The average New Yorker has many associations with Chelsea, the area in Manhattan from about 14th Street to 29th Street ending at Sixth Avenue on the east and the Hudson River to the west, varying from (male) gay, to artist lofts and galleries, to old style Hispanic, to nightclubs, to the more recent well-to-do families and the highline; some might even think of punk rock and artists at the Chelsea Hotel on 23rd Street. As a life long Chelsea resident I have seen the area change dramatically, while still maintaining some of its integral core structures and soul. A brief timeline of the history of Chelsea (crdcnyc.org/Websites /…/History/New Chelsea History Timelime.pdf) illustrates how it came to be as rich and fascinating as it is, deeply rooted in the cradle of the industrial revolution, much of its population sprang from the building of railroads along the Hudson River, which line Chelsea. Now insert the topic of environmental sustainability contextualized in the heart of the industrial revolution and all its irrevocable affects that makeup our American history! The industrial revolution effectively accelerated the magnitude of damaging and polluting man-made effects on our planet with powerful manipulation and “betrayal” of natural resources. It also engendered the very meaning of capitalism, the paradox of progress being deeply ensconced within it, and perhaps the true modern beginning of the growth model of economics and society.
The Hispanic and Irish who built the railroads here, settled in Chelsea. Of course prosperous white families and singles, have since replaced those populations. According to city-data.com (as of 2008) Chelsea is about 70% white, the second largest group being Hispanic, then Asian and Black about the same, and mixed races are the smallest population. The average household income in 2011 was just about $99,000, compared to New York’s average of $49,461 and interestingly most of the homes where built before 1939; 11,556 homes to be exact. These statistics speak to the amount of wealth needed to live here now but at the same time some of its old and established feel remains, due to its old structures which stand like monuments to the time when America’s industry first thrived. These old buildings were often factories and warehouses built before and at the turn of the 20th century, with many residential buildings built in the 1930’s. Chelsea is still home to various industries, from the antiques industry to the photo district. There once was a floral district and a fur industry, as well as Department Stores on the edge of Chelsea along the “Ladies Mile,” which kept new construction low. The influx of big box chain stores lining Sixth Avenue have largely replaced the old and have revitalized under utilized space. There is now much new residential construction with the onset of the real estate boom of the 21st century. So what does this mean in terms of the environment and sustainable practices?
Two women that I interviewed, both about ten-year Chelsea residents, fit into the upwardly mobile, nuclear family demographic. Jackie, 40 and mother of three, talked about how central and convenient Chelsea is. There are so many types of food stores for example, and everything she needs for her family is within walking distance. In this way Chelsea is comparable to an old village-like lifestyle that seems to have been a more natural or organic way of life.
Another ten-year resident, Audrey, 36, mother of two and a speech therapist in the public school system, mused about how the increased number of people in the area, the city and the world in general, negatively effects things by putting more pollutants into the atmosphere. She also noticed how vehicles were now using “greener” technology, but she was not sure how that weighed against increased use. Audrey also spoke about the building of the High Line as a major change in the community, by bringing some environmental awareness and greenery to the area. The Highline is a park and walkway that was constructed on a once long abandoned railway from Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District to West 34th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues. It has also brought on an onslaught of new buildings, people and tourists to the area, so again we must weigh the positive and negative environmental effects.
Both women sighted that the growing family orientation in the neighborhood was good, though Jackie talked about how the old residents had been pushed out losing some local authenticity. Audrey identified the lack of parks in the central part of Chelsea, as one of the community’s most pressing issues and said that the parks that we do have, on the outskirts, are overcrowded. Both women feel that the topic of sustainability is very important but that they personally do not do enough to help the problem. Audrey said sarcastically, “What do I do, recycle?” while sitting in the living room of her luxury apartment.
Jackie expressed a sentiment of near jadedness, relating to the changes she had gone through ideologically. Back in her liberal college days, she felt that individuals had the power to effect big changes, but now her sense of responsibility have shifted from bigger causes to her immediate needs and her family’s demands.
Everybody who I interviewed echoed the attitude about an abundance of food choices. Jackie cited Trader Joe’s healthy and low cost choices as a positive step toward food security in the community. A 45-year resident of Chelsea, Janis, 56, with spiky blond hair and a rock n’ roll style and a consummate New York accent, raised her son, now 22, here in Chelsea. She also sited the variety of new food stores as the (only) positive change that the influx of new people and wealth has brought. There is a Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Garden of Eden, West Side Market and a new Fairway. Long gone are the days of being forced to frequent the somewhat seedy A&P on Eighth Avenue and complaining about the poor quality at Gristedes.
Janis thinks that overpopulation, leading to environmental issues on many levels, is the neighborhood’s most pressing issue, including the possibility that there might not be enough schools to accommodate the children. Jackie, on the other hand, feels that the largest community issue is the cost of living that is skyrocketing. Even her own affluent family could be priced and pushed out soon. (However, she acknowledged that they choose to send their children to a private school). Right now the public school in the area is extremely popular and considered very desirable. It features an organic garden that helps supply their food program. Beside the garden and the environmental lessons this teaches, improving public education is only positive (even if it’s due to the involvement of the changing and affluent parent body).
The biggest sign of an attempt at sustainable practices that I see in this area are the bags of recycling that ceaselessly collect across the city sidewalks (See figure 1). Look into the clear plastic bags and one notices an array of recognizable brands and plastics. Where does it all go? Is it really reused in some way?
Two people who have worked in Chelsea for a number of years are both skeptical about recycling . Pat, about 40 and originally from Queens, worked at a pizza place for some years, told me that the whole sanitation thing is about making money, all garbage gets shipped to the same landfill, and that all the new “green” building practices are fake. He said that he knew this by what went on with waste disposal at the pizza place and from friends in the sanitation department. Arturo, originally from Poland, a hair stylist in Chelsea for some years, also feels that recycling practices are a sham. He was particularly concerned about elderly people trying to survive in the city with the increasing cost of living.
Endlessly I see new construction and work; trucks bringing materials out of buildings. (See figure 2) I wonder what the materials were once for and where they go now. I wonder about the environmental effects of the new construction and the endless quest to build more and make more space for people to live in and conduct commerce. Already the once wonderful General Theological Seminary, which spanned an entire city block from Ninth to Tenth Avenues, between 21st and 22nd streets, has been largely replaced with new condos. What a heartbreaker for long time residents, as this spot, offered some greenery and sense of space as a reprieve from the relentless pounding of city pavement. Chelsea piers, on the other hand, only open because of the community’s ability to financially support such an endeavor, offers some open space and greenery (aside from its sports facilities). Let us not forget the community’s consorted effort to lobby for a new park where the sanitation department had a small office and parking lot, no longer in use. Citizens/residents are working hard at creating campaigns for something that may not be world changing, but that they believe is extremely important to their neighborhood. More will be revealed.
 As some people refer to it more specifically, gay yuppies. There is also the Chelsea Boy phenomena, which refers to men with a certain physique and style.