IF West 23rd Street needed putting on a map, a cartographer could perhaps rely on a couple of its pop music landmarks: the Chelsea Hotel, once an inspiration for artists like Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell (as in her classic “Chelsea Morning”); and, just across the street, the century-old former Y.M.C.A. building that is said to have sparked the Village People’s late-’70s anthem of the same name.
That the 27-block neighborhood could inspire both folk rock and disco on the same block attests to its great eclecticism, says Paul Groncki, a longtime resident. That ambience endured despite the area’s evolution away from its factory origins in the 20th century, with all kinds of residents — artists, middle-class Latinos and a gay community — living happily side by side.
Mr. Groncki (an economist who has since retired) was there with them. An enthusiast for the neighborhood, he is a trustee of Hudson Guild, a nonprofit group that offers preschool programs to lower-income residents, including those in two housing projects, Robert Fulton and Elliott-Chelsea, which have 17 buildings along Ninth Avenue.
It was back in 1987 that he and his wife, Michelle Tokarczyk, a college professor, left their one-bedroom rental in Greenwich Village for a prewar co-op in Chelsea. The unit, with two bedrooms and three exposures, cost $225,000; in recent years its value has hovered around $1 million, even during the recession, when Mr. Groncki had his unit appraised several times, he said.
Yet with prices having reached such heights, and with the neighborhood continuing to burnish its more recently acquired sheen of luxury, he pointed out: “Cops and teachers can’t afford to live here anymore. Chelsea is tipping toward the upper classes.”
Residents rarely take anything sitting down, however. Channeling a Chelsea tradition of activism — there are eight popular and vocal block associations — Mr. Groncki joined in a rally a few years ago against the Chelsea Enclave, a condominium planned for the leafy campus of the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church, on Ninth Avenue at 21st Street. And their cause was won: the condo, conceived at 17 stories by its developer, the Brodsky Organization, now tops out at 7.
Other such battles have had different outcomes. Protesters have failed, for instance, to keep 300,000 square feet of office space from being added atop the historic Chelsea Market. The City Council approved the project last month.
Another activist resident, Matthew Weiss, who moved here in 2008, has worked for the last two years to consolidate support for creating a park on the site of a quarter-acre former city parking lot at 136 West 20th Street. Mr. Weiss, a research analyst, left behind a NoHo apartment for a co-op loft in a converted Chelsea hat factory.
A park is sorely needed, he says, pointing out that Community Board 4, which represents most of the neighborhood, is ranked near the bottom in the city in terms of open space.
The midblock parcel is designated for 75 units of affordable housing, and Community Board 4 has so far been reluctant to alter that plan. In January 2011, it voted overwhelmingly against the park.
Mr. Weiss, who claims thousands of backers, is undeterred. He asserted that “20 or 30 years ago, when Chelsea was light manufacturing, the lack of parks was inconsequential,” but that today “it’s become a critical problem.”
WHAT YOU’LL FIND
The huge swath of Midtown that Chelsea once described has been carved up into microneighborhoods, in sync with much of the rest of Manhattan. According to 2010 census data for the microneighborhood most typically regarded today as Chelsea proper, the population is about 35,000. But Mr. Weiss, who lives near Sixth Avenue, calls his area “East Chelsea”; some developers use “West Chelsea” to describe the section beyond Ninth Avenue, where the High Line park is attracting throngs.
At the same time it has narrowed, Chelsea also appears to have pushed northward, into blocks once claimed by the garment district. Chelsea Park, a huge new 204-unit rental project, now looms at Eighth Avenue and 26th Street, near shop windows filled with reclining mannequins.
The neighborhood seems to go high-rise along the Avenue of the Americas above West 23rd Street, which is packed with rental towers like the Vanguard Chelsea, Chelsea Landmark and Chelsea Centro.
Moving west, the profile slopes down, though condos like Yves, which went up during the last boom, are hard to miss. At 14 stories, this Magnum Real Estate Group property is a reflective presence at 18th Street and Seventh Avenue.
Eighth Avenue is even lower-slung, lined with aged three-story tenements. Cross streets nearby are home to the neighborhood’s architectural gems: early 1800s row houses in brownstone and brick. On the southern side of 22nd Street, between Eighth and Ninth, a series of Greek Revival houses set back from traffic display ornately carved doors that beckon above wide stoops.
Large old buildings have been given new lives, too. The Chelsea Mercantile, a former woolens factory at 252 Seventh Avenue, has a number of Hollywood actors as residents.
Nearby, across a five-block spread, stand the Mutual Redevelopment Houses, or Penn South, an income-restricted affordable redbrick co-op with 2,820 units — studios to three-bedrooms — across 10 buildings.
In the early 1960s, pensions from the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union helped pay for those buildings, says Walter Mankoff, a resident who is the complex’s treasurer.
In 1971, he moved from the Bronx to a two-bedroom in Penn South that cost $168 a month, plus a $3,500 equity payment. Today, if the complex were to privatize — an idea that has been discussed over the years — Mr. Mankoff’s place might bring $1 million. “Chelsea has become highly upscale,” he said.
WHAT YOU’LL PAY
Living In | Chelsea
In mid-December, there were 165 homes for sale at a median of $1.375 million. The priciest was a seven-floor town house at 150 West 15th Street, with an elevator, 10 baths and a Jacuzzi on the roof, at $16.9 million — though it began its stint on the market two years ago at $22 million, according to Streeteasy data.
The cheapest was a co-op studio at 101 West 23rd Street, a six-story redbrick postwar building at a busy corner, at $210,000, according to the data.
Activity has been relatively sluggish since the recession, though prices have improved.
The year has seen 451 home sales, at a median of $975,000; this was on a par with 2011, when 458 homes sold, at a median of $838,000, the data show.
In 2007, at the peak of the market, 693 homes sold, at a median of $911,000.
Chelsea, which abuts Midtown, is amply served by subway lines. F and M trains run along the Avenue of the Americas, stopping at West 14th and 23rd Streets. There are stops for the 1 train on Seventh Avenue at 14th, 18th, 23rd and 28th Streets, while 2 and 3 express trains also stop at 14th.
Along Eighth, C and E trains stop at 14th and 23rd; the A express and the L train also traverse the area.
WHAT TO DO
Though quiet enough for tumbleweeds 20 years ago, the Avenue of the Americas today has a parade of big-box shops — some current retail vacancies notwithstanding. One emporium in a former church, the Limelight Marketplace, has since its opening two years ago morphed from club to mall.
Nor is it the only repurposed religious building. This fall the Atlantic Theater Company, one of whose founders is David Mamet, cut the ribbon on its new home inside the parish hall at St. Peter’s Church, on West 20th Street. The Joyce Theater, meanwhile, offers dance performances in a converted cinema.
Businesses that cater to gay customers remain a presence on Eighth Avenue, like Rainbows and Triangles, a card shop, though residents say there are fewer than a decade ago.
Casa Havana, a 20-year-old Cuban restaurant, has an old-fashioned counter with a row of red stools. And that Y.M.C.A. that’s fun to sing about? It’s now on West 14th Street.
Most students are zoned for Public School 11, on 21st Street, which has 750 enrolled through fifth grade. On state exams last year, 59 percent of third graders met standards in English, 58 percent in math; citywide percentages were 52 and 66.
For the in-between grades, there’s the New York City Lab Middle School for Collaborative Studies, at 333 West 17th Street, which has 560 students.
Last year, the Bayard Rustin High School for the Humanities graduated its final class. It has been reborn as the Bayard Rustin Educational Complex, split into smaller units, like the Liberty High School Academy for Newcomers, with 400 students.
SAT averages last year were 369 in reading, 436 in math and 352 in writing, versus 434 reading, 461 math and 430 writing citywide.
The Muffin House, at 337 West 20th Street, is where Samuel Bath Thomas of Thomas’s English Muffins had a bakery, inside an old foundry.
On The maket
85 Eighth ave #3E
A one-bedroom one-bath co-op in a doorman building with a live-in super, listed at $599,000.
Brokers: Elise Ehrlich and Jose Cruz of Halstead Property. (631)903-4157
Friday, December 28, 2012