Is Chelsea, New York's artsy West Side neighborhood, still cool? I don't mean to get defensive, but -- whaddaya, nuts?
Yeah, I've heard the talk. That Chelsea's celebrated knot of art galleries has lost its edge. That the area, once a haven for starving artists and, if you got lucky, studio deals, is way overpriced. And that big-box stores like Hold Everything and Bed Bath & Beyond are driving out the places that featured locally made furnishings and cool multicultural crafts.
Ricco/Maresca's "self-taught artists."
But gimme a break. This is Chelsea! Hudson River to Fifth Avenue, 34th Street down to 14th. I may have moved away, but I grew up here, and I happen to know the naysayers are wrong.
Need a star-sign that Chelsea's still on the up? Just take a look at the old Ladies' Mile of vintage department stores along Sixth Avenue. Look carefully, up there, right under the roof. These buildings with Doric columns and Colosseum-size arches are beautiful. They are freshly detailed and, all of a sudden, clean.
See the lettering that says "Hugh O'Neill" and "B. Altman"? Sure, those famous stores are gone. But Ladies' Mile is jammed again, with big-time national and local brand names. It is a wad of wool-coated, bag-crinkling shoppers, even on a winter Sunday.
You probably think flea markets or antiques when you think Chelsea. They've still got that, and it's all still hot. But have you seen the lineups of street vendors that have popped up on Broadway? I didn't think so. Time to take a walk. Some of this stuff is yard sale, some of it is New Age, some of it is who-knows-what: yoga mats, giant misshapen pieces of jewelry, incense sticks in pots, homemade ceramic chimes, all on card tables and in boxes from the backs of trucks.
And this is the weird thing. Remember Barneys? The now-shuttered Seventh Avenue men's store has become New York's newest museum. Forget the European suits, the silk ties, the high prices. Think out of the box. I'm talking new, new Chelsea. I'm talking Himalayan art.
I walk into the former Barneys -- now the Rubin Museum, opened by collectors Shelley and Donald Rubin last October and dedicated to the art of the Himalayas -- on a February afternoon. It's Saturday and the place is packed. When it's my turn to cough up for a ticket, I notice that Chelsea residents (from Zip code 10011) get two bucks off the $7 admission fee.
"I'm from across the street," I say proudly.
"Live there now?" snaps the clerk, who's sporting a ponytail and a beret. When I admit I don't, he shakes his head. "One adult. Full price."
I want to argue, but I back down, pay up and slink inside. Right on the main floor, about where the neckties used to be, is a soothingly lit spiral staircase. The walls are painted relaxing colors, such as blue-gray and avocado green.
"Make Yourself Comfortable," urges a placard near where musicians are plucking at a dulcimer and a horsehead fiddle. "Him-a-LAY-ah or Hi-MAL-yah," I read. "Say it either way."
The lighting and the colors and the velvety sounds are doing their job. I find that I'm not at all resentful that Eastern mystery has wiped out my trusty back-to-school store for corduroys and jeans. I am in a yoga state, at peace with the Tibetan paintings on the second floor.
My favorite is a work entitled "Six Morality Tales" that, according to the plaque, shows "a giant snake encircling a caravan of merchants." I can't find either the snake or any merchants, and to me the whole thing sounds suspiciously like an allegory for the death of Barneys.
But I'm entranced by the soft, soft mountain shadings, crosshatched shadows, sharply orange monks' robes and curlicue sky. I make a mental note to return for the "Tibet: Treasures From the Roof of the World" exhibit, running through May 8.
And next time, I will demand my discount.
Before it was hip, long before berets or museums, Chelsea was a neighborhood of cows, a few orchards and some scrubby fields. Clement Clarke Moore grew up here in the late 1700s and made a name for himself with his poem, "A Visit From St. Nicholas." Around 1830, Moore decided to chop his estate into lots, after giving away some acres to the General Theological Seminary. This, along with New York's first elevated railway, gave Chelsea its early grid.
Manhattan's first theater district sprang up here in the late 1800s, and about the same time, 28th Street attracted a row of song publishers and became the "Tin Pan Alley" of lore. Though forgotten now, Chelsea's showbiz run lasted for decades. Between 1900 and 1915, the streets around 23rd housed America's first movie studios -- before Hollywood stole most of them away.
The area's artsy traditions lingered on at the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street (a famous fleabag residence for such writers as O. Henry and Tennessee Williams) and, after a long decline, things got hot again in the 1980s, thanks to art galleries that were popping up along the Hudson River.
Is the gallery scene in Chelsea past its peak? You can ask critics, you can ask browsers or you can ask the artists themselves. I decide not to ask anyone, but to nose around and satisfy myself that all is well. It's the first gallery district usually listed in the New Yorker, and new art spaces are constantly sprouting. But I want to be sure.
Cross streets near the Hudson used to be a kingdom of car washes and radio-crackling headquarters for New York's yellow cabs. Some of these places are still there, but now you see conversions of pockmarked brick into glass-walled showrooms of abstract sculpture and minimalist canvases.
On 24th Street, the Yossi Milo Gallery coexists in a graffiti-sprayed building with BJ Auto Master Radiator Repairs ("We Do Body Work on your Front and Rear End"). Nearby, on West 20th, are the Anton Kern and Kim Foster galleries, wedged in beside a string of loading bays, a Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses and the corrugated- steel Manhattan Collision garage. "Drivers Wanted," says a big sign. "All Shifts."
I've been told that a few Chelsea galleries are staking out specialized and somewhat flaky niches. I'm on the hunt for flaky. I'm on the hunt for the just plain weird. If mainstream browsers like me get shocked or scratch our heads, this is good.
At the Ricco/Maresca Gallery at 529 W. 20th St., I think I've got a hit. It's got a mixed-up blend of photography and art, and is on an upper floor (in this case, the third). The gallery says it represents only "self-taught artists" -- which, I've got to admit, I don't really get.
How come it matters? I ask photo director Sarah Hasted. What's so bad about art school?
Hasted -- young, Minneapolis blonde, no beret -- says, "It's got to do with environment."
You mean like the auto-body shops around here?
"No, no," says Hasted. "I mean artistic environment. Self-taught artists create their own, without the intention, you could say, of that being 'art.' " Many Ricco/Maresca artists, she adds, have "some sort of anomaly," such as dementia or autism.
"The crazier it is," she says, "the more we want it."
One of the exhibits is called "Autism/Aspergers/Art," which (can I be reading this right?) is curated by Larry E. Dumont, director of inpatient child and preadolescent psychiatry, Kids- Peace Children's Hospital, Orefield, Pa.
I am charmed by "Contemporary Work by Artists on the Autism Spectrum." A color painting by Laura Craig McNellis shows a view of several bowling pins out for a walk on a sunny day. In the background you can make out birds (or possibly fish) that happen to be flapping by. And then there's the drawing of Nat King Cole at the piano, by John Michaels and Darren Murray. Right next to Cole is his alter-ego. Or Cole's imploded double. Or something. It looks like Cole has melted due to a fire or explosion.
I leave scratching my head. But I am satisfied. Chelsea galleries have come through.
Maybe it's the cold, or maybe it's the strain of all this edgy art. I am happy to be back in my neighborhood, but it's more stressful than I remember. Luckily, I am near a little oasis where I can go for relief.
I walk a few streets north to the Empire State Building, which is right on Chelsea's edge at 34th Street and Fifth Avenue. I catch the elevator, not to the top but to the 24th floor.
"Looking for the sleep pods?" asks a guy who's mopping the floor. He cocks a thumb and I enter an entire room of space-age plastic pods. Their shiny backs are futuristic white, which reminds me of the Milk Bar in the movie "A Clockwork Orange." Twenty minutes of shut-eye will cost me 14 bucks, and I can order a snack for delivery when I wake up.
I consider the shrimp salad platter or the Soprano (prosciutto, ham, mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, arugula and balsamic vinaigrette) but decide to wake up with sushi: the spicy tuna roll with cucumber or avocado for $4.50.
My Sleep Pod is as comfy as a private rocket. The cozy bubble shape is like a cockpit, and I am Major Tom, a Chelsea-based astronaut about to drop off. Am I ready for countdown? T-minus 10, 9, 8 . . .
I'm just beginning to doze when -- already? -- it's time for the dreaded Pod alarm. A light comes up, then an insistent vibration. I stretch, take a bite of my tuna roll and decide I'm definitely calmer than when I walked in.
Is this a public company? I think of maybe buying stock.
MetroNaps could be huge. Wherever people work. Wherever there is challenging art, street-corner New Age vendors. Wherever there are dulcimers and monks' robes and berets. Wherever you run smack into change.
I approach the desk. Is there a resident discount? A couple of bucks off for Zip code 10011?
I used to live in the neighborhood, I say. Near Barneys. Right in Chelsea.
Not so very far from here.
Peter Mandel last wrote for Travel on taking a rookie stock car driving class.
GETTING THERE: Amtrak's Penn Station is at West 32nd Street and Seventh Avenue on the neighborhood's northern edge. (New Yorkers argue over Chelsea's exact boundaries, but most tend to define it as the area south of 34th, north of 14th Street, east of the Hudson River and west of Fifth Avenue.) A round-trip coach ticket from Washington starts at $152.
WHERE TO STAY: Located in the former Maritime Trade Union building, the ultra-chic Maritime Hotel (363 W. 16th St., 212-242-4300, www.themaritimehotel.com) has portholes in every room, which makes you feel as if you're aboard an ocean liner (albeit with a downtown view). The lobby alone, with a varnished plank ceiling, ski-lodge fireplace and soft blue tiling, is worth a look. Rates start at $265.
The Avalon Hotel (16 E. 32nd St., 888- HI-AVALON, www.theavalonny.com) is a small, European-style boutique hotel with a men's club feel, thanks to its dark woods and polished stone. Rates from $199 to $380.
The Southgate Tower Hotel (371 Seventh Ave., 866-246-2203, www.affinia.com/NYC-Hotel/Southgate-Tower/Overview.cfm) is a convenient, reasonably priced big hotel a block from Penn Station. Its building dates from 1929, and although most of the rooms are pleasantly renovated, the lobby has a slightly dusty air. Rates: $169 to $279.
WHERE TO EAT: The Red Cat (227 10th Ave., between 23rd and 24th streets) is one of those cozy, high-quality bistros that locals prefer to keep to themselves. Dishes like the chargrilled double cut pork chop look traditional at first glance, but there's a Mediterranean twist to many of them: The chop, for instance, is served with a white bean stew with pancetta, tomato and eggplant. Entrees start at $18.
Another neighborhood-oriented small restaurant is the Chelsea Bistro & Bar (358 W. 23rd St., between Eighth and Ninth avenues), with classic French brasserie and bistro dishes. Entrees start at $18.50.
El Quijote (226 W. 23rd St.), dating to 1930, claims to be the oldest Spanish restaurant in the city. The seafood has always been a draw (with daily lobster specials), and trying some tapas with a drink at the bar makes you feel as if you're in some secret joint in Seville. Entrees start at $12.95.
WHAT TO SEE:
Rubin Museum of Art, 150 W. 17th St., 212-620-5000, www.rmanyc.org. Admission is $7. "Tibet: Treasures From the Roof of the World," running through May 8, features Tibetan sculpture, paintings, crafts and textiles.
Chelsea's gallery scene can be hard to navigate. Though most galleries are in the neighborhood's western edge -- in the 20s between 10th and 11th avenues -- their names and specialties are in flux. The best sources I've found are the Web sites www.galleryguide.com and www.westchelseaarts.com. At the latter, you can click on a list of individual galleries for exhibition and general info, a map and links to the galleries' own sites.
Ricco/Maresca Gallery, 529 W. 20th St., 212-627-4819, www.riccomaresca.com. A show featuring the photography of Lisette Model, "What We Don't Know -- Vintage New York," runs through March 19.
MetroNaps Sleep Salon, Empire State Building, 350 Fifth Ave., between 33rd and 34th streets, Suite 2410, 212-239-3344, www.metronaps.com/take_a_nap. Open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. Naps are sold in 20-minute increments (one 20-minute pass costs $14, plus $9.50 for each additional 20 minutes).
INFORMATION: For up-to-date info on Chelsea, as well as links to area maps, hotels and restaurants, check out WestChelseaArts, www.westchelseaarts.com; NY.com, www.ny.com/sights/neighborhoods/chelsea.html; Must See New York,www.mustseenewyork.com/chelsea.html; and 10Best.com, www.10best.com/Chelsea,New_York,NY/.
-- Peter Mandel