Chelsea’s Dynamic History – Will V

Chelsea is one of the first neighborhoods that I ever learned about by name. When I was younger, I did sports camps at Chelsea Piers, and one day I asked my mom what “Chelsea” meant, and she explained that Chelsea is a neighborhood, or just a smaller area within a city. I spent tons of time there growing up, hanging out with friends that lived in the area, and my house is right on the border, so I would go through the neighborhood to get to middle school every day. When I was tasked to do landscape research, I knew where I wanted to go. I chose to spend an afternoon biking around the neighborhood, taking note of things that stood out, which for me just meant things that had changed since middle school, when I spent much more time on those streets. Additionally, my new perspective as an Urban Studies student made certain buildings and trends stand out even more. I saw tons of massive buildings, a sight I was familiar with, but I had never before noticed the brand names and companies that had begun to occupy these buildings and the images of luxury apartments that were stuck to the ground floors of the massive “residential-ized” buildings. This sparked a curiosity regarding how all these buildings are still here, and what journey Chelsea undertook to become the neighborhood that I love and identify with today.

I learned that in the 1930s, as it is today, West Chelsea was full of factories, warehouses, and industrial buildings, all connected to the elevated railway, and conveniently located near shipping ports on the Hudson River. The West Side Elevated Rail, which I know as the Highline, had just been completed, and was in service transporting meat, produce, and dairy to buildings such as the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco) factory, the Merchants Refrigeration Company warehouse building, and many more. [1] This train line ran above 10th avenue, and used the Lehigh Valley Railroad terminal, another massive building that took up entire blocks on either side of this track, to unload and reload goods onto trucks. The elevated rail replaced a line that used to run along tenth avenue on street level, infamous for killing hundreds of people a year on the tracks. This advancement added to the industrial potential of a district that was already booming. 

Unfortunately, Bringing goods to Manhattan by ship and train became increasingly obsolete from the beginning in the 1930s through to the 1960s. By that time, trucks had become the principal way that goods were brought into the city, and factories were built bigger and better in less densely urban areas in New Jersey, a spectacle that I am also familiar with, driving through New Jersey on most weekends. [2] Additionally, the ports in Chelsea could not accommodate the standardization of shipping containers, and similarly to factories, cargo ports were relocated to New Jersey. 

During this time without industry and without a future, I learned that the neighborhood took on a new identity, and new residents now inhabited the housing that had been used for the laborers and industry workers. A large gay community developed from the 1970s to the 1980s, with bars and clubs opening up in some of the old factories. People moved from the Christopher street area, right near my old middle school, into this new hip and abandoned neighborhood. This change, though, was not easy, because homophobic people and gangs would block certain streets that led to these clubs and meeting places. [3] But still, many of these factories remained abandoned, but still standing, for years from the end of their productivity in the 1950s, leaving an opening for a project such as “The Westway.”

In 1973, proposals were made for a project to replace the west side highway called the Westway. [4] This entailed welling up the eroded pylons and deteriorating shoreline of the west side below 50th street with landfill, building a six-lane tunnel underneath and creating a massive park and space to build on the surface. [5] Having spent much of my life in this neighborhood, I cannot imagine the entire landscape looking like Hudson Yards, with the history of industry and the rich culture that developed after plowed over by glass and money. Additionally, some of the most iconic spots that I appreciate the most about the blocks of Chelsea are the places where the Highline and the old factories intersect and shine a light on the history of the neighborhood. Luckily though, the iconic piers and pylons of the shore of the Hudson were discovered by the Army Corps of Engineers to be spawning sites for Striped Bass. 

My bike ride and subsequent historical inquiry revealed how blind I truly was when I was younger. I traveled through Chelsea to Christopher street every day there and back for 10 years, and only in my last year did I begin to understand the importance of the places I was passing through. Looking back, my bike ride reminded me of how it felt to be in a place like this, as opposed to on a school bus on the west side highway, and I realize how much I miss being in Chelsea. The neighborhood now, while it may be gentrified and expensive, has not been erased, and every culturally significant aspect of the landscape is still there, while it may have a different brand name. I encourage everyone to look into their landscape, identify with the history, and recognize that it is worth preserving.

 

1: “History.” The High Line. Friends of the Highline. Accessed October 25, 2019. https://www.thehighline.org/history/; La Farge, Annik. “What’s That Building?” Livin’ The High Line, 2012. https://www.livinthehighline.com/buildings/.

2: “Sinking Fund Votes Big Piers For City.” The New York Times, May 21, 1931. https://www.nytimes.com/1931/05/21/archives/sinking-fund-votes-big-piers-for-city-10330000-appropriations-for.html.

3:  Shernoff, Michael. “Early Gay Activism in Chelsea: Building a Queer Neighborhood.” Lesbian-Gay New York, July 6, 1997. http://8th-14th.northwestern.edu/chelsea/Gay 8th Ave/gay_history.htm.

4: “THE WESTWAY PROJECT: ITS HISTORY AND FUTURE.” The New York Times, August 1, 1981. https://www.nytimes.com/1981/08/01/nyregion/the-westway-project-its-history-and-future.html

5: Troy, Gil. “Westway, New York’s Great Highway That Never Was.” The Daily Beast. The Daily Beast Company, May 29, 2016.

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