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The 200-Year History Of Chelsea's Ever-Expanding Borders

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Some neighborhood names appear to be jokes. Some have stuck around for centuries, despite changing connotations. Some shift with the winds of gentrification. Welcome to Blurred Lines, in which writer Keith Williams of The Weekly Nabe studies New York City's changing neighborhood boundaries.

"Developers like to say that they are expanding the boundaries of Chelsea northward, transforming unsightly parking lots into needed homes and amenities. But to those who live or work in the neighborhood, it feels more like the high-rise, high-rent contours of mid-Manhattan are being extended south, threatening daylight, small businesses and lower-income residents." —The New York Times, 1999Chelsea has long been one of the most desirable and eclectic neighborhoods in New York. The mention evokes images of beautiful row houses, avant-garde art galleries in former warehouses, gay bars, and more recently, everyone's favorite elevated park. So it's not surprising that realtors and developers would seek to take advantage of the name. Over the past 200 years, they've pushed the neighborhood's boundaries far beyond its original ten-square-block span, first settled by an entrepreneurial Englishman. In 1750, Thomas Clarke, a British Captain, purchased waterfront property in the wilds north of New York. He named his estate "Chelsea" after a soldiers' home near London. The holding covered the space between what is today Eighth and Tenth Avenues, and 19th and 24th Streets.

Captain Clarke's grandson, Clement Clarke Moore, divided the estate in the 1830s, after the modern grid had been laid. (You might know Mr. Moore as the writer of The Night Before Christmas.) A park at the southeast corner of 22nd Street and Tenth Avenue is named in his honor, and he's generally considered to be the "founder" of Chelsea as a neighborhood.

From then until the 1880s, developers built the core of Chelsea between 14th and 23rd Streets west of Eighth Avenue. The famous Chelsea Hotel, on 23rd between Eighth and Ninth, is relatively youthful, dating from 1884.

In the 1920s, speculator Henry Mandel looked to push Chelsea east. He owned nearly half of the land facing Seventh Avenue between 14th and 23rd Streets, and sought to erect apartments on every corner in that stretch. His dream crashed with the economy, and he filed for bankruptcy in 1932, having begun work on only four of his buildings - now known collectively as Chelsea Corners.

But Chelsea would move eastward anyway. A Times article from 1969 about Chelsea's renaissance put the borders at Tenth and Sixth Avenues, between 14th and 14th Streets:

Around this same time, Preservation fever had begun. The city landmarked some of the neighborhood's oldest buildings in 1970 and 1971. It's not a huge area, but indicative of what might be considered "central" Chelsea. This was especially pertinent by 1979 as the neighborhood ballooned to its largest size:

The Times confirms the expansion in 1984, claiming the neighborhood's boundaries "stretch beyond both ends of the 20's on the West Side." Yet all of that seems to have been forgotten by 2001, when another article claimed, "Chelsea is on the march northward"... all the way to 30th Street! (Been there, done that.)

Fodor's travel guide retracts the border to 29th Street in 2006, and pulls it back to the river:

In this post-High Line Chelsea, there's still some debate as to the neighborhood's borders. Wikipedia and Google Maps disagree, with the latter offering a bigger area:

What's clear, though, is that the heart of Chelsea remains below 23rd Street. There are a few block associations north of that artery, but most of the neighborhood's larger organizations claim that as the boundary. Perhaps as more rezonings take hold and Hudson Yards comes to fruition, along with better transportation options form the 7 train extension, we'll see a sense of community in Chelsea's northern half.
· Blurred Lines archives [Curbed]