In the Hub of Chelsea (Guest Blogger: Linda Peng)

 For the unenlightened visitor, Chelsea is certainly a neighborhood of surprises. Walking into it from the flowery
commercialized areas of Union Square
or Madison Square Park, one suspects little of the
historical landmarks, cultural centers, or the one peaceful zone hidden in
plain sight of the neighborhood. The area of Chelsea
that I ventured into – a maze of paths between 20th and 23rd streets
that starts from Seventh Avenue and ends at the Hudson
River – boasts a diversity that, considering the city that it
belongs to, should actually not be so surprising after all.


        My first foray into the
neighborhood gave me an impression of industry and business different from the
commercialization around well-known landmarks such as Union Square or Times Square.
Like many city blocks in New York,
the surrounding areas of W 24th Street
boasted a mall of services: a Vietnamese restaurant, a saloon, and a Citibank
were just a few of the places I saw offering a selection of necessities. The
lack of flashing signs and tall glass buildings, however, distinguished this
area from a prominent tourist area. Most of the buildings were brick and
brownstone: they were still tall, with at least 10 floors, but notably less
modernized. If it were not for my closer inspection of the Chelsea
Hotel and the two English tourists
I spotted, the significance of the neighborhood as a tourist destination in its
own right might have entirely escaped my notice.

        My discoveries of Chelsea’s
gems, however, were yet to begin. Past the Chelsea
Hotel (about which more later) and
turning left onto Ninth Avenue,
I was noting but ignoring the famed brainchild of Henry Mandel, the tall brick London
Terrace apartment complexes that continued down W 23rd
  street. Instead, I was venturing into 22nd
  street; seeing the Millionaire’s Row brownstones
on my left and the brick-red townhouses on my right proved to be a worthy
visual alternative, because that was the moment I entered a garden.

Dscf2092        I suppose my wonder at that experience
cannot truly be described by words; it must be described by the audio and
visual contrasts that engulfed my senses. Behind me was the extremely wide and
busy Ninth Avenue,
crisscrossed by honking cars and the visual spectrum of yellow taxis and view-engulfing
buses. In front of me was a quiet alley of organized houses and mini gardens,
one planted on either side of the sidewalk. The decorations on the side of the
private apartments were always unique – some featured flowers, some didn’t – but on the side of the sidewalk near the street, small-sized elm trees sprouted
within ten feet of each other. They shared the soil with tiny magnolias and
small black fences. A sign on some of the fences declared that no dogs were
allowed in the small square “garden.”

The chirping of birds drowned out
the noise of the traffic behind me, and the level white pavestones of the
sidewalk and the neatly corralled black fences suddenly reminded me of the curious
“no bicycles” sign I had acknowledged upon entering the street. I realized that
this neighborhood must be very unique. I understood it when I reached the
resident-friendly Clement Clark Moore Park,
a playground area sequestered neatly at the end of the block before the
invisible border of traffic-congested Tenth Avenue.

Dscf2098        A descriptive letter sealed in
glass at the entrance of the park gave me all the information I needed to know:
the 20th-21st-22nd streets between 9th
and 10th Avenues, I read, are collectively known as the West 400
Block Association. Founded in 1952, the organization is not only the oldest
continuing block association in NYC, but it also provides a way for the
residents of the neighborhood to voice their concerns
about making Chelsea a
“better place to live” in a proven format. With meetings held twice a year and
annual membership dues being $10/household, the Association was able to
spearhead the construction of the Clement Clarke Moore Park  in 1968, as well as the arrangements in 1995 that a gate should be built around
it and locked by a local resident every night.

        The neighborhood seems to show its
commitment to tolerance and public maintenance in other ways as well. Chelsea is the home to not only multiple Jewish synagogues (the most notable one being
the Congregation Emunath Israel on W 23rd Street),
it also the site of the General Theological Seminary, the oldest Episcopal
Church in the United States. A vibrant
LGBTQ-friendly community also exists here, a fact that is supported by the
existence of multiple proudly displayed rainbow-colored flags on some of the
buildings. The moving of many art galleries from SoHo to
Chelsea starting in the 1990s also
transformed the neighborhood into the new thriving center for art.

        Continuing down W 20th street towards the Hudson
River, I noted again the stark contrast between the West 400 Block
Association community to the street just up ahead, a street whose urban-style
parking garage on the corner seemed completely out-of-line with the quiet
neighborhood I had just sauntered past.

        Chelsea seems to have a remarkable strength of adaptability: within the loud secular
streets of 10th and 11th avenues, I knew, were some of
the newest art galleries, and straight up ahead was the famed Chelsea Piers
Sports & Entertainment Complex. The fours piers that made up the Complex
used to invite ship such as the Titanic to its harbor, but when the
1960s saw changes in transportation methods the piers transformed themselves
into a hotspot of multiple entertainment offerings.


        Perhaps the fact that the Chelsea Hotel (which at one point housed
some of the survivors of the Titanic) is the home of some very famous
songwriters, authors, poets, filmmakers, and artists should not be surprising.
With the diversity of its residents and their determination to uphold the value
of their neighborhood, the successes of some of the many creative thinkers of
the Chelsea Hotel
does not lack for an explanation: there was inspiration. 


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