The Hell’s Kitchen Free Store suffered significant damage over the weekend, marking the third time the community trade-in spot has been vandalized since it opened — and the first time the structure has closed indefinitely.
“Our HK Free Store was COMPLETELY obliterated overnight,” wrote volunteer Linda Novenski of the damage to the pick up/dropoff center on W45th Street just west of 9th Avenue. “A few volunteer neighbors came together to repair the previously vandalized rain curtain (this was the 3rd replacement!), and install new ‘found’ shelving and paint it. In the morning Sunday, it was ALL GONE. We are stunned and trying to figure out where we go from here. We have no camera footage to show who might be doing this, and apparently no witnesses. All the trashed material was taken away….so it doesn’t seem to be random violence.” She added that the owners of the building had previously given the group permission to set up shop and the store had the required permission to keep a structure on the block.
The HK Free Store was established in March 2021 outside the long-closed Southern Hospitality restaurant as a place for Hell’s Kitchen neighbors — many already actively involved in the area’s Buy Nothing group — to swap household goods, books and unused toiletries among the community. Founding organizers Bailey Sperling and Chana Widawski told W42ST at the time that they hoped the HK Free store would serve as “a mutual aid project that focuses on landfill diversion and fulfilling needs in our community. It is a shared space for people to leave what they can and take what they need.”
The store served as a complementary hub to the nearby Hell’s Kitchen Community Cupboard, where volunteers work with local restaurants and grocery stores to save good food that would otherwise be thrown out. The community cupboard was also vandalized in April 2022, although the group has since repaired and rebuilt the structure.
“It’s truly disheartening to witness such a malicious act against the Hell’s Kitchen Free Store, a beacon of hope and support for our community,” said City Council Member Erik Bottcher of the incident. “This senseless act of vandalism undermines the spirit of giving and compassion that the store represents. It’s not only an attack on property but an attack on the community’s good will and values. My office is in touch with the NYPD about these incidents and I urge them to investigate this matter thoroughly, and take appropriate measures to safeguard the store’s future.” The vacant building on W45th Street and 9th Avenue is one of hundreds of empty storefronts that have plagued Hell’s Kitchen, with many wondering if building owners would rather let properties sit empty than invest in new businesses.
Photo gallery of the HK Free Store in its prime. Photos: Phil O’Brien
HK Free Store volunteer Linda said that in the wake of the site’s dismantling, volunteers were left wondering about the fate of the beloved organization. “Our Free Store received a certificate of appreciation from our City Council in our second year,” she said. “This recent total dismantling of the Store, the very night of a major repair/re-shelving by our volunteers, was clearly planned, leaving no trash on the street. We are in discussion now as to how to move forward somehow.”
Linda added that she was unsure if the group would relocate the store, but she hoped they would find a new home for it. She added: “The Store was appreciated by so many neighbors and visitors.”