Inner City Diary
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A Holiday in "Hell's Kitchen"
January 11, 2004
From my perspective, thereís nothing as simultaneously inspiring and humbling as walking the streets of New York City.

We spent a chunk of our Christmas vacation out East visiting family and friends. Driving just over two days in our van, we entered New York City via the Holland Tunnel underneath the Hudson River. My heart jumped with anticipation. Itís been twenty years since I lived in New York City, but in many ways it still feels like home.

This trip was a milestone for our family. It was to be a coming of age for our boys and for us as parents. It was also a rekindling of memories and dreams for myself.

Iím sure thereís something in every parent that wonders how their kids will interpret and react to the place where we spent our childhood. I recall the concrete and asphalt playgrounds of my childhood. Some sights and sounds of life in the old neighbourhood are permanently etched in my subconscious. The dreams, insecurities and mischief of my adolescence are conjured up by simple strolls down the same streets so many years later.

We were staying in a section of Manhattan nicknamed ďHellís Kitchen.Ē The name allegedly arose from a conversation between two cops summoned to quell a street brawl around the turn of the 1900ís. One of them commented, regarding the temperature and the frenzied criminality of the neighbourhood, ďItís as hot as Hell here!Ē The other cop corrected him, noting, ďItís cool in Hell. This is Hellís kitchen.Ē

Thanks to the determined influence and activity of the underworld, the nickname stuck. But others were drawn to the area precisely because they understood that the darkest places were most in need of light. One of those was a mentor of mine. Walter Rauschenbusch pastored a small church of immigrants in the middle of Hellís Kitchen at that time.

Not scared by the reputation or realities of life on the wild side, he and his parishioners did much to bring hope to those who couldnít leave, and headaches to the thugs which victimized the neighbourhood. My parents attended that church, and I remembered seeing his picture on a plaque in the church lobby. It wasnít until many years later that I appreciated the significance of his efforts. I think my boys understood more about my work here in Winnipeg by hearing more about his work there in Hellís Kitchen.

Our oldest, Matthew, will soon turn 19 and Brandon and Jared will soon turn 17. They were born and raised in Winnipeg, but have inherited my love for the Big Apple.

We have visited New York as a family several times, but this time was different for the boys. In addition to the time spent together as family, Virginia and I decided to let them explore the city on their own.

Having grown up in New York, I know some of the dangers lurking in the shadows of the bright lights, glittering signs and crowds.

But our confidence in their street smarts and good decision-making provided us with some comfort as we watched them go. I think Virginia was a little more apprehensive than I, as she wanted to make sure we sent each one off with an ďI love youĒ Ė just in case we never saw them again.

They loved every bit and bite of the Big Apple. From the busses and subways to walking through various neighbourhoods. Greenwich Village, the Lower East Side, Chinatown, Little Italy, Times Square, Uptown and Harlem. We laughed as they mimicked the accents and antics of some of New Yorkís more colorful characters.
It was a good trip. In the midst of Hellís Kitchen, in the midst of a high alert for terrorism, we enjoyed our little exploration of the city that never sleeps.

As parents, we gained a new confidence in our children to be able to find their way in a strange place Ė and in life in general. They had found their way through the maze of streets and a myriad of suspicions. They saw the city of my childhood Ė not just for itís struggles, but for itís potential, excitement and joy.

As I met with friends and family, I was inspired and humbled anew by those who dared to be a light in a place as dark and hot as Hellís Kitchen.

The reality today mocks the name. Itís nowhere near as dark as it used to be. The prolonged and collective efforts of brave souls has punctured the darkness and allowed for new generations to play, learn and work in a better neighbourhood.

And I returned to the West End, thankful for all those doing the same here in our neighbourhood.
Copyright 2004
Rev. Harry Lehotsky
Rev. Harry Lehotsky is Director of New Life Ministries, a community ministry in the inner-city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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lehotsky@escape.ca