In one of its earliest conceptions, Chelsea was intended to be a chic, dignified, and exclusive neighborhood. At least, that was the vision of Clement Clarke Moore — better known as the author of the classic poem ’Twas the Night Before Christmas — who in 1813 inherited his family’s elegant “Chelsea House,” on what’s now 23rd Street and Ninth Avenue, along with the surrounding 94 acres of undeveloped land.
As the city’s grid expanded northward in the early-nineteenth century, Moore subdivided the sprawling property, razing its rolling hills and apple orchards and selling off the lots for a small fortune. But the wealthy scion of a powerful family was less interested in turning a profit than creating a refuge from the surging downtown hoi polloi. To that end, he enforced rigid lease agreements prohibiting rear apartments and factories, so that Chelsea became, as a Landmarks Preservation Commission report would note in 1977, “controlled…architecturally through restrictive covenants,” with aspirations of “a highly desirable residential neighborhood.”
Despite his best efforts, Moore’s carefully planned aristocratic hideaway soon became a working-class immigrant enclave. Over the next few decades, as manufacturing took hold on the waterfront, rickety tenements rose alongside the single-family Greek revival mansions and handsome Italianate townhouses. Brothels, saloons, and gambling landed on 23rd Street in the late-nineteenth century, as did the Hotel Chelsea, whose illustrious residents — Mark Twain, Bob Dylan, Arthur Miller, Edie Sedgwick, Janis Joplin, Dylan Thomas, Sid Vicious, and so many others — would eventually bring a colorful bohemia (and occasional grisly murder) into the workaday neighborhood. Chelsea would evolve yet again in the 1980s, thanks to an influx of queer residents who quickly turned it into the city’s gay mecca.
Today, it’s not hard to feel as though the neighborhood’s accumulated identities, like its once-abandoned elevated train tracks, have all but vanished. A decade of hypergentrification, spurred by Bloomberg-era zoning changes, have contributed to rising rents that now rank among the highest in the city. Chelsea’s original developer might have celebrated this fact, but for the many holdouts and small-business owners still here, the rapid transformation represents an existential threat.
And yet, so many of Chelsea’s old-world charms remain. You’ll still find more greasy diners here than slick poke spots, more bookstores than tech campuses, and more bawdy sex shops than anywhere in New York. If there is an enduring quality to Chelsea, it’s the neighborhood’s stubbornness, sustained by the exuberant residents and freewheeling institutions who’ve steadfastly refused to succumb to anyone else’s expectations.
Run by Queens-born brothers Billy and Mark Penza since 1999, Billymark’s West is as grimy and grubby as they come, with walls featuring framed posters for vintage Broadway shows and, inexplicably, the Kevin Smith film Dogma. Probably don’t ask about that, and definitely don’t ask what’s on tap (“Do we look like a place that has taps?” Billy is fond of saying). Instead, take advantage of the all-day beer-and-shot special ($8) while soaking in an all-too-rare atmosphere of neighborhood diversity — regulars include construction workers leaving Hudson Yards, USPS employees, and gallery scenesters. Most of all, come to Billymark’s for the disarming charm of the Penza brothers, who on any given night can be found belting out Marvin Gaye midpour, or loudly holding forth on topics ranging from the theater scene to professional basketball to the state of the neighborhood. “This is where everyone wants to be,” Billy shouted across the bar on a recent night. “Some of the old-timers aren’t so crazy about the changes, but I’m a Chelsea guy who still loves it here.” 332 Ninth Avenue, 347-986-3866
It’s tough to say when, exactly, the doughnut industry went insane. At some point, the food innovators and their PR professionals — perhaps displaced by the collapse of the gourmet cupcake market? — set their sights on hyping the humble doughnut, and so now Instagram feeds are populated daily by foie gras, sriracha, and 24-karat-gold-covered rings. Thankfully, for those who identify more with Homer Simpson than Dominique Ansel, there is Donut Pub. Since 1964, this unpretentious mom-and-pop shop has served some of the city’s best French crullers, along with a host of other cakey, pillowy doughnuts, all of them cooked on the premises and available 24 hours a day. A marble countertop, swivel stools, and black-and-white-tiled floors recall a bygone era, as do the prices: Most rings cost $1.75, best enjoyed with a $1.75 cup of coffee. Judging by the line snaking out the door on a recent 4 a.m. visit, and also the fact that the pub has survived the opening and closing of two nearby Dunkin’ Donuts, the formula seems to be working. 203 West 14th Street, donutpub.com
Luis “Lucho” Quintero misses his competition. The recent shutterings of beloved lunch counters like La Taza de Oro and Havana Chelsea has Quintero worried the neighborhood’s “Latin flavor” has disappeared. It’s comforting, then, to know that El Cocotero isn’t going away anytime soon. For nearly fifteen years, the authentic Venezuelan eatery has doled out delicious, affordable arepas — spongy white corn cakes bursting with fried meat — alongside even heartier dishes like pabellón criollo and orange-glazed baked chicken. Inside, the snug restaurant feels more like a tropical living room, with palm tree–patterned banquettes, and bright blue and orange walls adorned with homemade instruments and red tile roof overhangs. On summer evenings, regulars pack onto a small tuft of sidewalk turf, sipping sangria or a guarapita, the signature cocktail made with mango, passion fruit, and Venezuelan rum. Stay late enough, and Lucho will share stories of the glory days of Chelsea club hopping, along with insider tips for beating the line at some of the swankier places still around. 228 West 18th Street #1, elcocotero.com
The stretch of 28th Street between Sixth and Seventh avenues has a reputation as Manhattan’s best-smelling block, with good reason. For more than a century, the north Chelsea street has been home to the Flower District — a lush oasis that feels a world apart from nearby midtown. And while rising rents have pushed out some wholesale and retail florists, the block is still bustling with buyers, and still blooming with life. At dawn, dozens of shops are already open, their sidewalks transformed by colorful bouquets, spruce trees, bamboo shoots, and botanic accessories — much of which, by the way, can be purchased here for significantly less than your typical florist. Just be sure to arrive early; most places close around 11 a.m. By early afternoon, the verdant district resumes its role as another indistinguishable block in the concrete jungle. 133 West 28th Street
In the league of satisfying Chelsea lunch options that don’t break the bank, Dil-e Punjab stands alone. A popular spot for taxi drivers — the city’s foremost authorities on convenient eating — this narrow, authentic Indian lunch counter traffics in heaping vegetarian platters and crumbly samosas. Eight bucks gets you three choices from a rotating selection of entrées, including North Indian–style saag and choley kabul (spicy chickpeas), piled on sweet jasmine rice and served with a steaming roti. Depending on the hour, you might find a counter spot, though you’ll still be competing for space with shelves of boxed dates, bags of red kidney beans, and pamphlets on the latest Punjabi referendum. Instead, consider taking your feast to one of the newly added benches around the corner, or even heading down the block for a picnic on the High Line — the park could definitely use the flavor. 170 Ninth Avenue, dilepunjabdelinyc.com
This low-key pub, conceived by Perfect Storm author Sebastian Junger and friends as a saloon for writers and journalists, has become a favorite among neighborhood drinkers. That’s particularly true in the warmer months, thanks to an abundance of outdoor seating, both out front and in a shady backyard garden. More choices greet you indoors: a barroom serving up a wide range of drafts gives way to a candlelit dining room, where you’ll find rotating photography exhibits and a weekly reading series curated by Glenn Raucher. And the menu, too, is surprisingly varied, with classic pub fare sitting alongside some more elaborate dishes, including a heaping, highly endorsed platter of spaghetti squash pasta topped with jumbo shrimp — not quite fit for a king, but close. 505 West 23rd Street, thehalfking.com
Many feared the world’s largest purveyor of artists’ books wouldn’t survive after Hurricane Sandy’s floodwaters engulfed Printed Matter’s storage room on Tenth Avenue, destroying 9,000 books and causing an estimated $200,000 in damages. But just five years later, the scrappy nonprofit is thriving, thanks to a community-driven fundraiser and a boost from some big-name artists — Chuck Close and Xaviera Simmons among them. Now housed in an abandoned train terminal on Eleventh Avenue, the “CBGB of indie bookstores” has maintained its DIY sensibility, while nearly doubling its square footage. The new digs certainly haven’t diminished the store’s wide-ranging mission. In addition to selling thousands of art books and zines, Printed Matter operates as a small press, an exhibition space, a community center, a keeper of historical documents, and a dream destination for hoarders of New York City ephemera — the vintage Act Up posters and limited-edition Hot Dogg clocks designed by Ricky Swallow are a few highlights. 231 Eleventh Avenue, printedmatter.org
Since at least the early Aughts, locals have worried about the demise of the gay scene in the neighborhood. And while there’s no doubt that some of the action has moved north to Hell’s Kitchen, it’s clear now that the obituaries were premature. Debauchery still reigns at the Eagle, the “Chelsea boy” lives on at Gym Bar, and recent additions like REBAR have added new flavor to the old scene. But if you’re in the market for a charming neighborhood favorite with plenty of pizzazz, it’s hard to beat Barracuda Lounge. Tucked away on a residential street just off Eighth Avenue — still gay Chelsea’s main artery — the scrappy club has catered to locals and pilgrims alike for more than twenty-two years. Its nightly drag shows, once the province of legendary queens like Jackie Beat and Sherry Vine, are delightfully campy, and continue to draw a nightly crowd. Around midnight on a recent Tuesday, a mix of young and older men packed into the cozy back room, awaiting a performance from Miz Cracker and Kizha Carr, as a DJ rattled off hits from Cardi B, TLC, and Madonna. Asked whether he had concerns about New York’s gay epicenter leaving Chelsea behind, Arden, the regular barkeep, did not equivocate: “You know, Hell’s Kitchen is mostly for the bridge-and-tunnel crowd these days.” 275 West 22nd Street, 212-645-8613
When they acquired the former Barney’s building in 1998, David and Shelley Rubin couldn’t have predicted their temple to Himalayan art and Buddhist philosophy would one day serve as a zen refuge from the daily horrors of Donald Trump. But that’s what it’s become for many New Yorkers thanks to its permanent collection of exquisite Tibetan art, as well as regular events and installations aimed at improving mindfulness and staving off those World War III jitters. Beginning last month, visitors were greeted by an interactive exhibition — “A Monument for the Anxious and Hopeful” — that takes inspiration from the Tibetan prayer flag ritual, and invites guests to share their woes and worries on index cards, which they then hang on the wall. It’s hokey but cathartic, especially in this serene 70,000-square-foot space, with a six-story spiral staircase seemingly made for thoughtful ambulating. Once your museum therapy has concluded, head next door to the museum’s Café Serai for South Asian dumplings and a quiet cup of tea. 150 West 17th Street, rubinmuseum.org
Chelsea’s status as a world-class art hub only dates back to the 1990s, when soaring SoHo rents sparked a mass migration of galleries to the affordable, enormous West Chelsea warehouses. Today, the neighborhood boasts some 400 art venues, comprising a maze-like and ever-fluctuating scene that’s ideal for a day of gallery-hopping (though less so for blurbing). Standouts from a recent Saturday pilgrimage include Rita McBride’s high-intensity green laser exhibition at the DIA Art Foundation, Stan Douglas’s haunting Blackout photography at David Zwirner, and Erika Verzutti’s bronze wall reliefs at the Andrew Kreps gallery. Of course, your mileage will likely vary. But for anyone looking to unwind post-hop, the newish Roth Bar is not to be missed. Stealthily hidden behind a bookshop run by the Hauser & Wirth mega-gallery, the unique space is part installation, part café. Nearly every inch of the bar is covered by industrial artwork made from salvaged materials — old television sets, painted lampposts, vacuum parts — that also seep out into a spacious seating area. Meanwhile, the locally sourced menu offers a rotating selection of seasonal dishes, including chicken pot pie, a glazed brussel sprouts salad, and bowls of butternut squash. They’ve also got a decent beer and wine selection, plus homemade cardamom and orange ginger sodas. After a day spent pounding the pavement in Chelsea’s gallery district, an extravagant soda served from a bar resembling a junkyard just feels right. 548 West 22nd Street, hauserwirthsomerset.com
The Village Voice is exploring one borough per day for the week of April 2, 2018. For full coverage to date, visit our Neighborhoods Week 2018 page.
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