Chelsea is quite an anomalous neighborhood—its boundaries are often unclear to most and it doesn’t seem to have a uniform look like some of the more distinct neighborhoods of Manhattan. The streets of Chelsea vary from heavily-commercialized areas, tree-lined blocks of pristine row houses, and deserted-looking warehouse-filled alleys. Even though the look of those less aesthetically pleasing parts of Chelsea is slowly being transformed from industrial to edgy, this neighborhood’s eclectic mix is (a theme emerges!) certainly a result of its unique history.
Chelsea is not named for Chelsea Clinton (although she was a resident at one time), it is actually named for…a veterans’ hospital (anticlimactic I know). More interesting than the origins of its name is the fact that Chelsea was once an large estate owned by British Major Thomas Clarke. Clarke had a mansion…on a hilltop…overlooking the Hudson River…sound impossible? Well, he did. The mansion burned down in the 18th century, but the London Terrace, a high-end apartment complex (Tim Gunn is a resident!), stands in its place today.
During the 19th century, Clarke’s heir was forced to give up some of his apple orchard, ahem, as the city began to expand northward. Clarke started selling patches of his family’s land for the construction of wealthy townhouses with the stipulation that each plot have a front garden (wouldn’t you love a landlord like him?) Many of these townhouses can be seen intact today as Chelsea boasts a large historic district with many nationally registered historical homes.
At this point, Chelsea probably resembled quite an idyllic little neighborhood, all river and gardens and apples and rich folks. However, the mid-1800s brought a lot of changes to Chelsea—the Hudson River Railroad was built and the island was extended two blocks west to accommodate the new industries attracted to the railroad; immigrants (mainly Irish) flooded the neighborhood to find work on the railroad. In 1907, the Chelsea Piers were built; they were intended to house luxury passenger ships (the Titanic was meant to be kept here). Thus the demographics of the neighborhood began to shift—the population even decreased—as Chelsea went from residential to industrial.
The neighborhood’s former industrial heyday is still visible. Although trendsetters are finding creative ways of turning these spaces into art galleries and gastropubs, I would argue that, despite these efforts, Chelsea remains a neighborhood where both the outrageously unaffordable and the affordable and where the working class and the upper class meet. But I’ll let you be the judge of that; hopefully the following suggestions will give you an idea of the many flavors of Chelsea.
For your first stop, grab breakfast at Cafeteria (on 7th Avenue between 17th and 18th; http://www.cafeteriagroup.com/). The word cafeteria usually brings to mind brown-goop splattered aprons, hair nets, and smelly green beans, so how can a cafeteria possibly be made cool? Leave it to the gays! Cafeteria is an upscale, trendy diner sporting affordable prices and great people watching (many a celebrity siting at this spot!) It’s also the perfect spot to experience a bit of Chelsea’s thriving gay and lesbian community.
From Cafeteria, stop into the Rubin Art Museum (http://www.rmanyc.org/; admission is $10). Once industry was pretty much dead in Chelsea, all those outlying ex-factories and warehouses had to be filled with something. No surprise artists came looking for affordably large spaces, making Chelsea a choice destination for art lovers. The Rubin Art Museum houses Himalayan art, a subject I imagine most aren’t too informed on. If this doesn’t interest you, Chelsea has hundreds of galleries for your perusal (http://chelseagallerymap.com/).
Stroll through Chelsea’s historic district on your way to the High Line and keep your jealous eye out for front gardens. The High Line (entrances at 14th, 16th, 18th, 20th, 23rd, 26th, 28th, and 30th street) is situated on the world’s first elevated train and it is one of Chelsea’s main attractions. Along the trail you’ll find viewing zones that let you look over traffic and even some friendly neighbors (see below)! While strolling, be sure to keep your eye out for the London Terrace (the former site of Clarke’s mansion) and the General Theological Seminary (a creepy, old building spanning the block between 20th and 21st street and 9th and 10th avenue; this plot of land was granted to the Seminary way back in the early 1800s). The High Line is so popular that plans are in the works to build a Low Line (in an underground trolley route in the Lower East Side) and a High Line copycat in Queens.
Hop off the High Line at 14th street to amble around Chelsea Markets (75 9th Avenue between 15th and 16th; http://chelseamarket.com/). With a cool warehouse-like setting, Chelsea Markets houses a bookstore, a basket store, bakery upon bakery, and, most importantly, free samples galore! Even the Chelsea Wine Institute gives out free tastings. This is a perfect spot for grazers and moochers alike.
Once you’ve had your fill of free fare, I’d like to suggest two alternate endings to the evening. If you’d like to celebrate Chelsea’s theatrical past (Chelsea was once known as the theater district of NYC), catch a performance at Joyce Theater (175 8th Avenue between 18th and 19th; http://www.joyce.org/; tickets starting at $10). If you’d rather celebrate Chelsea’s future than her past, head over to Chelsea Piers. A shipping yard no longer, Chelsea Piers is now an expansive athletic complex. Most activities are quite expensive, but at 300 New York (23rd street and the West Side Highway; www.threehundred.com/new_york.html) a round of bowling is only $10-$11 per person.
One more choice: after either ballet slippers or bowling shoes, choose once again between nostalgic Chelsea and today’s Chelsea by either grabbing a drink at Peter McManus Café or finishing the night with a slice at Artichoke Pizza. Peter McManus Café (7th Avenue between 17th and 18th) is the oldest family-owned restaurant in New York City, while Artichoke Pizza (114th Tenth Avenue between 17th and 18th; http://www.artichokepizza.com/; slices are around $5) boasts a pizza basically covered in spinach and artichoke dip (another theme emerges! Pizza: the perfect end to any night, no matter the neighborhood).