The noise, bustle and inconvenience of construction is all around us in Hell’s Kitchen – and it has proved an inspiration to neighborhood artist Gwyneth Leech. Here, Gwyneth shares her West Side Story.
So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
I’ve been living in Hell’s Kitchen since 1999. I grew up in Philadelphia, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, then went on to art school in Edinburgh, Scotland. I lived in Scotland for 17 years where I married a Scot, David Wilson and we had our first daughter, Megan. It was always my intention to return to the States, though, especially as my parents got older. Thus I finally found myself arriving at JFK on a one-way ticket at the end of May that year, with David, Megan, too much luggage and in need of a place to live.
We looked at 40 apartments across Manhattan and in the boroughs, until a realtor showed us a floor-through in a brownstone on W44th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. and we knew it was right for us. The building was owned by Missy Cusick, a painter with a bohemian streak and well connected in Hell’s Kitchen. At that time, we had no credit rating in the US, having arrived with savings, but no full-time jobs. Missy was intuitive. She said, “I like the vibe of your family” and offered us the apartment, which was a great relief!
So we had a home. We were in the literal shadow of Manhattan Plaza, the roar of its air conditioners prominent in the summer. But Megan went to preschool there and we were soon part of a community of like-minded artistic families. A lot of our time was spent in playgrounds in the neighborhood in those days and that’s where we all made friends. In fact, the playgrounds were the subject of my first painting exhibition in New York City, at La Mama Galleria on the Lower East Side.
I had my second daughter, Grace in 2003. She also went to the preschool in Manhattan Plaza. Then both girls attended area elementary schools — Midtown West and PS 51 — before continuing in public middle and high schools downtown. We are so grateful for the excellent, dedicated teachers and resourceful principals they had along the way.
24 years in Hell’s Kitchen have flown by!
What was your first job? What do you do now?
I am a visual artist; painting is my main medium. My first job was teaching part time in the Graduate School of Fine Arts at the University, Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. It was on the strength of this job offer that we had e/immigrated from Scotland. I used to travel down by train from Penn Station. I was teaching digital moviemaking and helped them set up their first digital video editing lab. I taught there for three years and then moved to a similar job at Eugene Lang College, at the New School in New York City. After the birth of my second daughter, Grace, in 2003, I stopped teaching, left video art behind and re-dedicated myself to painting.
That’s when we moved to our current apartment, a co-op on W47th St, which we purchased just before Grace was born. At first, I had an art studio in the apartment but when Grace was in kindergarten, I started sharing with another artist in a space in the Garment District. I have now been in my art studio on W39th St. for 14 years. I sell my paintings, take commissions and have exhibited my artwork with numerous Manhattan galleries since the early 2000s.
David does postproduction audio for film and television. He’d left behind a post as a sound mixer at Scottish Television in Glasgow and we came here without him having anything lined up, which was fairly terrifying. His first gig in New York City came by way of a chance encounter in a restaurant in Naples, Italy, of all places! We had taken a trip there the spring before we e/immigrated. Our three-year-old daughter, Megan began playing with the child at the next table. It turned out that the family was from Brooklyn, and the husband worked as a video editor at DuArt on W55th St! He invited David to come by once we’d arrived in the States. David did so and was soon set up with a temporary sound mixing job.
This didn’t lead to permanent work, however, and though there were numerous sound studios in Midtown at that time, they were retrenching and not interviewing. For a while, we were at a bit of a loss and then we had a thought that it might be useful for David to go door-to-door in the Film Center Building on 9th Avenue. This he did, against his natural inclinations, knocking on the doors of all seemingly relevant businesses, asking if anybody had a contact. In one office, someone knew somebody who knew somebody who was an audio mixer at the then New York Times Television. David followed up on this remote contact, and it turned into one of his first regular gigs! He had additional stints mixing at Bloomberg television, and as a vacation relief mixer at ABC before finding his way to a long-running job in a television production company where he could set up his own post-production audio mix room. David has now successfully navigated over 20 years in a changing industry, several shifts in production company and continues to mix television series and independent film projects from his base in Hell’s Kitchen.
What’s your favorite New York minute (or moment) so far?
My favorite New York minute happened recently when I came across an orange rectangular bin with a solar panel on top at the corner of W48th Street and 9th Avenue, and realized it was a smart composting receptacle! It was elegant and such a pleasant surprise. Scanning a large QR code on the front, I download an app and figured out how to unlock the slot similar to a mail chute where the compost goes in. It literally appeared overnight with hundreds of others across Manhattan. I am so excited to be able to compost my household food waste and have been going to my corner bin on W47th Street every day since then. This certainly seems like a game changer in street pest control. I guess I’m a real New Yorker, to be so excited about a new development in how we manage trash!
Share with us why you love Hell’s Kitchen
I love how much Hell’s Kitchen is like a village. I bump into people I know all the time. That kind of easy contact is essential to a feeling of being at home. I love the community garden on W48th Street where I am a plot-holder. I am not very good at gardening, but it makes me happy to grow some flowers, especially the ones attractive to pollinators. I stop by most mornings to sit amongst the greenery and listen to the birds.
This neighborhood is an oasis of low-rise, residential buildings and livable streets, just steps from the chaos of Times Square, and the increasing density of skyscrapers rimming the perimeter on 42nd Street, 57th Street and 8th Avenue. I am so glad we found our way here all those years ago and that it turned out to be such a great place to raise a family. I am constantly thankful to Missy Cusick for opening her home to us and taking a chance on our family when we first moved from overseas. Missy passed away a few years ago, but I still think about her brownstone with an art studio on the top floor, all the interesting people who lived in the other apartments and what a great start it was to our life in New York City!
What’s your superpower or hidden talent?
My secret power is finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. I turn the world around me into art: neighborhood playgrounds, local families, my paper coffee cups from the deli and now building construction. For over 20 years now, I’ve made paintings, installations and videos with the West Side of Manhattan as the subject in all kinds of ways.
What else should we know about you?
For the past seven years the subject matter of my paintings has been New York City building construction. This started when a 42-story building went up right outside my studio window on W39th Street. I was losing a beloved view to the north, which was initially upsetting, but I made the decision to stay in that space and paint the view as it changed. I did that for several years and became fascinated by the building construction process, having made scores of drawings and paintings along the way. Angelo Guglielmo, a New York film-maker and my through-the-wall neighbor on W47th Street, directed a short film called The Monolith which tells my story from that period. Watch at https://vimeo.com/244555885.
When that building was finished, I headed out around Midtown Manhattan looking for more construction projects to follow, sketching and painting at a travel easel. Hudson Yards became a focus, as well as views of W57th Street from Central Park, One Vanderbilt rising next to Grand Central Station, and now 270 Park which is a skyscraper going up on the whole block between Park and Lex Avenues at E47th Street.
During COVID, homeless encampments appeared on neighborhood sidewalks and they found their way into the paintings. My most recent artwork features smaller buildings and tenements covered in scaffolding around Hell’s Kitchen. It’s often hard to tell whether those buildings are going to be restored or come down completely. Either way, I find them worthy to record. So construction, demolition and unofficial building have all been subjects of my artwork, which you can see at www.gwynethleech.com.
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Gwyneth’s Favorite Hell’s Kitchen Places
Frisson Espresso — 326 W47th Street (bw 8th/9th Ave) & 405 W44th Street (bw 9th/10th Ave)
Both locations are great. I love their coffee and I appreciate the friendly baristas. The interiors remind me of coffee houses in Holland. Shout-outs to baristas Sia, Billy, Julian, April and the others. I can’t believe how many loyalty cards I’ve gone through!
Delphinium Home — 353 W47th Street (bw 8th/9th Ave)
Delphinium has been a go-to store for fun and quirky gifts all the time that we have lived in Hell’s Kitchen. Friendly staff. They have had several locations over the years but are currently on W47th Street, just east of 9th Avenue.
Domus — 413 W44th Street (bw 9th/10th Ave)
Domus is everybody’s favorite for unusual gifts. Luisa and Nicki travel abroad every year to source and purchase the beautiful things they sell in their shop.
UT47 — 358 W47th Street (bw 8th/9th Ave)
UT47 is a great coffee and sandwich shop. There are lots of tasty gluten-free and vegan options on the menu, friendly staff, attractive food presentation.
Café Lali — 632 10th Avenue (bw W45/44th St)
We loved Café Lali’s Dominican luncheonette on 10th Avenue, between 44th and 45th. The ladies that ran it watched our family grow and always greeted my children with hugs and kisses when we went in for lunch. Their sit-down business did not survive COVID, which is regrettable, but the owner, Ibis Lara is still serving the same delicious Dominican food from the deli on the corner of W45th Street and 10th Avenue. Walk to the back and you’ll find her at the steam counter.
NYPL Columbus Branch — 742 10th Avenue (bw W50/51st St)
This is such a terrific resource! The upstairs children’s room with its dedicated teen section have been so important to us over the years. The teen librarian is excellent.
Clinton Community Garden — 434 W48th Street (bw 9th/10th Ave)
A green oasis in the heart of the neighborhood. If you live or work in this area you can get a key. Details here:
Tulcingo Del Valle —665 10th Avenue (bw W46/47th St)
Tulcingo Del Valle is hands-down our favorite restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen. We have been going there for 20 years since a neighbor recommended their chicken mole. Authentic Mexican food at pretty reasonable prices and very friendly staff. Irma, the owner always greets us warmly and asks after our daughter Megan, who is now grown up and lives in Boston.
Rafik Shoe Repair and Barber Shop — 752 9th Avenue (bw W50/51st St)
You can still get shoes mended, new watch batteries AND keys cut all at the same time on 9th Avenue! See the man at the back who has his own business nested within the barbershop.
If you know someone who would make a great West Side Story (or you would like to nominate yourself), please fill in this form — w42st.info/WSSnominations.
You can check out more West Side Stories and reader recommendations on W42ST’s Hell’s Kitchen Local App.