Hell’s Kitchen began a dramatic decline in the 1950s as youth gangs, pimps and prostitutes, and drug dealers invaded the area. For a few years, the restaurants along did Restaurant Row—the name officially given to West 46th St. between 8th and 9th Avenues in 1973—provided a buffer to the worst of the crime, but ultimately even it succumbed to the crime and violence that surrounded it. The situation became so bad that by the mid-1970s the steps of Saint Luke’s were chained off.
Saint Luke’s and particularly Pastor Dale Hansen, played an outsized role in attempting to revitalize the block but often their efforts led to only temporary improvements. Ultimately, the block was rejuvenated by the Disneyfication of Times Square at the turn of the 21st. century, when city government stood firmly behind the push to clean up the area.
The Greening of Restaurant Row
When Pastor Hansen arrived in 1975, commercial and residential groups on the block were fragmented and distrusted each other, making it difficult to coalesce around common goals. Hansen was the only one whom everyone trusted. Arguing that by working together, both commercial and residential interests could be met, he pioneered the organization of the Restaurant Row Association in 1975. As its president, he fought for the city to revitalize the block. It took 11 years of meetings and pressure on city officials, but the government ultimately committed funds to the project. The sidewalks were widened and cuts were made to facilitate taxis dropping off restaurant customers. Ginkgo trees were planted, and old-style traditional lighting installed for ambiance. The new street was dedicated in January 1987. The next day the crack dealers moved in.
The emergence of the crack trade led to a dramatic rise in crime on the block. Purse-snatchers and muggers attacked passersby while prostitutes harassed restaurant customers and men coming to church. Pastor Hansen would often be awakened in the very early morning hours by transvestite prostitutes conducting business on the church’s steps. He was stabbed twice and once he found a dead body on the hood of his car.
The Restaurant Row Association wrote numerous letters to the Police Department and other city officials asking for help, but received a lukewarm (if any) response. In June 1988, frustrated by the lack of official support, the Association recruited the Guardian Angels, a controversial volunteer group composed mostly of Black and Hispanic teenagers who patrolled the block unarmed. Some viewed them as a deterrent to crime; others called them vigilantes unconcerned with civil rights.
The arrival of the Angels on one of the most famous blocks in New York City caused an international stir, and an opinion piece in the New York Times denounced the action. Restaurant Row leaders were called down to police headquarters for a lecture on undermining the city’s authority. But when Pastor Hansen displayed the piles of letters the association had sent—with no response—the city agreed to increase the police presence on the block. Soon, Pastor Hansen later remembered, Restaurant Row became one of the safest blocks in the city, with the Guardian Angels patrolling the block, the police watching the Guardians, and the media scrutinizing them all.