Chelsea then and now

Harmon Rangell walking out of his former shop in Chelsea in the 1960s. The reflection in the window is of the facade of St. Vincent de Paul church directly across the street. Photo courtesy of Harmon Rangell
A longtime shop owner returns to walk around the illustrious neighborhood where he once worked
by harmon rangell

The traffic was lighter than I expected as I headed west on Southern State Parkway towards Queens and Brooklyn.

Continuing west through Sunnyside and Long Island City, I drove up and onto the 59th Street bridge. Off the bridge and into Manhattan, I headed downtown on Second Avenue. Right on 29th Street and then left on Fifth Avenue, and there she was ... the Flatiron Building looking right at me from its perch on 23rd Street at the intersection of Fifth and Broadway.

I had been in that building countless times, even in the corner offices known as “point” offices. Those coveted spaces look directly uptown, right up Fifth Avenue at the Empire State Building some ten blocks away. The Flatiron was completed in 1902, and at the time was the tallest building in New York. One can only imagine the view from the “point” offices some thirty years later when the Empire State was being built, rising floor by floor to its eventual 102-story height.

Continuing, I turned west on 21st Street and then another right on Eighth Avenue. Miraculously, I found a metered parking spot just above 23rd. But the meter gave me only an hour to walk around the neighborhood that had been a second home to me for 34 years.

So there I was, on the very streets, the very sidewalks, I had walked so many times before. I headed east and immediately passed the building that had housed a notorious old saloon and restaurant. “Cavanaugh’s” opened in 1876 and closed its doors in 1970. I remember having lunch there a few times with a customer I evidently wanted to impress. The building was empty and uninhabited with a “For Rent” sign on its façade. The asking price was $35,000 per month.

Across the street and upstairs, Nick’s barber shop was no longer there. Nick was a nice guy who had a country home somewhere upstate and he and I would wax philosophic as he was cutting my hair. I knew him for many — at least 20 — years.

And down the block stood the Chelsea Hotel. Completely covered by scaffolding and netting, it was undergoing a total renovation. The sign said it would be ready in October of this year.

What a place that was. Artists, writers, musicians. Arthur Miller lived there. “Look Homeward Angel,” “Naked Lunch,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” ... those and so many more great works were penned within its walls. Bob Dylan lived and worked there ... Leonard Cohen ... Madonna ... Joni Mitchell (remember “Chelsea Morning”?) ... Janis Joplin. I could go on and on. And everyone knew that Sid Vicious killed his girlfriend Nancy Spungeon in Room 207.

I just stood there for a few minutes. Right in front of “El Quijote,” the Spanish restaurant that inhabited the Chelsea’s lobby. Also closed, the sign on the window promised to reopen within six months. I had enjoyed paella along with a pitcher of Sangria many times at those tables.

And then looking directly across the street, there it was: The McBurney YMCA. The Y sold this building in 2004 and it is currently home to very costly condominium apartments, but the building’s façade and the steps leading up to the lobby were the same. From 1982 through 2012, I was an everyday member. Part of what was called the “morning crew,” we would wait on those very steps for the doors to open at 5:30 a.m.

I walked up the stairs and into the lobby which was now nothing like I remembered. But they had left the Y’s motto at the stop of the stairs. It was painted over but was still readable: “Enter here to be and find a friend.”

The Y, this particular Y, was a truly unique place. Members included the likes of Jerry Orbach, Edward Albee, Al Pacino, Ed Koch, Pete Hamill, Andy Warhol and several notorious gangsters. Rado and Ragni — the characters who wrote “Hair” (and by the way, wrote it on my typewriters they bought from me), both lived at the Chelsea and frequented the Y. Woody Harrelson played basketball in the morning while filming a movie in Manhattan. The famous song by The Village People, “YMCA,” was written about our Y.

And a piece of “Godfather” trivia: the scene when Moe Greene of Las Vegas was assassinated — remember? He looked up from a massage table and got a bullet in the eye. Well, that was filmed at the McBurney as well. Right outside the steam room where I spent so much time.

I continued my walk and crossed Seventh Avenue.

Within minutes, I stood in front of 124 West 23rd Street. My old store — or even the very building it existed in — was no longer. I stood and watched people walk by, realizing sadly that probably not even one of them knew or remembered what had been on this very spot. The majority of my adult life was spent here. I was that big guy with the beard in the little yellow typewriter shop.

And I looked across the street at the façade of St. Vincent de Paul, the beautiful church that has graced that very spot since 1869. Its stained glass windows have been removed and covered by plywood. I later learned that it was sold to an international hotel chain that plans to build a 35-story hotel on that very spot.

I walked away and continued eastward towards Fifth Avenue. There halfway down the block was Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop. Their motto is that they’ve been raising NY’s cholesterol since 1929. I was a regular customer at its long and narrow black marble counter literally fifty years ago. Cold chicken on rye with lettuce and mayo was one of my favorites. It was a wonderful place, and I remember once sitting next to Buddy Hackett, the comedian, who was lunching with William B. Williams, the NY disc jockey.

“Can I help you?” asked a young woman as I looked at the counter with nary an empty stool.

“Just taking a look,” I responded and realized that it was probable that I frequented that place before she was even born.

The hour on the parking meter was coming to an end and so I headed back to Eighth Avenue. There were five minutes left on my allotted time when I got back to the car.

I could not help thinking about how many times I had walked those very streets, those very sidewalks. Multiple times, every day, for 34 years. Thousand and thousands of times.

And I kept looking at the faces, wondering, and I guess hoping, that I would see a familiar one, or that someone would recognize me.

But it was not to be. Too much time had passed. Too much time. I was an old man walking the streets of my youth and hoping to recapture some of it.

Wasn’t it Thomas Wolfe, who happened to live at the Chelsea, who wrote “You Can’t Go Home Again”? I guess he was right.

Harmon Rangell has been married to the same good woman for 56 years. He is a father, grandfather, retired businessman, writer, part-time musician, collector of Bonsai trees and self-described “pool room junkie.” His novel “Jake’s Tale” is available at