Son of the “gentleman gangster” of the same name, Mickey Spillane was just 13 when his father was killed. His mother, Maureen McManus, was a much-loved Hell’s Kitchen matriarch and part of the local political dynasty. Mickey is the latest in a long line of McManuses to hold the role of district leader, he’s a practicing attorney, and owns four bars in the neighborhood. He’s witnessed the neighborhood through the might of the mob, drug violence, modernization, and gentrification
How long has your family lived in Hell’s Kitchen?
We’ve been here for so long – I’m the sixth generation to be born on 49th Street; my son’s the seventh. I grew up in the neighborhood until I was about eight years old – my dad owned a bar on 45th Street called the White House – then we moved to Woodside for a few years. When Dad died we moved back.
On the McManus side, my great great uncle Thomas got elected assemblyman out of Hell’s Kitchen in 1892. Shortly after, he became district leader. When somebody had a problem – if they needed a job, if there was a death in the family, they couldn’t afford to pay the rent – they went to the district leader. And ever since then, a member of the McManus family has held district leadership in Hell’s Kitchen. It’s the oldest running political family that’s held the same office in the country.
I remember my grandmother owned a liquor store on 52nd Street and 9th Avenue. Back then, in the late 1960s early 1970s, it was really bad. In the liquor store, all the people who got public assistance would cash their cheques and give them to my grandmother. She’d have a little bank and only give it out to them periodically, so they wouldn’t drink it. They’d get their one bottle of booze, then they had money for the rest of the month.
When the blackout of 1977 happened, the whole city went down, there was rioting in the streets, looting … the only store that didn’t get broken into on 9th Avenue was my grandmother’s little liquor store. And that’s because they all had their money in there! They were actually guarding it!
I always say I’ve got 10 blocks I’m famous in. I can’t go anywhere else?
What’s a day in the life of a district leader?
Well, I’m about to head downtown to get one of our club members’ sons out of jail. His father’s a longtime member, a great voter, and his son’s run a different path. So I’m going down to post bail for the young man, then I’m going to meet with him and see if we can get him on the straight and narrow.
Another club member has a drug and alcohol problem. So I spent last night making flight reservations to get him out to Minneapolis so that he could go to a detox treatment center. Today he showed up at the airport drunk, so they wouldn’t let him on the plane.
What are your favorite memories of the neighborhood?
When I was growing up, it was a really difficult neighborhood, and we were tough kids. We were always fighting. There was a lot of drinking, obviously. But I didn’t have to be a guy who broke legs. People just knew, at the end of the day, that was a possibility.
The way you’d meet everybody was, you’d leave the house and say: “Mom, I’m going to 49th Street.” I’d sit on the stoop, and the other kids would turn up, and the stoop was like the meeting place before we had cellphones. We’d hang out, play ball if enough guys turned up …
The worst thing somebody could say to you was: “I’ll tell your mom.” It was like, she’s got enough to worry about. After my dad died, my mom worked, she had three kids, last thing I wanted was to worry her.
It was the same with all my friends; their fathers were laborers, working hard, carrying steel for eight hours. Really, you just didn’t do it to them. It was more a respect thing than a fear thing.
What was your dad like?
My dad was a serious man. Back when he was in business, he worked with a lot of labor unions and they controlled most of the docks. Then the Italian branch of the mob tried to dominate everything. And if it wasn’t for men like my dad, there would be no Irish unions. Now they say: “What does that matter?” But if there weren’t the Irish unions, the people in Hell’s Kitchen weren’t going to work – it would have been the guys from Little Italy. This was a matter of who was going to work and who wasn’t going to work, and it was men like my dad who were willing to put their life on the line and say: “No, this is ours, and if you want it, you’re going to have to go through me.”
What was he like at home?
He loved poetry, he used to recite it. He was really a smart individual, he read a lot. He couldn’t sing but he enjoyed it. He liked to exercise. He didn’t drink, but he gambled. My brother and I never crossed him – he never had to tell us twice about anything. I wasn’t about to negotiate with my dad! We knew where his boundaries were and he was well respected.
How did things change after he died?
Obviously it was a big change. It was a scary time. When my dad ran things, they were more organized. The late 1970s exploded with drugs, and the neighborhood became more violent. The drugs were rampant. It became very dangerous. At one point, in Hell’s Kitchen, if you were under 25 you had the highest chance of being killed in the country. It was on a national register of slums.
I was a pretty ambitious kid. I realized that way of life was a dead end, so I did pretty well in high school, got accepted to a good college – got a scholarship because I didn’t have any money – then went to law school.
How has the neighborhood changed?
Some of the bars – Rudy’s, McCoy’s – they were around back then. Printing was there – now it’s called the School of Graphic Arts. In terms of buildings, many of them are the same. My uncle Jim is the person who made this a protected district. Back then, this all could have been gone and no one would have cared.
What does it mean to be Irish now in HK?
The Irish were here first. That’s when the McManuses came here. But we adjust with the neighborhood. The Germans moved in. We even had some Lutherans. Then the Polish, the Puerto Ricans. And the Irish people adapted. There was conflict back in the 1960s, but generally we get along with everyone. Now we have gentrification – the wealthy folks – there’s a very large gay community, and we’re the ones who get along with everybody. Be respectful, work hard, and the Irish are going to give you a chance. Maybe it’s only once chance, but you’re going to get the chance.
This story originally appeared as a My Hell’s Kitchen feature in Issue 15 of W42ST Magazine in March 2016.