He describes himself as a “brand-new resident” of Hell’s Kitchen, but Joe Restuccia is a neighborhood housing, historic preservation and community advocate who has been firmly planted here since 1979. Over four decades with the Clinton Housing Development Company, his leadership has developed more than 1,200 units of affordable apartments across the area. This is Joe’s West Side story…
So, what’s your New York story? Born here, or just arrived?
I’m a brand-new new resident — I came here in 1976 to study directing at NYU and moved to the neighborhood in 1979.
What was your first job? What do you do now?
I was a production stage manager and the general manager on Theatre Row after it first opened in 1980, pre-renovation. The version you see now is all redone. Back then it was tenements and Playwrights Horizons. When the theater opened there was no heat. They built the theaters without a source of heat, figuring that the not-for-profit theater companies would find a way.
I was living at 707 9th Avenue in a tenement walk-up with a tub in the kitchen. I was burglarized twice — the second time they stole my underwear! After the robberies, I moved couch to couch. I was working at The Clement and ushering at Playwrights Horizons to make an extra $7 a day, and one day the house manager told me about a city-owned building on 35th Street and said that I could call to inquire about it. I took my 15 cents to the phone booth, where the person I spoke to told me that there was an apartment available if I joined the tenants’ association — I didn’t understand any of this at all, but I said, “Oh, I’d like to interview for this.” I went there and remember there was a locked front door as opposed to that building on 9th Avenue. A woman brought me to her house and she had a fireplace and a cup of tea and I thought, “Oh I’m going to heaven!” And then she said, “Let me get the flashlight to show you the apartment.”
The apartment I moved into had suffered two four-alarm fires, and I spent the first five months taking the garbage out of it before I moved in. They gave me six months free rent and a toilet! There was no power, and it just had a lot of problems.
If you moved into the apartment, you had to agree to become an officer of the tenants’ association, which I did. And during that time the owner’s estate tried to take back the building from the city. I made a presentation along with my tenant association colleagues and it ended up getting picked up by the papers — City Limits, the Soho News, the Village Voice — and we were able to keep the building. The owner’s estate never showed up to pay back taxes.
In the meantime, Ronald Reagan got elected and cut arts funding. All the theaters were dying. And so I found myself with a brand new apartment that was a total wreck, without a job — I was laid off from Theatre Row. I got what I thought would be a temporary job at Housing Conservation Coordinators (HCC). It was the mid-80s and the City of New York decided to welch on its commitments to sell these buildings for honorable prices to tenants — and that became a huge political campaign that started here first in our neighborhood. I got very involved with that, and I went to community board meetings, and then I was asked to join the Community Board. So I went from working in theater to being a community board member, being involved in issue campaigns, to being very public and speaking on this kind of stuff — an entirely different life!
What’s your favorite New York minute (or moment) so far?
It was turning the millennium in 2000, which I watched from the roof of our building at 300 W46th Street with a bunch of tenants and friends. It was this bizarre thing that was over the top — this was all pre-September 11th and there was no security, so we watched the New Year’s Eve crowds and then just went down to Times Square at one o’clock in the morning and watched every hour the millennium was turning someplace else. There were fireworks and it was a really over-the-top celebration that we’ll probably never see again due to security.
Share with us why you love Hell’s Kitchen
When I moved here, I did not understand just how much of a neighborhood it was — it’s a place where everybody knows everybody and is somehow connected. The fact that you can walk up and down the street and people will say “hello” — I mean we’re in the middle of the city, right?
When I worked on Theatre Row, I’d walk down 9th Avenue and stop at a bakery called Pozzo, buy my croissant for 40 cents, buy an orange at the place on 47th and 9th for again, 25 cents, then go to the coffee place on 43rd and 9th for 50 cents. You could walk down the avenue and assemble your day, and everyone got to know you.
As I worked with various buildings and did work at HCC — I found that there were so many people who were related or connected with somebody else. “My aunt lives in that building,” or “you know my cousin!” that sort of thing, which meant the neighborhood was very connected. But then I also found that all the organizations were connected, and that meant people talked to each other and engaged, and it was different than other neighborhoods. And because of where I lived being full of very old-line, long-term people, everybody knew everybody. And part of the neighborhood is, you get that pass from them that ‘you can trust this person’ — but it takes a while. It took me 10 years.
I still am surprised sometimes that people know me when I have no idea who they are — because I have worked with their aunt, uncle, cousin, mother, this whole sort of network of people. Someone said to me, “You know Joe, people either love you or hate you!” And I’m fine with that.
What’s your superpower or hidden talent?
I can talk to anybody. I am able to communicate very complex issues in a very clear way, because people get lost. Everybody has different angles and understanding of things, but sometimes these zoning things or complex development issues are really hard. I would go to public meetings and watch developers come with an incredible amount of blowing smoke in people’s faces, so I like to be able to communicate because when people understand it, they know what’s going on.
What else should we know about you?
In my first week on the job at HCC, I was called by a chief organizer who said, “I want you to come with me. I heard you know about boilers.” We go to 500 West 42nd Street and they open a cellar door, have me walk down to a cellar, which is flooded — this is between Christmas and New Year’s —we walk across the boards out into a courtyard and then up a flight of metal stairs into the boiler building for the complex. The boiler was 30 feet long. It was sitting in a pit. It was off, it was flooded and it was entirely frozen. She said, “You think you can fix it?”
I said, “No, but we can call so-and-so for this building.” Just then an older woman comes out, wrapped in scarves, and a hat —this building had no heat for the entire season. The building was owned at that point by an arson-for-hire group who were violently harassing people, cutting off heat and hot water. They would regularly set fire to buildings, put the tenants out, collect Section 8 rental subsidies and renovate the building to make money.
This woman in the scarves said, “Oh, I hope he can do something for us.” And I really felt that. People in that building had died of no heat. Eventually, the owner was jailed, and in the end, that site to be redeveloped had to have affordable housing on it. The building that I started working with in 1980 finished renovation in 2000. It took a full 20 years to figure out what to do. All I’ve learned is that this neighborhood, it’s very persistent. You keep on at something. And a combination of Housing Conservation Coordinators, the community board, elected officials, Clinton Housing, all worked together over a 20 year period — and now there are affordable apartments in that tower on 42nd Street.
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Joe’s Favorite Hell’s Kitchen Places
Ninth Avenue International Grocery — 543 9th Avenue (bw W40/41st St)
I love this place, specifically for Taramasalata. They also make their own baklava. I also buy olive oil there because they have a couple of olive oils that are dependable and just fantastic.
Il Melograno — 501 W51st Street (bw 10th/11th Avenue)
They make a lot of good pasta that we use for events, because it’s really good pasta that you can buy in large quantities. During the pandemic we ordered like crazy from them. I’m very concerned about keeping people open.
Marseille — 630 9th Avenue (bw W44/45th St)
This is my favorite French restaurant forever and ever. I love their Trout Grenobloise and the Escargot.
Big Apple Meat Market — 577 9th Avenue (bw W41/42nd St)
My father was a butcher — I grew up in a butcher shop, so I know when it’s good or bad —and their turnover is the fastest you can find, and it’s also reasonably priced.
Mémé Mediterranean— 607 10th Avenue (bw W43/44th Street)
Their food is just so dependable and good!
Westlake Cleaners and Launderer — 433 W34th Street (at Dyer Avenue)
If I have to replace a zipper on a bag, they always figure it out, and are really warm and friendly.
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You can check out more West Side Stories and reader recommendations on W42ST’s Hell’s Kitchen Local App