New York City: Chelsea at the Crossroads

  • Strolling on the High Line.

    Strolling on the High Line.

  • A mellow morning at 9th Avenue patisserie La Bergamote.

    A mellow morning at 9th Avenue patisserie La Bergamote.

  • The shops and restaurants of Chelsea Market occupy a historic biscuit factory.

    The shops and restaurants of Chelsea Market occupy a historic biscuit factory.

  • a West Chelsea street corner.

    a West Chelsea street corner.

  • Meadow grasses on the High Line.

    Meadow grasses on the High Line.

  • The Frank Gehry–designed IAC building, with Jean Nouvel’s equally arresting condo tower behind it.

    The Frank Gehry–designed IAC building, with Jean Nouvel’s equally arresting condo tower behind it.

  • Hôtel Americano’s café.

    Hôtel Americano’s café.

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Consider Chelsea. Tenth Avenue near 23rd Street, to be precise, where you’ll find Printed Matter. By outward appearances, it’s an art bookshop. But like all good counterculture establishments, Printed Matter—founded in 1976 by a group of cultural heavyweights including artist Sol Lewitt and writer Lucy Lippard—eludes genre. It’s more like a repository of the New York art world’s ephemera—and a middle finger to the bland good taste that has infected the city. On a recent visit, I stumble upon a vinyl LP designed by Matthew Barney, a collection of index cards entitled “My Grandma’s Recipes” by David Horowitz, and a flip-book depicting the face of Christ in barcodes. In an age where it’s hard not to drop US$100 in a downtown shop, Printed Matter is for all budgets—you can spend US$1,000 on a print of Jenny Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays, or three bucks on the flip-book.

Printed Matter is on the western fringes of Chelsea, now the focal point of an ongoing renaissance in a neighborhood once primarily known for its buff gay residents, brunch spots, and odd mix of brick townhouses and derelict warehouses. It’s been a long time coming. In the 1990s, art galleries began abandoning Soho for the warehouses that populate the cross streets bound by 10th and 11th avenues. Despite the galleries’ long-standing presence, the area held onto its grittiness; on weekends, packs of nattily dressed European tourists would swarm from Gagosian’s 24th Street outpost to the Andrea Rosen Gallery and then onward to the Gladstone. But after dark, you probably didn’t hang around, unless you wanted to try your luck at the local biker bar.

The biker bar closed a while ago, and West Chelsea has been rechristened as the Chelsea Riviera. (Ah, the euphemisms of New York real estate brokers.) Strikingly, the single most important game-changer hasn’t been a hip restaurant or scene-defining hotel, but a 1.6-kilometer-long aerial park that’s open to all. Occupying a disused stretch of elevated freight railway, the High Line has become the city’s unofficial promenade. Millions of people have tramped through it since its first section debuted in 2009, and on a sunny autumn day, with views of the Hudson River, it’s easy to see why. Feathery prairie grass, purple asters, and magnolia trees line the walkways, while wooden benches and chairs are strategically placed so you can watch the passing street life from a seven-meter vantage point. The park offers a respite from New York’s relentless pace, but without removing you from the action.

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