Chelsea Market is a large indoor food mall that takes up the block from 9th to 10th Avenues between 15th and 16th Streets. It is one long, long walkway lined on each side with brightly lit shops and aromatic restaurants in what feels like one of the most “chic” places in Manhattan. Yet, at the same time, remnants of the past linger like permanent reminders of the Meatpacking District’s gritty history — which is the complete opposite of chic. Where did such a drastic transformation come from? What did Chelsea Market offer in the past — and how does this relate to the rich experience that it offers us today?
Chelsea Market began with the birth of the Meatpacking District: in the 1890s, a collection of bakeries stood where present-day Chelsea Market stands now. In classic Meatpacking District fashion, these bakeries came to represent the hub of industrial baking activities in Manhattan. The National Biscuit Company (now well known as “Nabisco”) baked most of its goods right on this very block; in fact, it is said that the Oreo cookie was invented here — a ubiquitous symbol of the success that Nabisco enjoyed in the neighborhood during the first couple of decades of the 20th Century.
By the 1930s, however, the activity in the bakeries began to slow down: in 1932, some of them were removed to make way for the High Line. After that, the bakeries’ steady decline only continued; Nabisco sold off almost all of the bakeries by the end of the 1950s (in 1959), and by the 1970s and 1980s, most baking operations had ceased. Once again, this area of the Meatpacking District mirrored the neighborhood as a whole: as the industrial activity in the bakeries diminished, the industrial activity in the rest of the neighborhood decreased with it. The degradation of the quality of the neighborhood during this time period can clearly be seen in Chelsea Market’s history. On the other hand, the revitalization that then occurred in the area in the late 1990s affected the bakeries just as strongly. At the end of the 20th century, the city began to renovate and revamp the bakery buildings — and the chic shopping cornucopia that is the modern-day Chelsea Market was born.
The food-filled history of Chelsea Market’s location continues to reverberate there today. In addition to the large collection of restaurants, most of the shops in the mall deal with food as well, including: “Bowery Kitchen Supply”, which attempts to imitate the culinary stores on the Bowery; “Chelsea Wine Vault”, which also holds events and rents out storage spaces in its cellar; “Kingdom of Herbs”, which, in chic Chelsea Market fashion, sells jewelry and accessories alongside its herbs; “The Lobster Place”, which is a fantastic indoor seafood market; and “Dickson’s Farmstand”, which lives up to the Meatpacking District’s namesake by selling — of course — meat! These are just a few of the shops that make up the “market” side of Chelsea Market, which also includes an array of restaurants. In particular, “Amy’s Bread”, “Ruthy’s Bakery and Café”, “Sarabeth’s Bakery”, and “Doughnuttery” are especially notable, since they continue the tradition and legacy of Chelsea Market’s bakery-filled past; today, special windows into the bakeries allow Chelsea Market’s patrons to take a glimpse at the bread being made, strengthening the reminiscent connection between past and present even further.
This connection has been in the works since the beginning; Chelsea Market’s designers, who renovated the bakeries in the late 1990s, knew they wanted to retain some of the bakeries’ original features. In an effort to encapsulate the past, they kept the original bricks, pipes, lighting fixtures, ceiling fans, and other industrial-looking fixtures from the bakery days intact. Yet Chelsea Market is not any less chic as a result — rather, it tends to have an overly chic feel today, especially due to stores like Anthropologie and the trendy-sounding “L’Arte del Gelato”. In this way, what is meant to be a glimpse into the past is actually more reminiscent of a falsely manufactured replica, showing how Chelsea Market continues to hold a mirror up to the Meatpacking District today. It attempts to be stylish and trendy while at the same time trying to replicate the gritty, dangerous feeling of the past.
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