
Welcome to Hell’s Kitchen
If Hell is filled with evil, torment, and unremitting anguish, the hottest, vilest, most horrific place imaginable, where would its worst place be? The kitchen. Hell’s Kitchen.
Countless stories circulate about how Hell’s Kitchen got its name. It’s been said that Hell’s Kitchen is a designation transplanted from a similar slum in South London, or taken from a dive of the same name at Corlear’s Hook on the southern edge of the East River piers, notorious for bad guys, gangs and “river pirates,” or from a diner owned by the Heil family popular with West Side dockworkers in the late 1800’s, and mispronounced as “Hell”—thus Heil’s Kitchen becomes Hell’s Kitchen.
The name may come from the Hell’s Kitchen Gang, established in the late 1860s, one of the first professional and organized criminal gangs in the City, as opposed to gangs who mostly waged war against each other.
Some say the original Hell’s Kitchen was a rookery—an old-law tenement, dilapidated, unfit to live in, the worst of the worst—sometimes said to be located on 54th and 10th and other times on 39th between 9th and 10th. Places and spaces on the West Side were known by many names, such as “Battle Row” and the “House of Blazes,” mostly coined by cops and the press. The name of a physical place, like a rookery, might be extended to a larger space, like the block on which the rookery sat or the larger geographic area in which the rookery resided.
The most repeated tale is of two Irish cops watching a riot on 39th Street. Horrified at what he sees, the rookie cop says: “The place is hell itself.” “Hell’s a mild climate,” replies the veteran cop. “This is Hell’s Kitchen, no less.”
Hell’s Kitchen. The name says it all. From wherever it came, Hell’s Kitchen stuck around the late 1800s.
The bounds of Hell’s Kitchen are debated, and change over time. During some eras and from some perspectives, it was as far down as 23rd Street up to 59th, on 23rd but only up to 40th, or only between 36th and 41st Streets, or from 40th to 59th. Let’s agree for now that Hell’s Kitchen begins at 34th Street and ends at 59th Street, extending west of 8th Avenue, but not including the Avenue itself, to the Hudson River.
The area was once called Bloemendaal, or “vale of flowers.” Bloomingdale covered the west side of Manhattan along the North River (now the Hudson), a vast expanse of beautiful grassy knolls and streams and hills with some patches of outright wilderness from 23rd Street to 125th Street. The Great Kill stream ran through what is now West 42nd Street. For over 200 years, Bloomingdale was predominately farmland with a few hamlets, as well as a place for country estates and suburban mansions for the wealthy.
In 1851, the once beautiful countryside was made into a ghetto almost overnight. It began with the opening of the Hudson River Railroad on 11th Avenue, joining the docks to land in speedier transport of products. Massive industry followed: slaughterhouses, dairies, soap factories, tanneries, breweries, iron foundries, and lumberyards. New immigrants followed the work, mostly German and Irish, who set up shanties in vacant lots between 37th and 50th Streets where they raised pigs and goats, scavenged, worked as day laborers and in the new factories. They joined a previous enclave of African Americans who moved in during the 1840s while working on the Croton Aqueduct.
Poorly constructed tenements were hastily raised to house the immigrant laborers. Tenements were 3 to 5 stories high, holding 4 apartments a floor, each usually equipped with a parlor/kitchen and a bedroom. Quite often multiple families were squeezed into the same dwelling. Tenements had little or no ventilation or plumbing. Communal toilets were located at the back of buildings. Water was fetched from a shared well or faucet, heated on the wood, coal, or gas stove. The bath was the kitchen sink. Chamber pots, garbage, and other waste were often thrown out a window and onto the street. Many of these tenements stand today, refurbished with modern amenities to a greater or lesser degree. This author’s bathtub still stands in her kitchen.
The residential area smack in the heart of industry was toxic—filled with soot, smoke, fumes, and other stink. By 1871 there were 46 slaughterhouses in HK, draining blood and offal into gutters, where children played. The “offal dock” was located at 38th where dead animals from all over the city were taken to be burned or sent to a glue factory. Garbage and other refuse lay piled in gutters along 10th and 11th Avenues. Children hawked newspapers on the street, fought, picked pockets, and flew pigeons from rooftops. Men drank. Goats and hungry dogs wandered the streets. What sunlight industrial waste did not block from the sky, the 9th Avenue El did. The Hudson River Railroad caused so many deaths that 11th Avenue was called Death Avenue.
An 1881 New York Times article described one sector of the new slum in a way that would echo throughout the neighborhood: “The entire locality is probably the lowest and filthiest in the City, a locality where law and order are openly defied, where might makes right, and depravity revels riotously in squalor and reeking filth.” Over the decades things changed while remaining the same.
Hell’s Kitchen has had a diverse population, impacted by world events. At the turn of 19th century, the population was still mostly German and Irish. HK had the highest concentration of Irish on the island, seconded in the city by Brooklyn’s Navy Yard and Red Hook. Italians, Greeks, and Eastern Europeans, mostly Polish and Yugoslavian, soon followed. A French enclave held forth on 49th and 50th Streets. Post-WWII saw a wave of African Americans from the south, as well as Puerto Ricans. The neighborhood also attracted immigrants from elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean including Peruvians, Ecuadorians, and Cubans.
A marginal neighborhood composed of marginalized immigrant populations, Hell’s Kitchen developed into an insular community with a specific code of honor, the “West Side Code,” understood and adhered to by all, criminal and non-criminal alike. The Code is grounded on the idea of protecting the Kitchen and its people from outsiders who cared little about it. The Code is simple: In Hell’s Kitchen, we take care of things ourselves, we don’t betray our own, and we don’t rat to the cops. What is of the Kitchen stays in the Kitchen.
From its inception, Hell’s Kitchen was considered one of the worst neighborhoods in the City, known not only for its hard life and hard living but also for its violence. Blood spilled over issues seemingly small, like two women beating one another with ax-handles over the right to a rooftop clothesline, and issues large, such as fights and riots between different groups in the ’hood.
Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants fought, as well as the Irish and African-Americans, Irish and Italians, Irish and Puerto Ricans. Everyone fought together during the Draft Riots of 1863. The Irish particularly had a reputation as eager, willing, if not always logical, fighters. Indeed, the Irish of Hell’s Kitchen retained that reputation through the 1980s. On the upside, scrappy fighters produced the “Fighting 69th” Regiment of WWI. The downside was unthinkable destruction on their own soil and against their own neighbors.
Hell’s Kitchen inherited the legacy of gangsterism in the City, all the way back to the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits. The neighborhood was filled with shylocks, racketeers, gamblers, book-makers, extortionists, shake-down artists, and strong-arm men. They made a living, individually and collectively, off residents, the waterfront, brothels, gambling dens, speakeasies, bootlegging and, later, unions and street drugs. Some people sold “swag,” or goods that fell off the back of a truck.
With a few exceptions, HK gangs were not cohesive enough to be “organized crime” in the way many of us understand it from the movie The Godfather. Gangs came together and fell apart, fighting with and against each other.
From the late 1860s to the turn of the century the Hell’s Kitchen Gang were hugely successful “river thieves” who worked the piers and raided the Hudson River Railroad along 11th Avenue but were also skilled at extortion, breaking and entering, highway robbery, and “professional mayhem.” The turn of the century Gophers led by One Lung Curran were the most powerful early gang in HK. During their peak in 1907, they were 500 men strong. Herbert Asbury in Gangs of New York claimed the Gophers were so ferocious that they made HK “one of the most dangerous areas on the American continent.” Owney “The Killer” Madden brought back what was left of the Gophers during Prohibition. Prohibition was big business in Hell’s Kitchen, and Madden made a fortune as a bootlegger and rum-runner. After Prohibition, Madden aligned with a new kid looking to start an organization, Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Thus began an uneasy relationship between Italian and Irish gangsters on the West Side.
Smaller gangs vied for supremacy or worked in alliance with these larger gangs: the 10th Avenue Gang, the Gorillas, the Parlor Mob, and the Rhodes Gang. Hells’ Kitchen women were gang members and fierce, like Battle Annie who ran the Battle Row Ladies’ Social and Athletic Club, also called the Lady Gophers.
By the 1960s, Mickey Spillane was the last of the big time, old-school gangsters in Hell’s Kitchen. Known as the Gentleman Gangster, Spillane ran the Hell’s Kitchen Irish Mob. He was dapper, politically connected, and respected. Spillane took care of HK residents in need much like a Godfather would. But times were changing. In 1966, a young and angry upstart by the name of Jimmy Coonan began a war against Spillane that would last 11 years, ending only with Spillane’s assassination in 1977.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the City was decaying, a ghost town, on the verge of bankruptcy. The Kitchen decayed along with the City: the government pulled subsidies for infrastructural support such as low-income housing and HK became even more of a ghetto, many buildings abandoned, boarded, and gutted. Landlords began to harass their tenants. Street drugs were introduced. Streets once safe because they teemed with residents became quiet, sometimes seeming deserted, and regular neighborhood people became the target of criminal acts.
Out of this rose to power Jimmy Coonan and an extensive but loosely knit group of criminals that the cops and the press would call “The Westies,” described by Rudy Giuliani, then the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, as “the most savage organization in the long history of New York City gangs.”
The violence in HK between the mid 1960s and the end of the 1980s was extreme. The Westies had no shame and lived by no code. One resident puts it simply: “they were killing people like crazy.” Murders were brutal but not always logical, in a business sense. They could arise spontaneously and out of anger, as another resident illustrated: “You don’t like your drink?” He draws an imaginary pistol, aims it at me, and pulls the trigger: BOOM. “What did you say?” BOOM. “Why are you looking at me like that?” BOOM. Most of these people simply “vanished.” Jimmy Coonan was skilled at butchering a body, packaging its parts separately, and disposing of them in the waterways, allowing the current to take them out to sea. It’s hard to prove a murder without a body.
The City of New York believed it successfully ended the reign of the Westies in the late 1980s by putting the members they knew about behind bars, including Jimmy Coonan, and disappearing his second in command, the “rat” Mickey Featherstone, into the Witness Protection Program. Yet the Westies still instill fear in long-term Hell’s Kitchen residents and they do not speak of them with ease. Because they know that the network of “The Westies” was both far wider and far less cohesive than the cops think. Residents know that there are others and that there are others whom they do not know. For years, rumors spread of this or that person released or otherwise back in the Kitchen, spotted here or drinking there. Everyone imprisoned in the late 1980s is out, with the exception of Jimmy Coonan. Of the others, unknown to the police, most are dead, it is said. Most. But not all.
So watch who you drink with.
Rudy’s Humble Beginnings
The power structure in Hell’s Kitchen, legal and illegal, wove through social spaces like church, political clubs, and saloons. Hell’s Kitchen was rife with drinking establishments. Even during Prohibition, the booze was free flowing in the plethora of speakeasies for which the neighborhood was famous. Warehouses all over the West Side were full of Owney “The Killer” Madden’s illegal liquor.
Bars were social spaces, places of business, and sometimes served as a front or home base for other business dealings like bookmaking and loan-sharking. One Lung Curran’s turn of the century Gopher Gang worked out of the Battle Row bar on 39th between 10th and 11th Avenues. Mickey Spillane used the White House Bar on 45th Street and 10th Avenue as a home base for the Hell’s Kitchen Irish Mob in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1973, Jimmy Coonan of the Westies opened the 596 Club on the corner of 43rd and 10th Avenue as headquarters for his work. But drinking, socializing, and conducting business was so interconnected that criminal business inevitably found its way into any bar and over a beer.
A friend of mine, who was born and raised in the Kitchen and whose family ran a bar in the neighborhood from the mid-1940s to the early 1980s, distinguishes between “nice” bars where people went to be social and where they behaved in a civilized manner—fighting, drunkenness, ugliness of any kind were not what these bars were about—and bars for the poor, the drunks, the ne’er-do-wells, and the hoodlums. Rudy’s Bar and Grill was one such bar.
My friend describes Rudy’s as “a bummy bar.” A place for bums of all varieties, people not fit to socialize with. He is disdainful of it: “It’s always been a bummy bar.” He has never had a drink in Rudy’s and you couldn’t pay him to have in drink in Rudy’s. He is amazed today, as he holds forth on the same corner that he has governed for decades, when a couple of “older women” who are “dressed nice” walk up to him and ask him if he knows a bar called Rudy’s and if he can tell them how to get there. My friend shakes his head, “a bummy bar.”
In 1933, two German women by the last name of Rudy opened a bar in Hell’s Kitchen. Rumor has it that their business really began in 1919 as one of the multitude of speakeasies for which the neighborhood was known.
In the 1950s, Ewald Rudy took the bar over from his mother, one of the original owners. The bar struggled under Mr. Rudy. Customers didn’t like him. Ernie Schroeder, retired General Manager of Rudy’s, describes Mr. Rudy as “a true scumbag” and a “great study in human nature.” Life was not easy for Mr. Rudy and circumstances made him bitter. But again, “he may have been bitter to begin with.”
Mr. Rudy had a habit of hiring a bartender with a following. Business would improve, Rudy’s would start making a profit. Then Mr. Rudy would fire the bartender, go back behind the bar, and take the customers. They would leave shortly thereafter because no one could stand him. And so the cycle continued. Ernie tended bar at Rudy’s while still under Mr. Rudy’s ownership. He was fired for issues of “inventory control”: it didn’t meet Mr. Rudy’s “standards.”
Mr. Rudy could tend bar standing up, sleeping, like a horse. One hand on either side of the bar, when someone walked in he was instantly awake. Mr. Rudy owned the building but lived outside the City. He came in early every morning and did all the maintenance on the building himself. Mr. Rudy was a hardworking man. And he was cheap. Though Rudy’s had an ancient air conditioner, Mr. Rudy would never turn it on: “it was never hot enough.” If nothing else, Mr. Rudy was honest: “Nobody had any influence over Mr. Rudy.” Yes, “he hated everybody” but “he didn’t water his drinks.”
One major event precipitated a change in this ancient shit hole of a bar called Rudy’s. Mr. Rudy retired and sold the bar and the building. What follows is a story about how, from 1986, Rudy’s “evolved from 10 old guys sitting at the bar to maybe the most famous bar in the city.”
In the mid-80s, Hell’s Kitchen was one of the worst areas in the City. The Westies ran the ’hood and inter-gang violence was commonplace. Tourists rarely visited, advised not to venture west of 8th Avenue.
Jack Ertl bought the bar and the building in the mid 1980s incorporating it into what would become his “little Empire” of dive bars in HK, including the Holland Bar, Full Moon Saloon, the Savoy, and (later) Swine on 9. As Ernie tells it, Jack’s partners in the Rudy’s venture, a “college educated married couple,” attempted to clean up the place, make it “nice and inviting.” They recovered the original red leather banquettes, holey from age and knives and razors. They didn’t want Rudy’s to look like “a dump, which it was.” And a dump was “what the people wanted.” And the people? The “upper low class” of Hell’s Kitchen. One step up from hittin’ the skids.
Gentrification was starting to infiltrate the ’hood and escalating rents drove most established dives and affordable bars out of business. A 25-year lease on a storefront? Why? Many businesses went month to month. Hell’s Kitchen rents simply did not escalate. In the 1930s, one railroad apartment rented for $25/month. A similar railroad in the 1960s rented for $67/month. Rent increases of $2500 to $4500 within two years was unthinkable. Bar owners could not offer cheap drinks with rents like that. The only bars that could and can are those in buildings owned by the boss. Thus, “the neighborhood needed Rudy’s.”
When Ernie started managing Rudy’s in 1989, he gave the people what they wanted. He hired clean-up guys, snow shovelers, and beer loaders to go down to Canal Street and find him red duct tape, which he proceeded to lay over the beautiful new red leather banquets. The duct-taping tradition continues today. Ernie then covered the very old, once quiet fancy, linoleum with “¼ inch plywood planks” and “a couple thousand screws.” Left unpainted, the filth from 9th Avenue tracked in on the soles of the customers’ shoes. Even with daily cleaning, within six months that floor was the “perfect blackness.” In six months time, both the floor and the booths aged 40 years. Ernie remade Rudy’s, not into something it wasn’t, but back into what it always was. He wanted “to make sure that Rudy’s looked like a piece of shit so no one could say it wasn’t authentic.”
Managing, Ernie mostly stood sentry between the two halves of the bar, “got drunk, and kicked out scumbags.” He defines scumbags as “towards the bum variety,” not street people, not homeless, but messed-up guys with problems with alcohol. And the “10th Avenue kids.” In essence, criminals, hoodlums, gang affiliates.
Nothing good had come out of 10th Avenue in a long time.
Ernie introduced free hot dogs at Rudy’s to entice customers in a bad economy. Horrified at new bars charging $4 pints, Ernie believed no one should pay more than $2 for a beer. Certainly none of Rudy’s customers would pay $4. The “whiskey soaked” “upper low class” is always “looking for a cheap drink.” While “what people drink is really important to them,” they still “want to pay one-third the price.” Ernie was ingenious at finding deals, passing on savings to customers and turning a tidy profit.
Danny, a 6th generation New Yorker, began working the bar at Rudy’s in 1991. A small man sporting a big handlebar mustache, Danny wore traditional, old-time bar garb—suspenders, long apron, sleeve garters. He worked the bar alone. The customers were local: three generations of men all from neighborhood families. Some of them had been “drinking here for 60 years” and for many, “this was where they had their first drink.” Rudy’s was “their bar.”
Rudy’s was “probably the most lucrative bar job in NYC.” Retired men on social security and pensions treated Danny well. “Regular working people carry their bartender” better than, say, a corporate lawyer in an upscale joint who might “forget” to tip. “Nobody forgets to tip their neighborhood bartender,” says Danny. The difference is neighborhood folk are invested in their bar. Rudy’s was their “living room.” Rudy’s was home.
In the early 90s, the neighborhood started to change. An influx of new, young people moved in after discovering HK was one of the last neighborhoods with good rent. Most “didn’t realize they were moving into a bad neighborhood.” They did not socialize here. “Most would drink outside the neighborhood” on 8th Avenue and beyond.
Aiming to build business, Rudy’s was “looking for young livers” and targeted the new population. But Rudy’s had a problem. The new people found Rudy’s “foreboding.” Their guts told them to steer clear. They imagined themselves outsiders, unwelcome in a place like Rudy’s. They “came in primarily by accident.” But “when you came inside, we made sure you were an insider.” Danny was especially welcoming to and protective of women. He befriended them: “They know the bartender, then know they’re safe here.” Once inside Rudy’s, young livers admitted: “I don’t know what I was afraid about!” They came back. They told their friends. These friends came in.
Business boomed. Rudy’s was friendly and the “cheapest bar in New York.” In 1991, call drinks were $1.50. In the mid-90s, $2. What could be better than “free hot dogs and $2 drinks?”
In this little neighborhood bar in the 90’s, straights, gays, young, old, old-timers and newcomers to the ’hood now commingled. Amazingly, “what happened was—they all got along!” Rudy’s was a home to many characters like Colonel Howe, Eisenhower’s driver turned multimillionaire real estate mogul, who sat at the far end of the bar looking like a bum with his long, white beard and drank screwdrivers from 10am to 2am every day. He enjoyed dancing with the young girls at night and he was never refused a dance. Kids without a pot to piss in would tell Danny to buy Howe a drink on them. They had no idea that he was rich. Some of them lived in Howe’s buildings but didn’t know it.
Rudy’s purposely had no TV’s, creating an environment conducive to communication. People talked. A critical point of contact was music. Working musicians were a constant presence because of inexpensive, plentiful music studios in the ’hood and the Film Center across the street. Indeed, Rudy’s is immortalized in song, such as Steely Dan’s “Black Cow” and Claire Robinson’s “Let’s All Go To Rudy’s.” Moreover, Rudy’s was known around the city for its jukebox of old jazz, blues, rock and roll. Each generation shared its music with the others. 80 year olds taught “kids too young to even know what rock and roll was” about 1940s jazz. Others shared their love of Muddy Waters.
Another shift happened around 1995 when “it became hip to go to seedy, dangerous places.” Movie stars, jet setters, movers and shakers “who could afford a $10 drink—at the time” started coming in. Danny served JFK Jr., Julia Roberts, Drew Barrymore, Paul McCartney, Slash, and countless others. With the whole social spectrum represented, Rudy’s became “the dive bar to go to” yet it “still had the element of danger, of seediness.” There was the lingering sense that violence could erupt at any moment. The mystique of the neighborhood had a part to play in Rudy’s growth. It was “not only going to this dive,” that was cool, “but going to Hell’s Kitchen.”
Ernie, Danny, and the old-timers opened up their living room to incorporate diverse people into the neighborhood family. Rudy’s became “a microcosm of the world, where everybody was getting along.” Danny illustrates by telling of a group of Hassidim who came in weekly to drink on the same day that a group of Arabs who worked at the newspaper stores would also come in. One day, the separate groups started talking and the next thing you know they are laughing and buying each other drinks. “The Arab-Israeli conflict was solved right here in Rudy’s bar!” A feat possible “because everybody is the same in here.”
Business increased “exponentially” and Danny still worked alone. Neighborhood men had his back, but he also had a repertoire of ways to control the bar. If cutting off and ignoring a drunk didn’t work, the threat of getting barred was usually enough. No one wanted get barred from Rudy’s. Down the block at the Film Center Café a Jack Daniels cost $5, double that of Rudy’s.
Danny’s favorite was the Fake Phone. When a customer was belligerent, Danny calmly strode to a phone—disconnected—he kept next to the register, picked up the receiver, carefully dialed a seven-digit number, and spoke softly, glancing back surreptitiously at the customer. The customer had no idea who was on the other line. Cops were “the good option.” In this bar everyone knew there was far worse people to come get you. Drunks scrammed. The Fake Phone “worked 100% of the time.”
Danny served a packed bar, making five orders at a time. It might be half an hour or more before he could return to you. Customers were resourceful. Regulars started ordering “a pitcher, no glass.” They would walk around drinking straight out of the pitcher “and be set for an hour.” Five deep, people at the back would offer money or a drink to someone at the front if they would order for them. Most surprising to Danny was the graciousness most people displayed. On several occasions, two waiting customers simultaneously ordered, then one would say, “No, you go first.” And the other likewise insisted, “No, no, you go.” This civility, after all the waiting, is unheard of among people drinking in NYC.
Yet it happened at Rudy’s.
Located on 9th Avenue between 44th and 45th Streets, Rudy’s is in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen. A neighborhood built to be a slum, treated and functioning as one for more than a century before gentrification got its claws into it. Hell’s Kitchen, an insular community wary of outsiders and with an established code of honor serving to protect its own. Hell’s Kitchen—the land of gangsters and assassins and good prices on items fallen off the backs of trucks and drugs and prostitutes and whatever else people from more affluent neighborhoods wanted but didn’t want to have on their back stoops.
As the story goes, Rudy’s opened as a speakeasy in 1919. Serving the Irish police force, it was Hell’s Kitchen’s “worst best kept secret.” Rudy’s opened legally in 1933 with one of the first post-Prohibition liquor licenses in New York. For decades a neighborhood bar for the poorer class of the poor, its location made it a place where gang business was occasionally conducted. This was true for most bars in the Kitchen. Rookie cops studied Rudy’s to understand the ’hood.
In the early 1990s, Rudy’s was seedy and dangerous. At 8am old men lined the bar hunched over their drinks. Many stayed all day. By the mid-90s, when “it became cool to find a shit-hole to go drink in,” Rudy’s was the best dive in HK and, arguably, the City. Rudy’s was the place to get your drunk on. Rudy’s was the place to buy drugs from your friendly neighborhood bicycle cop. You didn’t go there to make friends, though you might. You went to drink hard. You went to find what you couldn’t get elsewhere. You went when you felt the dark coming on.
You’ll know Rudy’s by the giant plexiglas pig out front that suggests the blind pig dives of yore. Push open the original front door to enter the dark, narrow space with a long mahogany bar on one side, red duct-taped banquettes on the other. Now, look past tourists and day-trippers from Long Island to find a handful of old regulars sitting at the far end of the bar. Negotiate the danger of a Zog Sports kickball team and the drunken 20-something frat people woo-hoo-ing to Journey on the juke. Proceed cautiously around conservatively dressed, demure young women and their just-this-side-of-fat, trampy counterparts as they display themselves ready for sex for the price of a drink—a drink she just might buy you. Guard yourself against a Midwest housewife who saw Rudy’s on TV. Beware an aging HK brat who trolls the bar offering blow as foreplay. Scary.
Rudy’s is something of a time warp. It changes with the neighborhood. The past decade erased the porn of Times Square and with it the 2am post-peep show rush when the staff would line the bar with drinks in preparation. Gone is long-time barkeep Vicky, RIP, notable for a mouth so foul she greeted you with curses before a Hello. Gone are the days when only the regulars got a seat at the bar and everyone knew everyone. Gone are the refusals to make “fancy drinks” or carry fancy liquor. Here are nights of Stoli Vanil and Jaegermeister and kids so green they order “beer” as if it were a brand.
Yet stick around because “every hour it changes.” Architects, real estate agents, writers, musicians, hospitality workers, and actors who actually make a living acting filter in. Neighborhood people are here, they’re just quiet. Stagehands, Teamsters, and other union workers are a staple. Miguel, a 28-year-old Spanish architect based in the Kitchen, comes in after work and watches the changing human panorama. Restaurateur Katchi Pritchett comes to get her “late night hot dog fix.” José, a hospitality worker for two decades, comes to Rudy’s because it is “different,” “it’s comforting.” “The big difference is the bartenders here,” he says. José comes in and is always greeted warmly by name.
And it is true. Rudy’s is a place where everyone knows your name.
People from all walks of life come to Rudy’s cheap beer, free hot dogs, the “chill” atmosphere lacking “snobbery,” and the intimate community Rudy’s still cultivates.
Most appreciate the staff: fast, friendly, intelligent, and don’t take no shit. Like Bow Tie Joe who sings behind the bar, charms the ladies, and threatens to “make you breakfast in the morning.” Or bouncer James with a wry sense of humor honed from years of throwing out men who jerk off under the banquettes, scanning fake IDs and the morons that flaunt them, who calls his 12-year job his “penance.” Scottish Gary, a tireless man who works three shifts, co-owns and runs another bar downtown, helps raise children with his wife, and studies to be an architect. Young Neal who grew up in Rudy’s since he was a wee sprout. And Carlos the bar back, quiet but with a keen eye and a sharp wit.
During the day, Rudy’s returns to the neighborhood. Venture in on an afternoon and listen to the quiet of old men drinking and the melodious tunes of Marty Robbins. Chat with Yolanda, barkeep for nearly 30 years, or Judy here for only 20. Meet Cuban Rafael, a retired construction worker and finisher, who spends afternoons drinking Budweiser, “nada mas,” when the walls of his apartment get too close. Discuss how the old days were better, a time “when we took care of things ourselves,” with a man who took care of things. Get into a heated bar-wide debate over whether Shoeless Joe acted to throw the Series. Kvetch with old-timers about the “kindergarten” of “yuppies” and “hipsters” at night, pansy-assed kids who don’t live here and don’t know how to drink or tip. Tats and ’tude don’t fly with these guys.
They’ll kick your ass.
One night at Rudy’s I met Tyler, a bartender and beverage manager who works in the area. We drank beer, talked about my project, and watched the crowd. Tyler wisely observed, “Rudy’s looks like a dive bar, walks like a dive bar, and smells like a dive bar, but it is not a dive bar.” Unasked for entry into NYC guidebooks make Rudy’s a “midtown tourist place.” This brings people who consider Rudy’s a “dive bar” with “real New Yorkers” where they can get a “gritty” taste of the Big Apple while drinking among themselves. They use the bar to imagine themselves cool while ignoring the actual cool that surrounds them. Some of the younger, drunker, impotent ones will punctuate their stay by kicking, hitting, and slapping the Pig on their way out. This clientele mistake a dive for a place where you can behave badly rather then a place where you can be bad. They are as unaware of what a dive bar is as they are unaware that Rudy’s is no longer a dive, by virtue of their presence.
Yet Rudy’s remains a great neighborhood bar. It is “unique” as General Manager Danny DePamphilis proudly says. Over the last 20 years Danny helped create a welcoming, egalitarian space for people of different generations and from “different socioeconomic and cultural spheres” to come together. Here, you always meet somebody. You are “guaranteed conversation” and with people whom “you would otherwise never meet” or, perhaps, want to talk to. Or you can ignore them.
Rudy’s is a fascinating juncture of tradition and innovation, of continuity and change. As Danny says, “Rudy’s is still Rudy’s in a way. New York is still New York in a way. Times Square is still Times Square in a way.” At Rudy’s multiple realities co-exist, sometimes interacting and sometimes unaware of the others’ existence. In the evening it mirrors the current tourist trend of the City, the marketing of New York City’s underbelly, now manageable and safe for outsiders. During the day it reflects back old-time New York in a neighborhood bar. To an observant eye, the multiple realities in and of Rudy’s, like the City itself, hover and shimmer together.
Think racketeering, extortion, bookmaking are done in the hood? Think again. Imagine drugs and prostitutes are unavailable? Take a stroll up 9th Avenue in the wee hours of the morning and watch men with short shorts cut above their tidy whities showing off their packages as if it were the late 1970s. See young chubby girls in little black dresses and heels they haven’t learned to walk in leaving a club on 12th Avenue not having found the hook-ups they want and so feed their loneliness at street carts at the corner of 46th street and 9th. Notice not-lonely women looking for “dates” from cars, on the corners, and in the shadows of buildings dressed very similarly, but with higher heels. Find tiny, empty baggies and used condoms here and there on side streets.
Gentrification tamed Rudy’s of seediness and danger. But like the neighborhood that gives it life, the darkness is still there, part of its architecture, ingrained in the wood of the bar, the duct-taped banquettes, the floor beat up from brawls and dropped drinks, the neighborhood regulars, and the long-term staff. Darkness hidden from the tourist gaze, darkness that dances around the 20-somethings. Darkness there because some of us remember it vividly, who lived it and may live it still, and thus bring it in with us. In the end, Rudy’s retains that sense of “hey, a fight could happen here.”
It usually doesn’t, “but it could.”
The Ravages of Gentrification: Clinton, MiMa, North Chelsea, Hellsea…WTF???
Outsiders’ attempts to clean up Hell’s Kitchen and distance from its past have cycled in and out over the years. The 1930s West Side Improvement Project removed the 9th Avenue El, submerged the 11th Avenue railroad tracks underground, and the construction of the Lincoln Tunnel destroyed 91 old tenements below 39th Street, as well as Paddy’s Market—an outdoor market of pushcart vendors, a neighborhood tradition since the turn of the century.
In 1959, businessmen and developers pushed to re-name the area “Clinton” during the simultaneous Broadway run of West Side Story and the Capeman gang murders in the 46th Street Park. “Clinton” resurfaced in the 1980s. “Midtown West” was another try. More recently, names like “MiMa” (for Midtown Manhattan and a Related Properties real estate project) and the “Far West Side” are bandied about, as well as North Chelsea or “Hellsea” for the gay community moving northward. These are attempts to erase a history and a population by erasing their name. Long-time Hell’s Kitchen residents are fiercely opposed. They think the people worth keeping and the history worth remembering.
Italian-American Arthur T. was born in 1929 and raised on 46th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. The rent was $25/month in the 1930s. Lacking air conditioning, his mom opened the windows and propped the front door open with a broom handle to create a cross breeze. Arthur remembers in the summertime coming up the stairs in his building and seeing every door propped open the same way. Back then it was safe to do that because everyone knew one another. In the same building lived his aunt, his sister, and a neighbor called Fat Tess. His grandmother lived across the street.
Arthur describes the Hell’s Kitchen of the 30s and 40s as a wonderful place, “you would have liked it.” To him it wasn’t a slum but a home. It was a neighborhood of Mom and Pop stores, where you knew them and they knew you. A neighborhood for playing games of Johnny Ride the Pony, Ling-a-Lario, Boxball, Punchball, and Kick the Can. A neighborhood of community dances, and street fires that hid stolen sweet potatoes that, when cooked were so good that it was like “eating a steak.” A neighborhood of Sunday morning stickball on the street where residents would ante up a dollar for a pot that often reached $100, no small chunk of change in those days. And a 42nd Street where you could buy a hot dog for 5 cents and get a free root beer along with it.
In Arthur’s youth, when everyone knew everyone, there were always eyes on the street and, thus, the streets were safe. A woman could walk down the street and pass by some men and say “that guy’s following me” and the men would step out and step up to protect her. The neighborhood was still predominately white. All blocks were free to wander for white kids except 52nd and 53rd where “the blacks” lived, “we didn’t go there.” 10th Avenue was safe and booming with stuff to do such as seeing movies at the World Theatre, also called “The Dump,” on the corner of 46th and 10th which charged 11 cents for two pictures and a “chapter comedy.” 11th Avenue was industrial so you just didn’t go there, not because it was unsafe but because there was nothing to do. Construction on 12th Avenue began in the mid-30s; before that, just a clear shot to the river.
Words and Photos by: Elizabeth A. Burbach
For more, visit The Evolution of A Dive Bar, or www.rudysbarnyc.com
**Special thanks to Danny DePamphilis and Ernie Schroeder for telling me their stories.
**Thank you to all who shared their personal stories and insights with me.
Below are a few of the written sources that I referenced that might interest you:
Anonymous. 1881. “A Notorious Locality; Rookeries Which None But The Police Dare Enter.” The New York Times. September 22, 1881.
Herbert Asbury. 1927. Gangs of New York.
Edwin G. Burrows. 1999. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898.
City History Club of New York. 1909. Historical Guide to the City of New York.
T. J. English. 1990. The Westies: Inside the Hell’s Kitchen Irish Mob.
The Federal Writers’ Project. 1939. The WPA Guide to New York City: The Federal Writers’ Project Guide to 1930s New York.
Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association. http://hknanyc.org.
Dennis Hevesi. 2002. “In Hell’s Kitchen, a Changing Skyline.” The New York Times. May 12, 2002.
Richard O’Connor. 1958. Hell’s Kitchen: The Riotous Days of New York’s West Side.
John Strausbaugh. 2007. “Turf of Gangs and Gangsters.” The New York Times. August 17, 2007.