New York is rapidly changing. Architectural mock-ups of the Big Apple’s skyline in five years reveal a surge of vertical development, and a transformation of midtown and downtown into clusters of shining towers. The city is becoming more of a glamorous tourist destination than a place where people actually live. Manhattan often feels like it might be one of the most expensive places in the U.S. The price of MetroCards and cups of coffee seem as malleable as the wet cement outside one of the hundreds of new developments popping up throughout the island.
Chelsea is one of the places where the direction the city is headed in is the most apparent. The Whitney Museum and the High Line draw visitors from around the world. The luxury store Barneys has recently moved its flagship store back to its original home on Seventh Avenue and 16th Street. Chic cafés and restaurants dot the avenues closer to the water. Before the era of the High Line, Chelsea and the Meatpacking District were largely industrial areas. As the High Line crept up the edge of the neighborhood closer to its terminal on 34th Street so did trendier business and apartment complexes.
I wrote solely about Chelsea during my time at Our Town. I constantly walked around area to check the neighborhood’s pulse, to see what kind of issues might be pertinent to our readers. Spatially, Chelsea is quite small, but its demographic makeup makes it one of the most interesting places in the city to write community news. According to a city report, the median household income in Chelsea in 2013 was $114,486, and more recent reports suggest the current figure is closer to $150,000. There are two large housing projects the northern and southern borders of Chelsea. Residency in these communities is predicated on incomes vastly smaller than those in the surrounding luxury apartments. Walking around this section of Chelsea I saw a diverse community and I would stop in a real bodega for some candy. The further south I walked the less variety and bodegas I saw.
It was often during these walks around the beat that I was struck by the neighborhood’s glaring extremes. On one of my first tours I walked down 26th Street toward the water. I passed a group of youngsters piling into a bus coming out of P.S. 33, the public school at the edge of the Eliot-Chelsea housing projects. I walked down the street more to see a similar scene of children in crisp white polo shirts walking out of Avenues, a private K-12 school that opened in 2011. When I returned back to the office I looked up tuition price at Avenues, which was close to $45,000.
There were other times when I saw the two worlds of Chelsea in close contact with each other. Throughout the summer, public WiFi terminals were being erected on Eighth Avenue. One can use these black and silver monoliths to charge a phone or search online for directions. It would seem the terminals would be of help to tourists more than to New Yorkers. Nearly every time I passed one, however, a homeless person had taken a newspaper bin, propped it on its side, and used it as a seat in front of small screen, where he would either be watching a movie or listening to music.
It’s not new that New York has a serious homeless problem. If you’re in a sketchy neighborhood and you see a homeless person you think very little of it. When you walk a block down from Google’s massive New York headquarters and see homeless people, however, the issue gathers a much different context.
During my own lifetime I have seen the city’s image change. I grew up in Carroll Gardens, a once predominately Italian-American community in Brooklyn. The area was full of families and old Italian business that had been in operation for generations. It was a pleasant neighborhood but it was still Brooklyn in the sense that most people were tough and I grew up seeing fights in the park.
Seemingly overnight, the neighborhood changed. There were more young people on my block and the bars on Smith Street grew crowded. The turning point came when a bakery specializing in producing milk that tastes like the milk at the bottom of a cereal bowl opened on my block, to the apparent glee of several of my new neighbors. My family has since moved to a neighborhood deeper in Brooklyn where things are more like they were during my childhood.
One of my favorite stories this summer was about community backlash to a proposed park at Pier 55. The Barry Diller- and Diane von Furstenberg-backed floating island park’s construction would cost the couple and the city an astronomical price. When I interviewed people opposed to the project, they all echoed a similar sentiment: why is this park necessary? Most of them felt that the corporation was capitalizing on the city’s inability to say no to new public spaces. Surveys of Chelsea residents found that most of the community was completely indifferent to the proposed park. This call for things to stay the same resonated for me. Sometimes it’s better to maintain the sanctity of a neighborhood as it is than to blindly accept changes.
As a lifelong New Yorker, and a soon-to-be independent young adult, I find it hard to wholly appreciate Chelsea. There are definite upsides to gentrification, such as stronger school systems bolstered by higher tax brackets and more attractive public projects, but gentrification is tough to digest when you’re living through it. There’s this feeling that the rug is being pulled out from under you and everyone is OK with it. Change in the city is inevitable but gentrification rapidly accelerates this change to point where you see — and experience — it on a month-to-month basis. I would love to move back to New York after college but I’m not sure if I could afford it. And if I could, I’m not entirely sure I would enjoy it.
Isidro Camacho, a student journalist at Straus News this summer, will be a senior at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, this fall. He is majoring in journalism and minoring in French.