A routine Sunday errand in our Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood in New York City–to purchase a few indoor plants at the local nursery–became a lesson in the fast-moving gentrification of all parts of Manhattan. The nursery, Chelsea Garden Center (at 11th Avenue and West 44th Street looking north, above) got its start in 1984 about 20 blocks south of the current location; it has moved numerous times as rising rents and development pressure became too much for this type of small business. It had been located in Chelsea, East Village/Bowery, and the Meatpacking District; all of these had been bywords for affordable or even cheap living, but are now filled with luxury condos and boutique hotels. The far west side of Hell’s Kitchen would have seemed even 10 years ago to be fairly immune to the extreme gentrification seen in other neighborhoods, but no more. The nursery is finally giving up on Manhattan and is moving to Brooklyn; the landlord will not renew the lease and is instead selling to a developer which will result in another high-rise similar to the recently built one seen in the background of the above photo.
A lot of the development pressure is coming from the nearby, massive Hudson Yards project, where multiple towers, thousands of housing units, a park, and millions of square feet of office and retail are displacing rail yards, warehouses and old tenement apartments. The picture above shows the first pieces of Hudson Yards under construction in the background, with the MTA‘s new transit stop–the terminus of the 7 line–to the right in the foreground (New Yorkers, ever- vigilant about occupying public space, are holding a protest unrelated to the development).
The new subway stop is the City’s gift to the developers; the far west side has long been underserved by transit which has, until recently, kept rents low and discouraged major developments: the neighborhood was just too difficult to get to. But all that has changed in the last decade or so, with people being more and more willing to live or dine further from the center of town. Above is a new 71-story luxury rental tower (the Sky) underway across the street from the nursery. Its steep rents and plush amenities are the opposite of what the gritty neighborhood was known for a few short years ago.
Above, a rendering of the pool terrace at the new rental building. In Birmingham, most (though not all: see Park Place downtown) of our new residential and mixed-use developments are displacing underused warehouses, surface parking or filling long-empty historic buildings. Rarely are local, family-owned businesses extant in these locations, and new people moving in generally add to, rather than displace, existing populations. Not so in many areas of Manhattan; the musicians, artists, and working class that populated Hell’s Kitchen are hard to find anymore. It’s like a hyper-luxury veil is being draped across the entire island. Real estate has always been vicious and kinetic in this town, but the current pace feels historic as the average sales price for a Manhattan apartment has reached almost $2 million.
With the nursery leaving Manhattan (above, the announcement posted at the counter), there will be no other true plant store within walking distance from our apartment. OK, not a huge deal–we can still travel another 20 blocks, but it begs the question: where are all the thousands of high-rent occupants coming to the neighborhood going to get houseplants? The employee ringing us up (also pictured above), when posed that question, smiled and said “Well, you can always go to Home Depot.” Of course he was being sarcastic, but the loss of small neighborhood businesses as bank branches and chain drug stores proliferate is causing Manhattan to be just a little duller, and a little less diverse, with each passing year.