Whither Chelsea Market?


The Chelsea Market

Ensconced in the old Nabisco factory at the corner of 15th Street and Ninth Avenue, Chelsea Market opened 11 years ago with the intention of being a top retail market for a vast range of groceries, while also providing warehouse and manufacturing space for food-related companies. The quirky gothic space was decorated with strange monumental sculptures, a waterfall, and – as the website describes it – “the detritus of a lost industrial culture.” Within the first few years, Chelsea Market attracted a top-flight butcher, a good seafood store, a truly excellent vegetable market, a bulk fresh-juice stall, a florist, a baker, and an Italian import market that provided fresh black truffles in season. You could depend on Chelsea Market to vend all sorts of arcane groceries unavailable elsewhere in the city, and it became a one-stop locale for anyone preparing a dinner party.

Still, those were tenuous days, and spaces within the market regularly went in and out of business, or remained yawningly empty. The upper floors gradually filled out, too, some with culinary concerns like the Food Network, but also with other sorts of companies, including dot.coms like Google, and TV networks like Oxygen and NY1.

But somewhere along the road, the market lost its way. Maybe the first harbinger was Chelsea Thai Wholesale. Originally, it provided a wealth of Chinese and Southeast Asian groceries, with a little side specialty in carryout Thai food. Gradually, the shelves of groceries disappeared one by one, and tables appeared in the space and outside in the common thoroughfare. It was as if the café had eaten the grocery store, and now only a limited stock of actual groceries remains.

In no particular order, the florist closed, the high-end butcher shut down (making Chelsea Market sadly meatless), the juice store moved out and into the vegetable market, and then disappeared completely. A combination restaurant, clothing store, and home furnishings depot moved into a prime location near the Ninth Avenue entrance, and an upscale baby clothier materialized at the opposite end of the market. The dairy store, run by the venerable Ronnybrook, recently removed most of its dairy cases – where the range of products had included difficult-to-find items like qark — and replaced them with a lunch counter selling omelets and meat sandwiches. Most days, the lunch counter is empty, but there is often a line for ice cream cones.

How about a sugary cupcake?

A mediocre Jewish deli opened with no apparent market appeal, save for a retail pickle operation. New tables for eating were strewn around many of the previously empty spaces in the market’s common areas, inviting one to sit rather than browse, and sightseers replaced purchasers as the primary foot traffic. The fish market recently added more space, emphasizing its pre-fab sushi and soup offerings. A franchise eatery, Hale and Hearty Soups, moved in and then expanded.

No one seems to have noticed, but the Chelsea Market has increasingly become the Chelsea Food Court. It’s been transformed from a place for serious cooks, to a place for casual tourists who’d rather eat cake than make it, and office workers in search of a quick lunch. In doing so, the place has lost its original imperative, and became a place for the passive appreciation of prepared food (and unrelated consumer goods), rather than a place where one actively buys and then cooks. The evolving mix of businesses, as well as the tourist hordes who march through, munching on frosted cupcakes – reflects the sad change in attitude.

Sit down and have lunch