A Playground Grows in Hell’s Kitchen

It was known simply as “the park” to the neighborhood kids of 1950s Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan. Matthews-Palmer Playground, as it’s called today, was little more than a narrow length of basketball and handball courts, concrete chess tables and benches that stretched from West 46th Street to West 45th Street in between Ninth and Tenth avenues. At night, the stark playground, wedged between five story tenements, laid in thick shadows lit only by the streetlights of West 46th Street. It was a refuge for residents from the indoor heat of smoldering summer days and nights.

In the summer of 1959, the park became infamous when murders committed by young members of a mostly Puerto Rican gang, The Vampires, dominated headlines. Salvador Agron and Luis Hernandez, better known as The Capeman and The Umbrella Man, respectively, were the subjects of a sensational murder trial. At 16 years old, Agron would become the youngest prisoner in New York history sentenced to death row. The park murders also inspired Paul Simon to pen a musical based on Agron’s life and, over the decades since its rocky foundation, the small playground would make its way into Hollywood films, Broadway plays and music videos.

The park was back in the news recently when City Council Speaker Christine Quinn put in $1.8 million into the city’s 2013 budget for a major renovation of Matthews-Palmer Playground. The funds were written into the 2013 city budget at the direction of Quinn. But with no schedule set in stone, it sounds not unlike many renovation efforts of the past. The park that was the backdrop to New York City’s most infamous teen gang murders has had around a half-dozen clean up attempts in almost as many decades, all which have been snagged by construction delays and financial set backs. And while new equipment and fresh paint may revitalize the face of Matthews-Palmer Playground, some of its historic troubles have a way of chipping away at the fresh veneers.

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On one of the last days of summer, August 29, 1959, Robert Young and Anthony Krzesinski sat on the concrete benches of the park with Tony Waznikaitis, Ewald Riemer and Harold and Sandra Luken after they had gone to the movies. Alfred Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” the most popular film that year, played in theaters around New York along with “Some Like it Hot” and “Anatomy of a Murder.” As the teens sat, a group of 10 or 11 boys from several Manhattan gangs entered the park and approached Young and his friends. In the darkness a lighter flicked on and was shone close to their faces. In Spanish someone said, “These are them.”

Salvador Agron and Luis Hernandez, had come to the 45th Street Playground with various members of The Vampires, The Young Lords, and Heart Kings looking to a fight an Irish gang, The Nordics, over some previous dispute. Agron, wearing a black nurse’s cape, was armed with a dagger. Hernandez carried an umbrella, the tip sharpened to a fine point.

“Where’s Frenchy?” one of the boys asked.

Frenchy and another member from the Heart Kings claimed to Hernandez and Agron that 35 to 40 Irish and Italian boys had beat them and a few friends up as they walked through Hell’s Kitchen. Harold Luken replied that they didn’t know where Frenchy was. Or, according to Agron’s statement to the police after their arrest, “They got smart,” making fun of his cape. When the group got up to leave they found the exits of the playground blocked by Agron and Hernandez’s friends.

The Nordics never showed up. Instead, perhaps in a case of mistaken identity, 16-year-olds Anthony Krzesinski and Robert Young were both stabbed to death by Agron. Riemer, Waznikaitis and Harold and Sandra Luken were also roughed up, suffering stab wounds and beatings. Riemer, who had a severe knife wound to the stomach, staggered on 45th Street, where a garage attendant saw him and rushed him to the hospital. Krzesinski collapsed in the hallway of a tenement on 46th Street. Young made it into an adjoining building with Waznikaitis’ help before expiring in a second floor apartment.

In a case of art imitating life, “West Side Story” played blocks away at Broadway’s Winter Garden Theatre. The musical’s main protagonists, the Puerto Rican gang the Sharks and the all white Jets, fighting with switchblades for control of Hell’s Kitchen in a park bared striking resemblance to Agron, The Vampires and their plan to rumble with the Nordics in a Hell’s Kitchen playground. In the 1961 film version, Matthews-Palmer Playground was recreated on a Hollywood lot where the Sharks and Jets clash in the opening of the first act.

Even though there were clear racial motives for both the real life and fictional West Side Story gang rivalry, the police and media attempted to exclude ethnicity and gang affiliation as a reason for the attack. Chief of Detectives James B. Leggett, who was in charge of the investigation, also added a day after the killings that “no gangs were involved.” In a recent interview, Professor Eric C. Schneider of the University of Pennsylvania said that during that time New York City attempted to down play most conflicts that may have been influenced by race.

“I think New Yorkers viewed themselves as progressives, that problems could be solved with government intervention programs,” Schneider said. The foundations for racial equality in America were being just laid in the late ’50s with paramount social advances like the desegregation of public schools. In a famous 1957 incident, the federal government even stepped in with the military to assure nine African-American students were allowed to attend High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. According to Schneider, because New York was a liberal northern state, when it came to racial tension, “They weren’t prepared to see it.”

When, after an intensive manhunt, Agron and Hernandez were arrested, they were paraded before the press, a practice sometimes referred to as a “perp walk.”  Instead of shying from the reporters, they mugged for photographers and were famously unrepentant. “I don’t care if I burn. My mother could watch me,” Agron was quoted sneering to the press. “Killed 2 Because ‘I Felt Like It’ Says Cape Man,” read the headline on the September 3, 1959 edition of the Daily News. When the oldest, at 27 years old, Raphael Colon, a homeless dishwasher who immigrated just four years earlier form Puerto Rico, was told he could face 25 years for first-degree manslaughter he responded, “What difference does it make? I haven’t lived anyway.”

Lily Fable grew up in the neighborhood and remembers the incident. “We rarely went to that playground. But afterwards we never went there,” said Fable, a fourth generation resident of Hell’s Kitchen whose family has owned and operated Poseidon Bakery on 9th Avenue near 44th Street since 1923. She always preferred to go to and take her own children to safer, cleaner McCaffery Playground on West 43rd Street.

She recalls hearing about the murders because Agron, Hernandez and the other gang members weren’t from the neighborhood. They had taken cabs from 72nd Street and Broadway, a neighborhood then known as San Juan Hill where Lincoln Center now stands. The New York City Housing Authority in a report on conditions called the neighborhood “the worst slum in New York City.” That year, 1959, ground was broken for the center after blocks were torn down as part of Robert Moses’ urban renewal plan.

Neighborhood children didn’t go to the playground between 45th and 46th Street, especially alone. It had a reputation as a rough place for older kids and after the murders it became nearly deserted. “It took years to get over that,” Fable said in between wrapping neat boxes of spinach and cheese pies, baklava and countless other Greek pastries for steady waves of customers.

Matthews-Palmer Playground opened to the public on April 16, 1937 and was just known simply as the 45th Street Playground. It was nearly dismantled just two weeks after it opened, an event that may have foreshadowed the park’s infamy and turbulent history. Over 100 mothers and children staged a sit in when crews showed up to remove the swings and close the park indefinitely due to a city budget cut that risked the jobs of 5,000 workers. The work crew charged with removing the park equipment also found that their truck tires had been punctured and gasoline and water lines tampered with. The New York Times described the scene as “bedlam” with the playground being “held triumphantly by the children” through the following evening.

Kids would continue their hold on the playground throughout the decades in various ways. Eric Schneider, in his book “Vampires, Dragons and Egyptian Kings,”a history of New York youth gangs, describes the unlit, concrete playground as the “sort of place one stumbled upon by accident, and local youths went there to smoke marijuana, drink beer, and have sex.”

Three months after the fatal stabbings, Mayor Robert F. Wagner announced that 20 playgrounds across the city would be outfitted with bright lighting in an effort to deter crime. The initiative was aimed at areas where juvenile delinquency was considered most dangerous. Matthews-Palmer Playground was the first to receive new lights. Wagner’s son, Robert F. Wagner Jr., a city councilmember, would later help introduce a bill that would honor neighborhood activist and social worker May Mathews by naming the park after her. Matthews was the head social worker at Hartley for 50 years, focusing her efforts to help New York’s new immigrants settle into life in America, organizing English and citizenship classes and job training.

Alexandra Palmer, who’s name was added to the park in 2007, was responsible for aiding the decision to choose May Matthews as the person to name the park after. For a decade between 1980 and 1990, Palmer was the playground guardian, opening and locking the park every morning and evening. In part through her efforts, the park got its first major redevelopment a decade after the Capeman murders.

In the late 1960’s, the city hired an architect, Michael Altschuler, to redesign the playground.  Altschuler was a young architect at the time, working at a firm and eager to head out on his own. He had recently built a small playground for a nursery school in Manhattan, charging only a dollar, and the project had brought him some attention.

The new playground was to be a place that would channel the energy of neighborhood youth in a positive way. Altschuler described his task to the New York Times in 1969 as “creating a space that wouldn’t tempt the destructive tendencies of neighborhood kids.”

“You couldn’t do anything without the permission of the kids,” Altschuler said recently over the phone from his studio in upstate New York. Almost immediately, he began witnessing the destructive energy he was up against. To learn about the community he was working with he went to the playground everyday after work to play basketball for weeks before getting started on the design. “Guys would be drinking beer and throw bottles on the court,” Altschuler recalled sadly. At community meetings discussing the park’s design, some women expressed concern that if benches were added their husbands would simply sleep on them instead of coming home after a night of drinking.

The park Altschuler imagined was to have a cable-sliding device, modeled after something in a Marine physical training course, and weights for weightlifting. The plan also included wooden totem poles for “carving that kids are going to do anyway.”

“By today’s standards, there’s no way it could happen,” Altschuler said of his original design. In the end, only half of his design was actually built and almost immediately the new additions were vandalized. On the day the park was being dedicated, Altschuler made an upsetting discovery. Someone had cut rings around the trunks of the newly planted trees, a practice known as girdling or ring barking, which means almost certain death for any tree. “I was heartbroken,” Altschuler said.

In a more personal act of vandalism, someone had whited out his name from the roster of names commemorated on a series of wooden signs. The signs, plastered high onto the side of an encompassing building near the 46th Street entrance of the playground, also bared the names of neighborhood children involved with the playground’s renovation. “It was hurtful. But also interesting,” Altschuler reflected. “I didn’t go back for awhile because some of the things that happened were really hurtful.” As Altschuler returned to the playground over the years, he saw less and less of the renovations he’d designed for the small outdoor space. “It becomes theirs and you lose control,” Altschuler said contemplating an architect’s relationship to the work they’re commissioned for.

Despite the challenges though, Altschuler felt happy and satisfied with his work. “I think everybody won. I would do it again and I would do it for no money.”

On the west side of the park today lays one of the last relics of the design Altschuler helped create. A faded, deteriorating mural spans the broad, windowless side of 430 West 46th Street. It was designed by a Mexican mural artist, Arnold Belkin, and was commissioned by the City Arts organization and Michael Altschuler. Branches of a tree stretch out to obstruct part of its composition and the once vibrant red, blue, yellow and greens have become dull pastels. Large patches of grey replace the stucco that’s broken off over the years and carried away pieces of the original artwork.

“The mural was a result of efforts to clean up the neighborhood,” said Andrew Begg, who, as president of the West 46th Street Block Association, is part of a strong community-led effort to restore the mural. When it was announced publicly that Speaker Quinn would set money aside in 2013 for the park, Begg thought of the decaying mural. “We’re hoping some of those funds could be used for the mural restoration.”

Currently there’s an ambitious effort to repair the endangered artwork. Serious efforts only began last fall to restore Belkin’s mural, a project that is estimated to cost around $10,000 even with Golden Artist Colors donating the paint and materials for the restoration. “We had hoped to get it restored this year. We just didn’t raise enough money,” said Jane Weissman, project manager of Rescue Public Murals, a national nonprofit organization who works to rescue and restore murals across the U.S.

The objective was for the work to reflect the diverse community’s values and issues affecting it. Belkin was as diverse as the Irish, Italian and Puerto Rican neighborhood he was working with. Born in Canada to a Russian and English Jewish couple, Belkin moved to Mexico in his teens to study Mexican mural painting. “Against Domestic Colonialism is now New York’s oldest existing outdoor mural.

The mural is composed of three interlinking circles. Inside the rings, Belkin designed scenes that were meant to be critical of the aggressive development that dramatically changed the New York City cultural and physical landscape over the previous few decades. “It was the controversial years of urban renewal. Robert Moses destroyed neighborhoods,” said Weissman.

The American Housing Act of 1942 made federal dollars available for cities to purchase areas considered slums. The properties were then handed over to private developers who promptly demolished them to make way for high-rises, parks and new roads. Hell’s Kitchen was one of those slums. In the first ring of “Against Domestic Colonialism”, a bulldozer treads towards a woman cradling a dead man, a needle falling from his hand. A bald eagle with a dollar sign on its chest adorns the front of the bulldozer.

In the center, a group of people is attempting to stop the bulldozer from razing their homes, their arms raised out against, as Belkin describes, “the encroachment of corporate machinery.”A woman, her face now blotches of grey from numerous structural repairs, holds a sign that reads, “We the people demand control of our communities”. Another sign, now completely lost, read, “The neighborhood is for people, not big business.”

Ironically, big business was partially responsible for helping the community restore the playground. The McGraw-Hill Companies, who owns businesses in education, media and construction, donated a large chunk of money to fund the project. Altschuler, who was ultimately responsible for hiring Belkin, was nervous when he found out Belkin’s concept was to essentially denounce one of the sponsors. “I thought I was in trouble,” Altschuler said.

Andrew Begg summed up that Belkin’s work was saying that the “community needs to have a say in what’s going on.” Weissman and Begg both agreed that the issues of 1972, when the mural was completed, still affect the community today. Gentrification is a frequently and long discussed topic in New York City and Hell’s Kitchen’s proximity to Times Square and the Theatre District has made it exceptionally vulnerable to the issues that come with it. “If we didn’t own the building, there’s no way we could afford to be here,” Lily Fable said of the building where Poseidon Bakery is located. The apartments above Poseidon have also housed her family since 1952. “You don’t have that too much anymore.”

“Half of the people in the neighborhood have been forced out. This neighborhood has traditionally been immigrant, working class and artists,” said John Fisher, co-chair of the West 45th Street Block Association. He cited weakening of rent laws in the ‘90s and ‘00s. Nicole Cicogna executive director of Hartley House, which provides social services and sits across from Matthews-Palmer Playground, is currently doing a study to see whether community concerns about gentrification are actually materializing. She doesn’t believe that change is detrimental to Hell’s Kitchen but was concerned about the effect it could have on long time tenants. “To some degree, it’s good for the neighborhood as long as residents who’ve been there 30, 40 years aren’t being forced out.”

Just a few years after Belkin finished “Against Domestic Colonialsm”, the playground hadn’t improved all that much. Writing in The New York Times in 1979, Mary Breasted described the playground as “a sorry little poor man’s haven” with “benches that smell strongly of wine.” Another extensive refurbishing that was supposed to have taken place the previous fall was frozen. Plans and a budget had been approved but the financing, that was to come from the sale of donated property, was held up into the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, The Capeman murders that had taken place in the “poor man’s haven” made a lasting impression on musician Paul Simon. He saw the story on the front pages of newspapers and on television during his summer between high school and college. “I remember thinking here was a kid my age–a kid who had the look. Salvador Agron looked like a rock and roll hoodlum; he looked like the 1950s,” Simon mused in the liner notes of the CD release “Songs from the Capeman.”Simon was also apparently enamored with the park itself. He chose it as the setting for the music video for his hit song “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.”

In 1989, Simon started playing with the idea of a musical based on the playground killings and Agron’s life and in 1998 “The Capeman” opened at Broadway’s Marquis Theater. The reviews were overwhelmingly unwelcoming. Coincidently, Simon’s play garnered some reviews similar to West Side Story. While critics praised the music, they were not receptive to the themes of youth street gangs, race and violence. Theatre critic Brooks Atkinson of The Times had called West Side Story’s subject matter “horrifying.”

The cold reception came more from both critics and protestors of Simon’s handling of the story. Theatre critic Ben Brantley wrote that seeing “The Capeman” was “like watching a mortally wounded animal. You’re only sorry that it has to suffer and that there’s nothing you can do about it.” There was criticism that Simon was romanticizing Agron’s story while leaving out the impact that the murders had on families and surviving victims. “The day I went to see it there was a group that were picketing, saying it was much too sympathetic,” said Eric Schneider. “What’s interesting is what’s not in Simon’s play. It was enormously problematic.”

By some accounts, Agron may have had ongoing romantic relationships with one or two other male members of the Vampires and was sometimes prone to sudden outbursts that would involve him banging his head on walls and screaming. Schneider questioned, “How are you going to make a sympathetic play about a guy who’s claim to fame was killing two guys who weren’t gang members and leave out that he was homosexual and maybe schizophrenic?”

It wasn’t all harsh words for Simon’s Broadway debut though. A small handful of writers and critics came out to the defend “The Capeman.” In an unsigned editorial, El Diario, New York’s oldest and most widely circulated Spanish news source, said the overwhelming attack on the play was because white critics, “have no clue what it means to live as a Puerto Rican in this city.” By some accounts up to 90 percent of the audience was Latino during the show’s 68 runs. El Diario praised “The Capeman” for capturing the spirit of Latino culture and music while condemning the environmental conditions that contributed to the heinous crimes committed by Salvador Agron. “Review after review, it was as if they saw one play, and we saw another. They just didn’t get it.”

Margaret Spillane, an English lecturer at Yale University, sympathized with El Diario’s view. She wrote, “What the Broadway chroniclers don’t like is having The Capeman’s gorgeous music delivering a platter of economic, racial, and political questions that are not so easy to digest.”

On a recent sunny, Saturday July morning in Matthews-Palmer Playground, Lisa Dzialo pushes her son on a swing set across from three teens shooting baskets and a couple playing handball, all taking advantage of the quiet that early mornings offer. In between each push of the swing she glances at a bench of young twenty-something men in Carhartts, hardhats and work boots The men drink from Gatorade bottles and pass a cigar back and forth between the five of them and the sweet, sticky scent of marijuana smoke mingles with the burning tobacco leaves and a light breeze carries it across the park. Within minutes, the cigar is extinguished and the men get up, one after another, and leave the park heading west on 45th Street. Dzialo walks out behind them and follows them for a long time with her gaze.

“If you’re gonna smoke weed, don’t do it in a playground. And don’t do it when you’re going back to work on a public project,” said Dzialo vented to me. The workers appeared to have gone to the Gotham West construction site, a four tower project between 10th and 11th Avenues on 45th Street set to bring 1,259 new residential units to Hell’s Kitchen.

Dzialo and her family live two blocks from the Hell’s Kitchen park and have called the neighborhood home for eight years. She says it’s typical for her to report incidents like these to 311, New York City’s non-emergency complaint and government info hotline.  “A lot of kids come here to smoke weed,” Dzialo’s husband Mark said. “You don’t see a lot of families here. There’s a lot of drugs.” Indeed, the Dzialos were just one of two families enjoying the park’s facilities on a warm summer day.

“It has become a place that parents aren’t bringing their children to,” said Chana Widawski, who helps organize events like bike-in movie nights and moonlight yoga at Matthews-Palmer. She’s also co-chair of the 45th Street Block Association. “I call it our outdoor community center,” Widawski said. “We’re trying to infuse it with positive energy.”

Not everyone agrees with the dismal portrait people often paint of the park. John Fisher, co-chair of the West 45th Street Block Association said that there’s no evidence there’s more drug use at Matthews-Palmer Playground than other area parks. Fisher said, “there are drugs everywhere,” suggesting that all city parks experience some level of drug use but that “there’s no drug problem in the park.”

“The place could certainly be fixed up,” Fisher stated. “But that money could be used elsewhere for better things. Schools, hospitals.”

“I think it’s a great way for tax dollars to be spent,” Widawski said in reaction to sentiments that the planned renovation was a frivolous expenditure. Lily Fable’s son Paul grew up playing in Matthews-Palmer playground. “Unless you have small children, you don’t realize how important these places are.” Fable said.

Some say that the park has already improved over the last several years. “I never would sit here 15 years ago,” said Gregory McNally who’s been a superintendent of 12 buildings in the neighborhood for the last 16 years.

There has been speculation by some residents that the troubled park is a target for politicians seeking to win support from voters in Manhattan’s Community District 4.

“It was her idea not ours but we’re not going to turn it down. We’re certainly glad of it,” said Allison Tupper of the West 46th Street Block Association. Quinn’s office declined to speak on the record but Deputy Director of Public Affairs Phil Abramson of New York City Department of Parks & Recreation said that while there is no schedule set that they are, “proposing to reconstruct the playground, including new playground equipment, safety surface, pavement and landscaping.”

With so much support from both the community, government groups and an art preservation organization, Matthews-Palmer Playground will certainly get a serious facelift. When exactly, though, is anyone’s guess at the moment. The new slides and swings and fresh coats paint won’t guarantee that more families will come back to the playground or immediately fix any drug problems. It will however give residents another chance to mold it into a place that meets their needs and make it a park, once again, triumphantly held by the neighborhood.

 

 

5 thoughts on “A Playground Grows in Hell’s Kitchen

  1. I grown up playing in that park I remember the stabing and following the blood trail out of the park and across the street in the building . I went to see the park it looks so much different .

  2. Alexandra Palmer was the playground’s point person for the West 46th Street Block Association from the 1970s until her death in 2003. She was there almost every day, with kids gathering around her. She brought people together to clean the park, play games, plant in the 45th Street side garden, and to discourage those who shouldn’t be there. She was block president when the mid-70s renovations were done. Another renovation was done under her guardianship in the mid-1990s. Although it was a constant battle with addicts, pushers and street criminals who wanted to use the park as their haven, she and others on West 45th and West 46th Streets persevered and overall, created a place of respite from the hubbub of the city, a place where kids had fun and families felt safe.

    1. I was one of those kids. She was a great woman with a good heart, I grew up in that park. Me and my friends we’re regulars, as well as attending Hartley House and St. Clements Church. Remember doing a music video with Paul Simon, Mickey Mantel, Biz Markie, Big Daddy Kane, and Spud Webb. Those were great times.

      1. Leonel! I remember you, and your sister Yvey (Yvonne?) I have a photo of her in the playground. Those were interesting times. I think there’s a video on YouTube with some of those people you’ve mentioned. It’s good to hear from you. I hope you’re doing well.

  3. The park is well diversed, in its playing areas and the people who use the park. It is a safe park to be in. It’s true that drinking and smoking takes place in the park. So does it in Congress and in the church. I’ve been going to that park since 1981 and it is at it’s best, yet.

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