A visit to New York City would be incomplete without at least one Big Onio
n walking tour. The company was started twenty years ago by a graduate student and offers a large variety of tours throughout the day on a variety of subjects. The walks are still conducted by graduate students who have an extensive knowledge of the history, architecture and culture of the city. The prices are reasonable and no reservations are required.
Today we walked Chelsea, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Manhattan. Every few steps we heard about a familiar name, saying, or piece of literature. This area was a real well spring of American culture. The names dropped here ranged from Edith Wharton to Santa Claus to Sid Vicious. The first major landholder here was Clement Clark Moore, a serious academician and theologian, who was descended from Sir Thomas More, a noted British cleric who was put to death by Henry VIII. CC Moore wrote “T’was the Night Before Christmas” for his children and would be dismayed to know that this is the main reason he is remembered today. He modeled our Santa after the Dutch Sinter Klaas from his wife’s heritage and merged him with a local character noted for his twinkling eyes and round little belly. Young folks who went bar hopping in the winter during Moore’s time, used sleighs which were required to have bells so pedestrians could hear them coming. North Pole exploration was going on then and captured people’s imagination. So Santa comes at our homes today from the North Pole on a sleigh with jingling bells.
Moore was a man with a plan and he closely regulated the buildings erected on his holdings so they had an architectural unity that is not seen in other parts of Manhattan. Our tour started at the Chelsea Hotel, which was a lavish apartment house during the 1830’s when it was first built. Prominent folks like Andrew Carnegie hung out here then. The Titanic survivors were housed here after the disaster. Edith Wharton lived across the street. Her maiden name was Jones and her family was so wealthy, our saying “keeping up with the Jones” came from them.
As the filthy rich began to build homes further north, the hotel and neighborhood became more seedy. Many artists and writers patronized the Chelsea. Some didn’t have the cash to pay their bills and paid with paintings instead. The hotel lobby is still decorated with an eclectic collection of art as payment. Many famous writers worked here - Arthur C. Clarke, Thomas Wolfe, Brendan Behan and Leonard Cohen to name a few. Dylan Thomas drank himself to death here. Sid Vicious of Sex Pistols fame, murdered his girl friend at the Chelsea. Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road
here. I could go on.
Vaudeville houses and brothels took over the neighborhood. Police graft and corruption was rampant. One cop who was transferred here said, “ I don’t have to eat chuck steak any more. Now I can afford tenderloin.” This term for a seedy neighborhood is still used here and in San Francisco. Tin Pan Alley, home of much popular American music, was located in Chelsea.
As many docks were built here along the Hudson River, Chealsea turned into a manufacturing area. The film On the Waterfront
which could have made Marlon Brando a contender was based on this time. Many bakeries fed the city from Chelsea. One British baker started making little loaves on flat irons - thus the English muffin, which no British person had ever eaten. The Nabisco Baking company had a huge complex of buildings here and an elevated train line was built to bring supplies from the docks to the factories.
This track, called the High Line, was put out of business by long distance trucking and became a dangerous, dilapidated area until quite recently, when it was turned into an urban park. The High Line is beautifully vegetated with plants endemic to the area and provides strollers nice views of the city below. We've never been in such a long, thin park - a novel idea.
Our tour ended at the Chelsea Market, which was housed in one of the old Nabisco buildings. The nuts and bolts of the factory were cleaned and polished and provide a unique background to the restaurants and trendy food stores inside. We were especially impressed by a seafood store, which had neatly labeled fresh fish from all over the world. It was nice to see that the gulf coast was well represented and that the seafood from the oil disaster area seems to have recovered.