Scroll Contributor |Theodore Brown on Chelsea’s Past

I. There used to be uranium stored in Chelsea. Tons of it was steamed down from Canada and locked in the Baker & Williams Warehouses until needed for energy or war, the latter first and former later. Baker & Williams facilities were subsequently renovated in the ‘80s and ‘90s so that the formerly irradiated lockers could serve as gallery spaces. Looks like nothing in New York is forever, not even uranium (half-life: 4.47 billion years).

Most people don’t know that the highly prized exhibition space on 20th Street between 11th Ave. and the West Side Highway used to house megaton materiel, and who could blame them? The nature of space in New York is its impermanence. The geography of the city changes on infinitesimal scales: apartment-by-apartment, not just block-by-block. Chelsea went from floating above the urban-bucolia of the West Village and the visceral stink of the Meatpacking District to becoming the most important contemporary arts district in the world.

We see this sort of urban mutation often and even have names for it: urban renewal, gentrification, post-industrial development. But most of the time spatial reorganizations are credited to general movements led by nameless canaries who were either too adventurous or poor or both to be bound by the rigidity of geographic quarantine. There was no arch-hipster who first led the bearded masses to Williamsburg, nor an adventurous artist who first breached the junkies on the Lower East Side. The transformation of Chelsea took a similar route with a couple notable exceptions in the form of trend busting doyennes like Anina Nosei and Paula Cooper who relocated their SoHo galleries in 1995 and 1996 respectively, predating the violent spike in housing prices seen in the mid 2000s that they catalyzed.

Paddle8 recently spoke with Paula Cooper about her experience in Chelsea when it felt like a virtual graveyeard of warehouses looming above the river and industrial flotsam. Ms. Cooper was a local who was familiar with the neighborhood and saw the fresh opportunity in Midwest Manhattan. To create a gallery in Chelsea was to have clay of exquisite space, “it’s proportions were wonderful for a gallery,” Ms. Cooper said. So she got first dibs on one of the former storage lockers on 21st street and Chelsea gained a gallery (the first exhibition in her Chelsea space was a solo presentation of Carl Andre’s work), and the ball got rolling on a verifiable Scene in New York.

But galleries have more in common with industry than the fashion mavens strolling through Chelsea would like to believe, i.e. galleries need more galleries to actually exist. The emergence of a contemporary gallery bloc in Manhattan took on the same empirical form of Silicon Valley or Bangalore: other galleries came to Chelsea because that’s where you go to open a gallery, the economic loop starts and closes in one place. Ms. Cooper and Ms. Nosei’s (among others) choice to relocate their venerable businesses to a place like Chelsea—underdeveloped, gritty, visibly raw—had enough psychic and geographic force to shift the epicenter of not only the gallery scene, but the gallery economy as well.

400 galleries later, Chelsea hums along as the center of contemporary art and the urban and aesthetic complexion of the neighborhood has taken on a quintessentially modern patina. Its naval and nuclear past was swept clean and urbanists had the chance to see the transformation of yet another neighborhood in New York. But how long is a decade and a half, really? For urban planners it hovers somewhere between a flash and an eternity.

In the next post, I will be discussing the emergence of the gallery scene in Culver City, Los Angeles, which, like Chelsea, became the pulse of contemporary art in a city that is still attempting to divine its true nature.

Theodore Brown is a transportation and urban planner. His past articles can be found at Radials
Mark di Suvero’s work will be on view at Paula Cooper Gallery from November 22 – December 23, 2011