Born and brought up in Hell’s Kitchen, Chris LeBron returned to the neighborhood in 2015 and began serving on Community Board 4 the following year. Here is Chris’s West Side Story.
So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
I was born in 1984 at Roosevelt Hospital on W58th Street and 9th Avenue to a working class Puerto Rican family. My father, Henry, was born in Central Harlem and raised in Amsterdam Houses right behind Lincoln Center. My mother, Rosemary, was born in Marcy Houses in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn and raised in Hell’s Kitchen. They met in Hell’s Kitchen when they were teenagers. My father attended John Jay and became a mailman. My mother attended Princeton University and was one of the first women to graduate from the school. All roads led back to Hell’s Kitchen and they found an apartment on W47th Street and married at St. Luke’s on Restaurant Row. I attended public school in the district along with my little sister.
How did you end up in Hell’s Kitchen?
I graduated from the High School for Environmental studies in 2002 and after attending CUNY Hunter College part-time I transferred to Saint Louis University in Missouri. In 2009 I moved back home and lived first in Hell’s Kitchen and then to Brooklyn like every other millennial, and returned to Hell’s Kitchen in 2015 when my parents retired. I’m lucky to live in a rent-stabilized apartment on W47th Street.
What’s your favorite thing about Hell’s Kitchen?
When I would fly home from a work trip or vacation I could always spot Hell’s Kitchen from above. It’s that place on the island untouched by greedy developers. Surrounded by skyscrapers from the north, south and east there is a large cut out of 5 story buildings and seeing home gives me peace.
And what’s your Hell’s Kitchen pet peeve?
Losing neighbors and friends to rising rents. Followed by bikes and trash on the sidewalks.
Did you stay put when the pandemic hit or did you find an escape for some of the time?
I stayed put during the pandemic. From time to time I would jump on a pedal assist e-bike and visit my friends in other boroughs, but staying here to be with my Hell’s Kitchen family kept me alive. Have you ever taken the ferry to the Rockaways? It is such a peaceful ride down the East River.
What did you do for work pre-COVID? What are you doing now?
Pre-COVID I worked for the New York City Council as a Policy Director for an elected official who represented the neighborhoods of Brownsville, Ocean Hill, Bed-Stuy, East Flatbush, and Crown Heights. Mom and Dad are originally from public housing and I still have family who are NYCHA residents. The elected official chaired the Public Housing Committee and this was my way of giving back to the people.
Since 2016 I have served on Manhattan Community Board 4. We get into really hyperlocal issues. It’s an unpaid job that demands a lot of commitment. There are 50 of us and they are some of the most intelligent folks I have ever met. Now I am running for office full-time. Sometimes you can catch me picking up a bar shift at Beer Culture on W45th Street.
On occasion, I advise and contribute on policy pieces that are related to the pandemic, specifically how to improve the lives of parents and children across the country. My experience in the private sector and in government has led to collaborating with the journalists at parents.com. So much of what our government does rarely considers children, parents and caretakers, which is insane because our children are going to inherit this Earth.
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What’s the most interesting thing that you’ve learned during the pandemic?
I wouldn’t call anything I learned during the pandemic interesting, rather everything I learned during the height of the pandemic was born out of unfortunate circumstance and tragedy. My one take away from this whole experience is that despite absent leadership, good people can and do rise to the occasion to fill the voids. I celebrate those people.
Tell us one thing that’s given you hope during the pandemic?
Regular neighbors answering the call and organizing. Catie Savage and her Litter Legion. Chad MacDonald and the Hell’s Kitchen Rangers. The countless caretakers of the Hell’s Kitchen free store. The 7 o’clock bells, pots and pans. How we all celebrated in the streets when it was announced Biden and Harris won the 2020 election.
What’s the most serendipitous (random/obscure/ insane) experience that’s happened to you in Hell’s Kitchen?
I have lived here on and off for 38 years. What’s random or insane for most people outside of Hell’s Kitchen is kind of par for the course for us. That’s just how this community rolls and I love it that way. We are full of color.
What’s your closest brush with world fame and celebrity?
There are so many celebrity sightings in Hell’s Kitchen. Just the other day I was sitting at Hold Fast next to Heidi Gardner of SNL. Outside of doing my best not to fan boy when I meet an SNL cast member I love spending time with my friends.
What’s your superpower?
What song do you sing at the top of your voice in the shower?
The Middle – Jimmy Eat World
Which people inspire you the most?
The ones that give a damn. The ones who take a hit, land on their butts and get right back up again. “Goonies never say die.”
What’s your favorite quote or saying?
“Never half-ass two things. Whole ass one thing.” — Ron Swanson
Do you love Times Square? Why, or why not?
Yes. I grew up working class. I grew up in a Hell’s Kitchen that was overrun with crime. When I was a little boy walking to the McDonald’s across from Duffy Square I would be surrounded by my family. The only thing visible to me were the glowing ads. I pursued a career in marketing and advertisement before joining City Council because of the bright lights of Times Square. Now as an adult I look at Times Square and I connect it with all my friends and neighbors who work on Broadway.
Do you love Hudson Yards? Why, or why not?
No. Hudson Yards is a disappointment. A scar and a permanent reminder of how greed will bulldoze over the needs of everyday New Yorkers. I can’t stand bullies.
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Hell’s Kitchen Happy Places
Clinton Community Garden — I love watching people garden and picnic. This is such an amazing place to enjoy a respite from all the chaos and even turn a stranger to a friend. Have you had their honey?! It’s a fantastic locally sourced product.
The Gaf — I never stepped into this pub before COVID. But with new friends come new places. On Sundays one of the bartenders plays jazz classics and it is an incredibly mellow experience. Having a pint, reading the Sunday Times and talking baseball with Austin Rogers is a Sunday afternoon triple play.
Restaurant Row — Restaurant Row has become Hell’s Kitchen’s crown jewel. Delicious food. Great live music. When the street was closed to vehicular traffic it was such an oasis. I’m looking forward to permanently closing the road down so we can enjoy that vibrancy again.
Esposito Meat Market — I quoted Ron Swanson earlier so there should be no surprise that I would call out a butcher shop. Their sausage is amazing but get there early. If you’re going to a bbq do your host a favor and offer to buy something from there.
Guantanamera — The owner Mario is an incredible host. The food reminds me of visiting my family in Puerto Rico and the live salsa will put a smile on your face even if you do not speak Spanish.
Westway Diner — This is the birthday place of Seinfeld! SEINFELD!!!
Sacco Pizza — Sacco’s is located on 55th and 9th Avenue. This pizzeria is fantastic and has been in operation for 75 years. I attended high school right around the corner at the High School for Environmental Studies and a slice from Sacco’s after class was obligatory.
Westside Theatre — It’s a 130 year old church turned into an independent theater. The tickets are affordable and there is nothing more colorful than a little slice of off-Broadway.
Frisson Espresso — Frisson should translate to “rocket fuel”. Rob and Tulian are incredible baristas and kind business owners. On warm mornings you can sit on your stoop with a cup and watch Hell’s Kitchen come alive.
Worldwide Plaza — We don’t have a lot of greenspaces in Hell’s Kitchen. The largest greenspaces are Dewitt Clinton Park and that slab of concrete at Hudson River Park south of the Intrepid. Worldwide Plaza gets plenty of sunlight and when I experience my winter blues that’s usually where I will walk to for some well needed vitamin D.