Ten years ago you could stand in front of Brownfeld Auto Service on 11th Avenue and smell the fuel that gave a stretch of Chelsea its name: Gasoline Alley. Now you see galleries, high rises and the neighborhood’s signature feature -- the High Line.
Ten years have passed since Alan Brownfeld closed the business that had been in his family for three generations. Brownfeld, 64, now lives in Pompano Beach, Florida, where he runs a biker bar.
“If it wasn't for my children, I would never go back there. I have no reason to go back,” he said of his drastically transformed old neighborhood. Brownfeld Auto survived a fire that gutted it. But it could not survive the High Line, and the tide of commercial and residential gentrification it brought. The High Line flooded West Chelsea with money and people, all but eradicating what had existed before, gasoline fumes and all.
The Brownfeld family business, originally located on West 53rd Street, was founded by Alan Brownfeld’s grandfather in 1920. This was four years before construction of the elevated rail line that would one day become the High Line. The city’s Transit Commission at that time ordered that the existing dangerous tracks be removed from the street.
“We started off doing the stage coaches, the horse-and-buggy,” Brownfeld said. His father took over the business in 1957, relocating it to 319 Tenth Ave. “We had a very lucrative, large business. We catered to all the taxi cabs, major vending trucks and the city vehicles in New York City. Fire Department, Police Department, ConEdison, we did them all back in the day.”
The business went under when Brownfeld, struggling with addiction, was remanded to Rikers Island in 1981. In time, and with his fiancée’s $65,000 support, he restarted the business in 2002. The location at 298 11th Ave. is close to his father’s location. It was also closer to the old elevated railroad. His landlord, he says, told him that then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who supported the High Line project, “wants all the gas stations and repair shops cleared for his park upstairs.”
In fact, his shop sat in an area that was part of a rezoning of the neighborhood, called the West Special Chelsea District. Bounded by Tenth and Eleventh avenues between West 16th and West 30th streets, the plan envisioned the development of mixed-use commercial and residential buildings as well as greater height and construction density. This, in turn, would make development potentially more profitable.
Brownfeld says he was going to be evicted, even if his lease hadn't expired. He could have afforded the $15,000 monthly rent, but he adds that he couldn’t afford his landlord’s offer to buy the building for $1 million. He returned to New York in October for his son’s wedding and was stunned by the neighborhood's transformation. “I couldn't believe what was there today. The building my landlord wanted to sell me for $1 million, it was sold for $44 million now.”
“The closure of an auto-body shop may not break every heart,” wrote Griffin Hansbury, who under the pen name Jeremiah Moss, writes Vanishing New York, a blog reviewing locations with historical significance that are likely to disappear in the near future. The blog has also been published as a book. “But it's another sign of how quickly and completely the High Line is destroying local, long-time, non-luxury businesses along its celebrated length.”
Indeed, the West Chelsea Zoning Proposal contains provisions “intended to enhance the proposed High Line open space and to ensure that adjacent developments engage with and relate to the High Line.” The zoning proposal goes on to “encourage connections to the High Line and the preservation of light, air and views.”
The idea of turning the unused elevated railroad that would become the High Line into a public space was first raised in 1999, when two community residents established Friends of the High Line to fight for preservation and transformation as the historic structure was under the threat of demolition. It took seven years before ground was broken in 2006.
The first section of the High Line opened in 2009, running from Gansevoort Street to 20th Street. Section 2, opened in 2011, extended it to 30th Street. Section 3 opened in 2014, bringing the High Line further north to 34th Street. The final section, called the Spur, extending east along 30th Street and ending above 10th Avenue, was completed in 2019. The four sections together make up the 1.45-mile-long park, an elevated garden designed by the internationally renowned landscape architect Piet Oudolf.
In 2011 the New York City Economic Development Corporation reported that before the High Line “surrounding residential properties were valued eight percent below the overall median for Manhattan.” But even before ground was broken those values began to soar -- increasing by 103 percent between 2003 and 2011.
Friends of the High Line, the nonprofit that runs and maintains the High Line, had initially estimated that the park would generate about $250 million in increased real estate tax revenues over the 20 years between 2007 and 2027.
They were wrong. It would be far more.
The High Line drew about eight million visitors in 2019 before the pandemic -- more than the Statue of Liberty. And by 2017 Friends of the High Line had adjusted its 20-year tax revenue estimate to $1.4 billion.
In addition, StreetEasy reported that by June 2011 when Section 2 of the High Line opened, the median resale price for properties surrounding Sections 1 and 2 increased to $1,422,899 and $877,152, respectively, outpacing the neighborhood at large where the median resale price was $763,301. The median resale price for real estate in Section 1 reached $2,143,287 in May 2016, over 100 percent more than the real estate value in the “comparison area” just one block to the east.
By August 2021 the median rent in Chelsea had reached $4,495, a 27% increase over the previous year and 45% higher than the average Manhattan rent of $3,100, according to StreetEasy’s Data Dashboard. Next to what was once Brownfeld Auto Service, stands a luxury residential building called OHM, “one of the first projects built after the rezoning of West Chelsea in 2005,” according to the building’s website. The cheapest rent for one-bedroom apartments is $4,195. The service station building itself is now a Manhattan Mini Storage facility.
While the West Chelsea plan, according to the city’s planning department, provided “a regulatory framework for the continued development of a dynamic mixed residential and commercial area” centered around the High Line” some businesses were doomed to be left out of the “dynamic mix.” Brownfeld said that he was angry about the plan because it “pushed all of the auto repair shops out, not just mine, that were under the High Line.” He estimated that half a dozen service stations and auto repair shops were evicted.
Indeed, Firestone Bear Auto Center, once located at 279 Tenth Ave, was forced out in mid-2011 for an “upscale development,” wrote Moss. That development is Avenues: The World School, a private school whose annual tuition is $59,800, according to its website. That number exceeds the annual rent of any apartment in the Chelsea-Elliott Houses, a New York City Housing Authority building which is a one-minute walk from Avenues, and where the median household income in 2019 for its 1,361 tenants was $61,534, the lowest among all census tracts in Chelsea.
Angel Garcia, who lives nearby at the Fulton Houses, says it has been years since he visited the High Line. Garcia, 83, has lived in Chelsea for almost 70 years.
“Chelsea used to be the best neighborhood for average people,” he said. “But things are different now.” He is not a fan of the High Line. “There are many tourists. It’s a place for tourists.”
The change in West Chelsea has been as fast as it has been dramatic. According to NeighborhoodScout, an online neighborhood analytic database, 86% of the homes and other residential real estate between 14th Street and 38th Street on 11th and 12th avenues were built after 1999. This is a higher proportion of new homes than 99% of neighborhoods in the United States.
“It was wild and crazy,” Brownfeld said. “A lot of coffee shops, a lot of stores. Now, high-rises are all over the place. “It is really fancy, and is really a symbol of the fancy New York City. That’s what changed in the neighborhood. That’s what killed it.”
Vincent Mosco, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Queens University who has been observing the High Line for many years, used the same word to describe the impact the High Line brought about to the neighborhood: “The High Line is killing Chelsea because high rents are driving out middle income residents and businesses.”
The Half King, a longtime Chelsea restaurant on West 23rd Street under the High Line, closed in 2019. Opened in 2000, it had become a famous gathering place for artists, film makers and writers, but failed to survive because of the rising rent and fewer patrons, even with all the tourists crowding the High Line.
“The High Line began as a positive development for the neighborhood,” said Mosco. “However, it soon became an opportunity for developers to build housing and retail for the rich and drive out middle class residents and existing retail.”
About 30% of the 7.6 million visitors to the High Line in 2015 were from New York City, but only 6% were from the surrounding neighborhoods, according to a study commissioned by Landscape Architecture Foundation.
Nor does the racial composition of crowds on the High Line reflect what the neighborhood has long been. White visitors comprised 84% of visitors, although they make up 64% of the population, according to a 2016 report in the journal Urban Geography. Meanwhile, Latino visitors only contributed to 3.4% of all visitors, although 16.3% of all residents in Chelsea are Latino.
“We were from the community. We wanted to do it for the neighborhood,” Robert Hammond, the co-founder and executive director of Friends of the High Line said in a 2017 interview. “Ultimately, we failed.”
His group launched a survey in August 2021 to gather opinions of local residents and businesses on the park, to be a “better neighbor and organization partner.” The results have not been published and Friends of the High Line did not respond to requests for comment.
Hammond announced on October 21 that he would step down as the executive director next April, after 22 years at Friends of the High Line. Joshua David, another co-founder of the group, will serve as interim executive director.
“I know this is the right time for me personally as well as for the organization.” Hammond wrote in the email.
“The High Line is not just a symbol of gentrification,” Mosco said. “It is an instrument to deepen and extend the gentrification of Manhattan's West Side.”