Saving Chelsea

St. Vincent de Paul Church on West 23rd Street, once a significant marker for the city’s African-American community, before it was shuttered in 2013 by the Archdiocese of New York. The church, among the vestiges of significant cultural institutions in the neighborhood, has since been purchased by a hotel developer. Photo: via Wikimedia Commons
A coalition of residents works to preserve the neighborhood’s history and its diversity

Wooden boards cover the three large windows of a forsaken limestone building with a triangular roof on West 23rd Street, a few doors west of Sixth Avenue. Brown discoloration marks the stone, which is chipped in parts. Its bulky green hardwood doors are powdered with a fine dust. St. Vincent de Paul Church, where an abolitionist, the Rev. Annet Lafont, taught religion to African-American children in the 1850s, has been shuttered since 2013.

The church, once a hub of the neighborhood’s African-American community, has been abandoned, in some ways symbolic of a vanishing piece of Chelsea, which has seen a sweeping tide of gentrification.

Vestiges of the neighborhood’s rich cultural history and ethnically diverse businesses are disappearing, replaced by trendy boutique hotels, chain stores and luxury apartment buildings. Longtime neighborhood residents lament how Chelsea has changed, but a grassroots organization, Save Chelsea, is actively fighting to preserve the area and its history.

In the late 19th century and early 20th, a strong African-American community brought sweeping changes to Manhattan’s music, theater and art cultures. Chelsea was that community’s epicenter. Much of that is consigned to memory. So is the once-lively Hispanic and Latino community that Chelsea was known for in the 1970s, which Pamela Wolff, the vice president of Save Chelsea and a 62-year resident of the neighborhood, recalls.

“It’s radically different,” Wolff said. “There’s been a huge loss of the bedrock community that we had.”

But Save Chelsea is adamant about doing what it can to preserve the neighborhood’s culturally significant landmarks that date back to the turn of the 20th century, a time when Chelsea was a major destination or living space for the 60,000 blacks living in New York City.

Tin Pan Alley, on West 28th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries home to a sea of songwriters whose collective pianos were said to sound like a cacophony of clashing tin pans. That discord has been replaced by the sound of mostly slow-moving traffic. Save Chelsea is trying to get the city to landmark the row houses that comprised Tin Pan Alley to keep them from being torn down.

The future of the Hopper-Gibbons House, Manhattan’s sole documented Underground Railroad location, is also unknown. Save Chelsea aided Friends of the Hopper-Gibbons House Underground Railroad Site in staving off a potential fifth-floor addition to the West 29th Street building last year. But the ultimate goal is restoration of the home, and whether the group will be able to do so is unclear.

“All of these kind of iconic places that represent blackness are disappearing because of gentrification,” Renée Blake, director of Africana Studies at New York University, said. “This is erasure. These cultural institutions that have been fortified by black people, what becomes of them?”

Landmarks are not the only entity in Chelsea that are threatened by gentrification. The diversity of its population and small businesses are also susceptible to rising rents and developers.

Save Chelsea’s Wolff recalled the avenues’ thriving mom-and-pop businesses: Flower shops, barbers, shoe repairs, cleaners, laundromats and bodegas. That was decades ago. Now, as they do nearly everywhere in Manhattan, chain stores such as CVS, Rite Aid and Duane Reade predominate.

The homogenization of Chelsea has reshaped the neighborhood’s small business landscape. Restaurants featuring Spanish or Chinese Cuban cuisine that once lined Eighth Avenue are virtually non-existent today. They’ve been replaced by McDonaldses and Subways.

Miguel Acevedo, 57, who was born and raised in Chelsea and is president of the Fulton Houses Tenants’ Association Acevedo, said the community used to be 70 percent Hispanic or Latino in the 1970s. According to 2016 city data, Community Districts 4 and 5, which roughly stretch north from 14th Street to 58th Street and east to Eighth Avenue, have a Hispanic or Latino population of 14.6 percent.

Only 5.4 percent of the population in Manhattan Community Districts 4 and 5 is black as of 2016, down from 7 percent in 2010.

“When the gentrification started and it became so expensive to live in our community is when people started dispersing from the community,” Acevedo said. “Our landlords took advantage of families who didn’t have much money.”

Kimberley Johnson, a professor of social and cultural analysis at New York University, called the demographic change “alarming and somewhat sad for the city.”

“Not really having African American culture in the daily mix is sad,” Johnson said.

Douglas Wagner, director of brokerage services at BOND New York real estate, said the area will swiftly become even more expensive. He said rents for a typical 620-square-foot one-bedroom in Chelsea rose from $2,550 in 2001 to about $4,500 today.

Whenever landlords’ tax benefits expire, any rent regulation on their apartments do as well, Wagner said. Landlords then raise rent to prices only wealthy people can afford. Those who can’t pay end up leaving.

To maintain the neighborhood’s diversity and perhaps even stem departures, Laurence Frommer, Save Chelsea’s president, said the organization has shifted its efforts from historic preservation to also retaining and establishing new affordable housing. It has seen some success, especially recently.

At an April meeting, members of Community Board 4 pushed slow-burning 40-year-old plans to provide affordable housing. As a result, four buildings on Seventh Avenue and West 22nd Street will ultimately provide 24 new units of affordable housing in the form of a co-op, Wolff said. Five tenants, she added, now have the right to return to the new building upon completion. Score one for Save Chelsea.