My first encounter with Chelsea and the New York City Highline was back in 1996. The neighborhood was already one big gallery space, and the old factories and warehouses had all become artist studios. As for the Highline railway, it had not been used in nearly 20 years. Still, I was fascinated by this old relic of the past, an elevated railway that ran through buildings and stopped very abruptly in the middle of the street. Today it’s an expensive area, but what about the 80’s, when it wasn’t as desirable?
David Halle and Elisabeth Tiso collect the stories of people who lived there through the years. In the first chapter, Silas Seandel describes his move to Chelsea in 1978. He needed a concrete space, SoHo was already taken, so he found a spot west of 9th. The area had lots of S&M bars (well-known from the movie Cruising with Al Pacino) and since nobody lived there, muggers didn’t bother with it. The city didn’t want to lose industry by allowing Chelsea to become residential, but they didn’t realize that industry in the city was practically dead. Kind of reminds me of an earlier book, In Love With Art (about Francois Mouly and Art Spiegelman) where the artists acquire a cheap printing machine, thanks to all the local print shops shutting down.
SoHo was residentially zoned b 1995 and had long-term leases, so all the galleries were priced out by the Giuliani era. The Dia Art Center, started by the DeMenil family, is portrayed by the author as being an anchor for the neighborhood. My problem with this book is that the Westbeth building is barely discussed. The apartments-located in the old Bell Telephone factory-were founded as residences for artists. Don’t the longtime residents of the Westbeth have stories to tell? They loved down on Bethune Street when it was barely safe to go at night. The authors also ignore the transportation issue, which would have been a major factor in the area. SoHo had connections to all subway lines on the east side, but Chelsea had only the west side lines, and 11th avenue is almost half a mile from the nearest subway stop.
The great thing about this book is that it give an insight into the way the artists were the pioneers of the city in the earlier days. They lived and worked in an area that was not glamorous, not fun, not vibrant, and didn’t have all the great restaurants and fun bars. They had to be tough enough to handle seed streets, which were probably pitch black at night from unrepaired streetlights. My hat will always be of to these people for toughing it out.