NYC: Greenwich Village, Chelsea & The High Line walking tour

Having had enjoyed the first walking tour so much, I decided to sign up for another one the following week. This time I went for Greenwich Village, Chelsea & The High Line which were 3 areas I had already visited but wanted to learn more about. The tour guide was a guy called Jon. He didn’t tell us much about himself and had a much more formal approach than the last guide. I spent the first 3o minutes trying to decide whether him talking like an American’s got talent voice over was a good or a bad thing… 

Our starting point was Washington Square park, a gorgeous area surrounded by buildings of the New York University who has had it’s campus there since the 1830’s. Shady places to relax, friendly (hungry) squirrels, a water fountain full of splashing children and musicians providing the soundtrack. In spite of this cheerful scene, it was not always the case. The land where the park now sits first served as a potters field or better known as a mass burial site. Between 1797 to 1823 up to 20,000 poor people were buried here, most of who fell foul to yellow fever or other epidemics. There is also the myth of  the ‘hangman’s elm’ which is the oldest tree in NYC at 400 years, which apparently also contributed to this large number of undesirables. 

On July 4th, 1826 the land was officially declared as the Washington Parade Ground in honour of the first President and the 50th year of Independence. However from the weight of the marching and the artillery, bodies, coffins and skulls would often rise to the surface. The most recent being unearthed in 2014 when the construction of a new toilet block was being completed.

Now it’s a space for everyone to enjoy. It’s well known for demonstrations, street performers & musicians. People come to escape the office or the classroom and there’s even a chess corner where champion Bobby Fischer used to hang out. If you have no plans, this is a place where plans will find you! 

Greenwich Village feels like an oasis within the area of Lower Manhattan. Sharp suits and shiny shoes are left behind, to be replaced by boyfriend jeans and Chelsea boots. The curvy tree lined avenues go against the grid pattern that is uniform for most of the city. Furthermore, the streets have names instead of numbers which adds to the charm.  A large slice of the neighbourhood comes under the umbrella of a Historic District, almost 50 northern & western blocks, which means they cannot be changed without permission.

The community has always been known for being liberal, forward & bohemian. It was seen as a very accepting area and played a major role in LGBTQ rights. An abundance of artists, writers and musicians have taken up residence there over the years. Robert Louis Stevenson, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol- just to mention a few. It is also home to the city’s oldest continuously running Off- Broadway theatre, Cherry Lane, which opened it’s doors in 1924. Just to clear this up; Broadway = 500+ seats , Off-Broadway= 100-499 seats and Off-Off-Broadway = 100 or less seats. 

From it’s hippie beginnings The Village soon underwent gentrification, as many NYC neighbourhoods do.  The four zip codes that make up Greenwich Village were all found to be among the ten most expensive in the US by median house prices in 2014 (Forbes.) Among all those fancy houses and apartments is an array of dining options and quirky entertainment choices. 

We spent the majority of our time wandering around Greenwich Village but soon we crossed over into Chelsea and The Meatpacking District. These neighbourhoods began as vacation spots but were soon taken over by Greek Revival townhouses. In 1845 the freight yards for the Hudson River Railroad were completed and the area rapidly took on a more industrial feel. With it no longer being an enticing place to live, by 1870 industrialisation continued with an elevated railroad being built. By 1900 there were 250 slaughterhouses and packing plants, now only 2 remain.

From vacation spot, to affluent neighbourhood, to industrial zone to a well known area for drugs, transsexual prostitution & BDSM subculture- this tract of land has really been through it all.  In spite of all this, in the late 1990’s the Meatpacking District had an absolute makeover. High end boutiques appeared, including; Diane von Fürstenberg, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney & Christian Louboutin. The area’s transformation was also aided by the opening of the first section of the High Line in 2009.

The High Line is a 1.45 mile/2.33 km long elevated park created on a disused section of the NY Central Railroad. In the beginning it was built to make the neighbourhood safer. So many accidents had occurred on the street-level railroad tracks that Tenth Avenue became known as ‘Death Avenue.’ Despite the men called ‘west side cowboys’ who rode horses and waved flags as the trains approached, the situation got so bad that children began rioting on the streets. After years of deliberation, in 1929 the state finally agreed on the West Side Improvement Project which had been put forward by Robert Moses. 13 miles/21 km of elevated railway tracks which did away with 105 street level crossings, went through buildings for ease of loading & unloading and alleviated the pressure on traffic down below.

By the 1950’s transportation by road had taken the lead, by 1960 the southern part of the High Line was closed down due to low usage levels. By 1980 the last train travelled along it’s length and ten year’s later, it lay abandoned and in disrepair. The community was split down the middle whether to demolish it or to find a better use for it. In 1999, that question was answered by the forming of the nonprofit organisation, Friends of the High Line by Joshua David and Robert Hammond. They suggested using the space for an elevated park resembling the Promenade Plantée in Paris.

The regenerating of the High Line began in 2006. The first section opened in 2009, the second in 2011 and the third in 2014. The original tracks remain for almost the whole length, softened by a range of native flowers and grasses. Places to sunbathe, great views of the cities avenues, food stalls and ever-changing art installations, it makes for an interesting stroll. The project has had both positive and negative impacts on the neighbourhoods it travels through. Whilst a beautiful public space has been created, it has turned into a very touristy spot, receiving almost 5 million visitors per year. Hammond had envisaged a place for people of all walks of life to frequent but he feels with the predominantly white foot traffic, it does not represent the diversity of the locality. It has also raised rent prices in the area forcing out local businesses and creating the ‘halo effect’ for real estate.

We walked about half the length of the High Line before our tour ended. To sum it all up.. The Village was great for some peace & quiet, architecture, a good range of eats and quirky night spots. Chelsea is renowned for fancy restaurants, boutiques and art galleries. The Meatpacking District is very historical based, has the High Line soaring overhead and is home to the Chelsea market. Choose your venture and go explore! ♠