Hell’s Kitchen. Midnight. The sounds of the city hover in the air like dark messengers, bearers of things that go bump in the night. This is where Matt Murdock calls his home. This is where the downtrodden of the city come to seek shelter. This is where Matt comforts them as a lawyer in the daylight hours and patrols the dangerous back alleys as a crime fighter at night.
This is where there are…
Green trees? Refurbished brownstones? Doormen ushering in suits and ties to their apartment buildings? A bustling Equinox gym and a lovely Whole Foods on the corner?
Marvel has always strived to bring the “real world” into their four-color pages. Unlike DC books, where fantastical cities only resemble the ones we see outside our windows, Marvel’s readers get to imagine the actual streets and buildings they wake up to every morning. Streets filled with their favorite heroes webbing themselves to your apartment building and stopping traffic on 5th Avenue while they stop a robbery in progress. Or, if you happen to live in a more out of the way part of the country, heroes bumbling their way through the Great Lakes. Yes, you heard me. Go look it up!
So here I am, in the city of my youth. I’ve flown to Manhattan to yet again experience its beating heart. The heart that has so very often been at the center of the Daredevil comics Marvel’s been churning out since the 1960s. It’s not just the city where Murdock and Nelson’s law office resides. It’s not just the city where you can stroll up and ring the buzzer to Avengers Mansion. It’s a character in and of itself.
While it’s always been wonderful to imagine visiting the “Flash Museum” in DC’s Central City, imagining Spider-Man battling the entirety of his Rogues Gallery as they tear through the walls of the Museum of Natural History always appealed to me just a little bit more. It always seemed to be less a question of “what if this really happened,” but more a question of “what if this really happened here?”
So you can imagine my dismay when I rounded a city corner and stepped into the circle known as Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood my friends and I steered clear of in High School, and was hit not with the sounds and smells I remembered from the past (screams and urine), but with a much more shocking experience altogether. Peace and quiet.
Manhattan has always been on the cutting edge of construction and development. Even as I write these words from twenty stories in the sky, the night is filled with sounds of jackhammers and swinging cranes. It’s also known for its relentless gentrification. Money inevitably pushing the impoverished wherever it needs it to go, which more often than not, amounts to “anywhere but here.”
It was only a matter of time before the real estate tycoons that drive the economy of one of the most wealthy cities in the world, looked up and saw Hell’s Kitchen as a neighborhood of opportunity rather than a dumping ground for the lepers and outcasts of “New Amsterdam.”
In just ten or fifteen years, this once dark and brooding part of town has become a highly sought after piece of the New York pie. It’s got waiting list upon waiting list for the affluent seeking coveted living space.
Not very romantic, is it?
But that’s the beauty of a comic book. It can freeze time and make an entire city or state or country become whatever it needs to be to fit itself into the puzzle of a story. It can make the President find himself at a moral crossroad as he strikes a bargain with Norman Osborn. It can unite an entire country in a way that no “Occupy” movement ever could as it comes together to once and for all, rid itself of the Hulk’s reign of destruction.
And it can keep the magic of the dirty, sweaty, crime-filled streets of Hell’s Kitchen trapped in the unchecked comic book brilliance of the sixties and seventies.
A neighborhood where the Daredevil prowls its boundaries, making it crystal clear to the Kingpin and the rest of the heroes and villains of the world that this is “his” neighborhood and these are “his” people.
A neighborhood where Daredevil is looked to by the average resident as their savior and only true protector.
A neighborhood cut off from the rest of the world, with its own set of rules, its people following their own political agendas and struggling to put food on the table and keep from falling into the pit of poverty and starvation.
Or is that Doctor Doom and the people of Latveria?
As if this all wasn’t bad enough, haven’t they also changed the name of the neighborhood (not that Hell’s Kitchen was ever the “real” name, I suppose) to something like “Clinton Heights”? It’s like the opposite of George Carlin: he grew up in Morningside Heights, but to sound tougher, he and his friends called their neighborhood “White Harlem.”