dynamic city / champagne in a cookie building


Two pieces in Sunday’s NY Times got me thinking about how dynamic New York City is. I suppose that other cities are similarly dynamic, but the relative age, breadth and range of the City, and its sharp geographic boundaries, probably make NYC – and especially Manhattanmore dynamic.


Here’s the first one.


The business section ran an article about the new HQ of Moet Hennessy, on the second floor of a 1914 building that used to house the National Biscuit Company (better known as Nabisco) between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues (address is 85 Tenth Av, from 15th to 16th Streets). Anyone who has driven down West Street in this area has probably noticed the “National Biscuit Company” sign on the west side of the building. I don’t know the history, but given the proximity to the Hudson River piers and access to that Holland and Lincoln Tunnels to New Jersey, it was probably a warehouse or distribution facility.


Like many such buildings in this far west corridor, it has almost certainly been significantly under-utilized of late. Back when the elevated Westside Highway ran above West Street (before it was closed in the 1970s because it was literally falling apart) this area was dark, noisy, dirty and dangerous. Back when the docks were in full commercial flower (until the early 1950s), this area was probably also filled with the ancillary businesses that catered to maritime commerce and sailors, including bars, flophouses and whore houses.


But the container cargo ships moved the commercial shipping hub across the river to New Jersey (the mob-controlled longshoreman and stevedoring unions didn’t help) in the 1950s and 1960s and the general decline of the city in the 1960s and 1970s left this far west side of Manhattan a bleak stretch between the genteel West Village and Chelsea.


Then the neighborhood just to the south, across 14th Street, went from being a neighborhood of wholesale meat and provisioning companies in the early 1990s to “The Meatpacking District” (in which very little grocery meat is packed, but boutiques and condos thrive) at the turn of the century.


Which made it easier for creeping change to creep across 14th Street, first to create the climate in which the Chelsea Market thrived, then to engulf the old National Biscuit Company building.


The Times article describes this building as “at the edge” of the Meatpacking District (though I would quibble that this District does not cross 14th Street; this should be part of Chelsea) and describes the nearby neighbors as including: Del Posto, CraftSteak and Morimoto restaurants; the Gansevoort Hotel; Soho House, a private club; and the Food Network (nearly all of which are above 14th Street). For Moet Hennessy, this location is ideal because it allows the sales and marketing people for their champagne, spirits and cognac brands to walk to clients.


But it is the unidentified near neighbors that make this area dynamic: mid-block small-scale apartment buildings just to the east on up to 22nd Street, the venerable General Theological Seminary (whose bell tower charms passersby both visibly and aurally) between Ninth and Tenth at 20th and 21st Streets, the Maritime Hotel (in a building that housed Covenant House, a social services agency, most recently but whose porthole windows hint at its history as a longshoreman’s union headquarters) and the buildings managed by the NYC Housing Authority.


The fragile mix of low and moderate income housing in the corridor above 14th Street west of Ninth Avenue now sits cheek by jowl to the creeping deluxe living represented by the Maritime Hotel and the new restaurants. Increasingly, bodegas, grocers and similar retail establishments struggle to afford the higher rents that the increasingly fashionable neighborhood can command.


The ongoing attempt by the Seminary to renovate and to raise money by building a tower have focused attention on the scale of this neighborhood, and its mix of low-income residents, "middle-class" (or its Manhattan equivalents) and high-end gentrifiers. According to The Villager, the Seminary and its business partners have scaled back to a 13 story condominium tower, which is still too tall to many residents: That fight in this dynamic neighborhood continues.


The Villager has run a series of articles about the Seminary plans, as well as this one “Chelsea 2025”, a brainstorming session about changes in Chelsea and its future.


© Sandy Mattingly 2006

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