To those of you who will be attending the BEA in June, know that you will be standing on hallowed ground. Not because of the rich mineral content of the soil, or because of the area’s dollar value per square foot. No, you are trodding the path of ghostly royalty for one simple reason: right here, in the area surrounding the Jacob Javits Convention Center, enough storied history has unfolded to fill a New York City version of Edward Gibbon’s multi-volume The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
The construction of the Javits Center alone could fill one volume.
I got a taste of this history a couple decades ago when I researched a book called The Westies, about the last of the Irish Mob in Hell’s Kitchen, the venerable neighborhood that encompasses the Javits Center, between West 34th and 40th streets, continuing north to West 57th Street, with Eighth Avenue as its eastern boundary.
Even before ground was broken for construction of the Javits in 1980, there were a series of gangland murders related to various organized crime factions, including the Westies, vying for control of lucrative labor contracts and construction rackets. Rumors, allegations, and actual indictments related to the ongoing operation of the Javits would dog the facility for decades.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
To understand the bloody history of the Javits Center, we must first scroll backwards to a time before automobiles, electricity, and Mafia contract hits, to the days of the Javits Center’s historical antecedent: Paddy’s Market.
In the late-19th century, Paddy’s Market thrived on a stretch of Ninth Avenue, from 38th to 42nd streets. In 1896, the New York Times described the scene thusly: “For about fifteen years Ninth Avenue from thirty-eight street to forty-second street has been one of the busiest places in the city on a Saturday night. Every available space is wont to be occupied by wagons and loaded high with vegetables, fruits, and every conceivable thing that the housekeepers of the west side tenement district could want.”
The market was itself a consequence of produce and goods being brought into Manhattan via the West Side docks along the banks of the Hudson, near where the Javits stands today. Commerce bustled, and some of what took place was controlled and unofficially taxed by the neighborhood’s gangster element. The area was lorded over by a sprawling, mostly Irish gang known as the Gophers, because they used to hold gang summit meetings underground in the basement of tenement buildings.
As the city sought to regulate the robust commingling of commerce and gangsterism, Paddy’s Market seemed to be perennially on the verge of extinction. In that same 1896 Times account, it was written, “The days of Paddy’s Market appear to be numbered.”
Such was not the case. Paddy’s Market continued, and even grew in size, over the next 40 years until it was felled by the inexorable force of “progress” in the form of the Lincoln Tunnel, which runs underneath the Hudson River, from Manhattan to New Jersey.
The 1937 opening of the tunnel, with its many entrances and exits on the West Side, transformed Hell’s Kitchen. Not only was Paddy’s Market finally eradicated, but the area from West 34th to 38th streets became a cacophony of backed-up automobile traffic, car horns, and exhaust fumes. The environmental consequences of the tunnel wiped out many markets and small businesses, ruined the residential appeal of some blocks, and turned a quaint commercial district into something of an industrial wasteland.
Even so, aspects of Hell’s Kitchen continued to thrive. In the postwar years, commerce along the West Side piers was more profitable than ever. This gave birth to the era of the waterfront racketeer, so memorably conveyed in Elia Kazan’s 1954 movie On the Waterfront.
By the 1960s, waterfront commerce began to wane. Airfreight and the country’s interstate highway system created faster and more cost-effective means of commercial transport. The West Side entered another era of economic ruin and urban decay. The gangsters were the last to get the memo.
By the 1970s, the gang boss of Hell’s Kitchen was a dapper, well-liked Irish-American named Mickey Spillane (no relation to the famous hard-boiled writer of the same name). Spillane believed that whatever criminal bounty grew out of the construction and operation of this facility (lucrative construction contracts, rackets such as gambling and loansharking, control of patronage jobs, etc.), he was the man in charge.
The Italians had other ideas.
Led by the powerful Genovese family, the Mafia sought to move Spillane aside. The Javits Center was a once-in-a-generation kind of extortion opportunity, and the widely heralded Five Families of New York had no intention of sharing it with a localized gang like the Hell’s Kitchen Irish Mob. In the late 1970s, in a serious of outlandish gangland murders on the West Side, key underlings of Spillane were gunned down, often in broad daylight. Eventually, in 1978, Spillane was himself killed in a hail of gunfire on the street in front of his apartment building.
The Italians had eliminated Spillane, but they would now have to deal with something far more volatile—the Westies.
Led by an ambitious young hood named Jimmy Coonan, the Westies comprised a generation far more prone to violence and revenge than the gentlemanly Spillane. Coonan’s second-in-command was Mickey Featherstone, a troubled Vietnam War veteran who had been found not guilty of one murder charge by reason of insanity.
The Mafia’s Boss of All Bosses, Paul Castellano, became so concerned by the violent nature of the Westies that he called for a sit-down meeting with Coonan and Featherstone. At that meeting, in far off Brooklyn, it was agreed by all that the Westies and the Mafia would share dominion over the construction and running of the underworld’s new golden goose, the Javits Center.
This partnership, which should have elevated the Westies to new levels of profitability, instead sowed the seeds of their demise. A faction of the gang believed that Coonan had sold out the Westies to the Italians. “Jimmy don’t wanna be Irish no more,” said one gang member. “He thinks he’s a guinea.” The gang split into Coonan and Featherstone factions, and a showdown took place in the shadow of the Javits Center, on the afternoon of April 25, 1985.
The facility was at that time in the final stages of its construction. Among the tens of thousand of laborers who contributed to the building of the Javits Center was an iron worker named Michael Holly, who had somehow fallen afoul of the Westies and been marked for execution. On his lunch break, Holly, dressed in work clothes and a hard hat, left the site of the building and was walking along West 35th Street toward Ninth Avenue to have a beer at Clarke’s Bar. He never made it. A car pulled up, a gunman jumped out, and Holly was shot dead.
Mickey Featherstone was home sleeping at the time of the shooting. When he came into Hell’s Kitchen that day, he was surrounded by cops and arrested at gunpoint. Well-known to the cops as a gangster and killer, Featherstone was put in a lineup and identified by witnesses as the shooter. He was charged with murder, and within months tried and convicted.
While in prison, Featherstone learned that the actual gunman was a Westies member who wore a sandy-blond wig and fake mustache that made him look like Featherstone. Mickey became convinced that he’d been set up by Jimmy Coonan.
When Featherstone told prosecutors that he didn’t do the Holly murder and he could prove it, they laughed in his face. “How ’bout if I get evidence?” he said. “How ’bout if I get the shooter to admit on tape that he shot Holly and I didn’t.”
“Well,” said the prosecutor, “okay. But you will also have to agree to testify against the gang in court.” Featherstone took the deal. He was allowed the opportunity to prove his innocence, in exchange for turning state’s evidence and becoming a witness against the Westies.
He could not have done it without his wife, Sissy Featherstone. She wore a concealed recording device in a series of conversations with the actual shooter, the last of which took place at the 9th Avenue Food Festival, an annual neighborhood event that is a direct descendant of Paddy’s Market.Consequently, Feathertone’s murder conviction was overturned. At a long trial in 1987–1988, Mickey testified against the gang, and the neighborhood’s long tradition of gangsterism was brought to an end.
Today, Hell’s Kitchen has been re-christened “Clinton” by real estate developers, and the neighborhood has been gentrified, with newly built condominiums and five-star restaurants where Paddy’s Market used to be.
As it has since it first opened for business in 1986, the Javits Center still looms large, a testament to the sweat, blood, and gangland intrigue that made its existence possible.
For out-of-towners visiting New York, it’s always best to know where you are.
In addition to The Westies (St. Martin’s Griffin), T.J. English is the author of five nonfiction books, including, most recently, The Savage City: Race, Murder, and a Generation on the Edge (William Morrow).