Cheek by Jowl

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Date: July 10, 2005
Publisher: The New York Times Company
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,721 words
Lexile Measure: 1250L

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IVAN LOPEZ, an unemployed forklift operator who has lived most of his life in Chelsea, was chatting about his recent lunch with Harrison Ford, a newcomer to the neighborhood. ''I met him at La Taza de Oro,'' Mr. Lopez said, referring to a small rice-and-beans shop on Eighth Avenue.

''Well, I didn't really meet him,'' he admitted. ''I was sitting there, and he was so close.'' Mr. Lopez could hear Mr. Ford talking about the luxurious loft he had bought. ''I got his autograph.''

This is today's Chelsea, a neighborhood of sometimes stunning cheek-by-jowl incongruity, where no one was at all surprised the other day to see a wrinkled Latino man in a Panama hat tooling up Ninth Avenue in a motorized wheelchair past two impeccably coiffed blond men in tuxedos hailing a cab.

But perhaps the biggest incongruity is this: On Ninth Avenue, in the middle of $2.7 million penthouses on West 19th Street and $3,400 jackets at Chelsea Market, stand Fulton Houses, the 944-unit public housing project stretching from 16th to 19th Streets. Although the average Chelsea household earned about $83,000 in 2000, the most recent year for which data is available, average household income among the 2,215 residents of Fulton Houses is just under $25,000.

Once, the two worlds were more similar. When Fulton Houses' 11 brick buildings were completed in 1965, the economic divide between the project's residents and those in the predominantly working-class neighborhood around it was far less pronounced. The average household income at Fulton was $5,408 in 1970, while the average Chelsea household earned $8,505.

But the character of Chelsea has evolved considerably. Gentrification proceeded gradually in the 1960's and 70's, gathering force in the late 80's and 90's with an accelerating influx of gay professionals and middle-class families. Bodegas and workingman's bars gave way to upscale restaurants. The 1990's also brought Chelsea Piers and a thriving gallery scene in West Chelsea, lending an air of hip prestige that has helped drive real estate prices skyward.

Other neighborhoods have experienced rampant gentrification around public housing. But as Chelsea becomes a place where two restaurants within three blocks have bathroom valets, the changes around Fulton vividly demonstrate what happens when a mixed-income neighborhood is pressed by forces of wealth and fabulousness.

And the area is poised to transform further still. Late last month, the City Council approved a plan to rezone 68 acres of far west Chelsea between 16th and 30th Streets. The centerpiece of the plan is the transformation of the High Line elevated railway into a 22-block-long ribbon of green space, but the rezoning will also add 5,500 units of housing to the neighborhood.

While the plan calls for about 1,200 of the units to be affordable to households with low, moderate and middle incomes, the remaining 4,300 would be market rate. And in Chelsea's sizzling real estate environment, where the median sale price of a three-bedroom condominium is currently $3 million, that means even more luxury will be bumping up against Fulton Houses.

As these waves of wealth wash up on its shores, some inside the complex feel increasingly cut off.

''We're an isolated little island,'' said Ann Marie Baronowski, secretary of the Fulton Houses Tenants Association. ''We have great apartments and great rent, but we can't afford to do anything here. The only thing we can afford is Western Beef. There are no restaurants you can afford, no food shops you can afford, no clothing stores you can afford. You're living here, but basically all you can do is sleep here.''

Inside the Brick Towers

Thursday through Sunday nights, the Fulton Houses apartment of Sonia Jamison throbs with music, laughter and alcohol-tinged conviviality. Unfortunately for her, this good cheer originates not in her home but across Ninth Avenue in the Maritime Hotel building at 17th Street, where La Bottega's restaurant, cafe and two cabanas regularly overflow with well-dressed night owls.

''I have never been over there because I can't afford that,'' Ms. Jamison said one recent afternoon while chatting with friends in a Fulton Houses playground. ''But I see who goes in and out of there: movie stars, P. Diddy, Jay-Z. A couple weeks ago, some guys came out of there arguing and fighting because they were drunk.''

Ms. Jamison, a mother of three who works as a bank customer sales representative, jabbed a finger toward the gleaming white hotel. ''They put it right across the street from the project,'' she said, her anger building. ''The bottom line is, it's for rich people.''

Not everyone living in Fulton Houses resents the presence of trendy newcomers like the Maritime, the former home of a sailors' union that was redeveloped in 2003.

''Because I work and my whole family is successful, I appreciate this,'' David Nelson, a supervisor at United Parcel Service, said of the proximity of upscale clubs and restaurants. Mr. Nelson, who had just returned from his shift and was sitting on a playground bench, talked proudly about his eldest son, a 25-year-old movie actor whose mother grew up in Fulton Houses with famous siblings, the Wayans brothers comedians.

''It brings up the whole area,'' Mr. Nelson said of the high-end new businesses. ''The problem is the drug dealers. If you're building around projects and you bring clientele to places around here, you're making them more money.''

A Golden-Lit Playground

The midnight scene at the Maritime Hotel on a recent Saturday looked like a cross between Times Square and Tavern on the Green. Honking cabs lined up two deep along Ninth Avenue, disgorging well-scrubbed young men along with young women clutching designer handbags. A white Hummer stretch limo glided by. Above the raised plaza of La Bottega, glowing Chinese lanterns wafted in the breeze, hovering bowls of inviting golden light that provided a striking contrast to the mostly darkened windows of the Fulton Houses across the street.

In the northern cabana atop La Bottega's restaurant, accessible only through two sets of gatekeepers, young patrons sipped martinis and grooved to Foxy Brown's new single, ''Come Fly With Me.''

Maurice Rodriguez, the Maritime's director of operations, said petty theft had been a problem, and attributed it to young people from Fulton Houses. ''In fact,'' he said, ''on Thursday night we caught two kids who lived in the projects purse snatching.'' Mr. Rodriguez said that the two youths had told the hotel's security staff that they lived in Fulton Houses.

Law enforcement officials said they saw no pattern of Fulton Houses residents' being arrested for robbery.

Many patrons, meanwhile, were oblivious to the proximity of Fulton Houses. ''Are they projects?'' asked Lianne Graubart, a Chelsea resident and real estate agent, when told that a public housing complex sat across the street. ''Are they really projects? Really?''

''Housing projects? No way,'' added her boyfriend, Morris Amiri, an asset manager who was wearing a white linen shirt, True Religion jeans and a tan acquired while attending a friend's wedding in Maui. ''That's sad. They're all screwed up, and we're over here having a good time. I hope they're not going to be chased out.''

Between shots of Patron tequila, he added: ''The rich are getting so rich, and the poor are getting more poor, so you're seeing a situation where extravagance is driving people's happiness. The more they get, the more they want.''

Exit the Middle Class

Melva Max, a funkily elegant restaurateur who opened the unpretentious French bistro La Lunchonette on 18th Street and 10th Avenue with her chef husband in 1988, is not among those who want more extravagance in Chelsea.

''I'm happy about a lot of the changes, like the galleries, but now it's going too far,'' she said the other day, pointing to lots down the block from the projects where luxury condominiums are slated to rise. ''The building of all these super, very, very expensive apartments is disturbing to me.''

Ms. Max, who lives in a rent-stabilized apartment, noted that many customers had been priced out of the area by rising rents, while friends had sold their brownstones for $5 million and moved away. ''These are like normal people, really working-class, middle-class people with kids,'' she said. ''And it's just shocking to me that they're all selling and moving out. I just feel kind of sad.''

The New, the Rich

Some people buy used mattresses on the Craigslist Web site. Austin Nagel, a 22-year-old Brooklyn real estate developer, bought a $2.7 million triplex penthouse in Chelsea Club, an icy-chic luxury condominium, 12 stories of tinted glass and cast stone rising on the site of a former parking lot on 19th Street near 10th Avenue.

Mr. Nagel, who has made a quick fortune turning Brooklyn Heights town houses into condos, stood atop his private roof recently and grew giddy as he scanned his sweeping views. He surveyed Chelsea Piers, where he works out; the high-rise where his acupuncturist keeps his office; docked boats bobbing in the glittering Hudson River; and the blocklong Chelsea Market, where one of his new neighbors, a celebrity hair-and-makeup artist, stores fine wines in the Chelsea Wine Vault. He also surveyed the dingy brick buildings of Fulton Houses, where the average monthly rent is $348.

''It doesn't even bother me that I'm looking over this,'' he said of the project. ''These people will talk with you if you talk to them. You'll see them when you're walking your dog. They'll say, 'What's up?' They'll get to know you. On the Upper East Side, no one will talk to you.''

Isolated by Affluence?

Inside the concrete-block-walled office of the Fulton Houses Tenants Association, the group's president, Jimmy Pelsey, sat with a few of the association's members and discussed the scarcity of neighborhood jobs for Fulton residents. A parade of new upscale Chelsea businesses had promised employment for Fulton residents at meetings of Community Board 4, only to later break their word, said Mr. Pelsey, who is a board member.

When Richard Born, a co-owner of the Maritime, sought a variance in 2001 to add two structures to its raised plaza, Mr. Pelsey said, ''I asked in Community Board 4, 'What are you going to offer to people in the development?''' Mr. Born, board minutes show, replied that 90 percent of his project's 150 to 175 jobs would be open to the community. Later, said Miguel Acevedo, another board member, ''I personally brought over 150 applicants with applications.'' But according to the two men, no Fulton residents were hired.

''We have several people that live within walking distance that work here,'' said Mr. Rodriguez, the Maritime's director of operations, who oversees most of the business's 450 employees, including one living in Covenant House, the center next door for at-risk youth. ''I don't know if they specifically live at the Fulton House. We hire people of all colors and races.''

The fear that rising rents and the burgeoning development of luxury condominiums might further isolate Fulton Houses and other nearby projects, the Chelsea and Elliott Houses, in a sea of affluence impelled Mr. Acevedo and others to argue strenuously for the city to include affordable housing in the rezoning of far west Chelsea. As the new zoning plan shows, they largely succeeded, and 100 of the mixed-income units will be developed on a Fulton Houses parking lot.

While Mr. Acevedo maintained that such mixed-income housing would give the children of Fulton residents a chance to stay in the neighborhood, not everyone at the gathering was so optimistic.

Joe Schuler, a powerfully built man with a salt-and-pepper Fu Manchu mustache, believes that Fulton Houses will eventually be sold to private developers. His comments echoed a longstanding rumor making the rounds at the project. ''You don't have millions spent around a ghetto and have it remain a ghetto,'' Mr. Schuler said. ''We're the sore spot in this neighborhood.''

Howard Marder, a spokesman for the New York City Housing Authority, insisted that the authority had no plans to privatize Fulton Houses. ''That rumor pops up all over the city, for some reason, whenever a neighborhood undergoes gentrification,'' he said.

'Still a Gay Ghetto'

The evening after the city's gay pride parade last month, hundreds of well-groomed ''Chelsea Boys'' poured into the Park restaurant on Tenth Avenue near 17th Street for the club's regular Sunday party. Some chatted in the outdoor garden, which is planted with softly illuminated Japanese maples. Others cavorted in the hot tub in the Asian-theme rooftop bar area.

But Sophia Lamar, a Cuban-born transsexual who was performing at the party and wore a polka-dotted Balenciaga bathing suit and high heels, was not entirely sanguine about the area's status as a magnet for gays. ''Chelsea is still a gay ghetto,'' Ms. Lamar said, crossing one gartered leg over the other. ''I'm against ghettos, whether they're youth ghettos or black ghettos or minority ghettos or gay ghettos. I don't think there's any need to separate yourself from the rest of the society.''

For this reason, she said, the juxtaposition of glamorous wealthy people with the low-income residents of Fulton Houses is a terrific thing. ''I've lived in different cities in the U.S., and the housing projects are always in places where people don't go,'' continued Ms. Lamar, who has visited a friend's mother at the housing project and has never felt uncomfortable among its residents. ''And here I think it's wonderful because it shows that there's room for everyone. Rich people are going to a supermarket, and poor people are going to the same supermarket, and that doesn't happen in any other city.''

What the Barber Knows

When Manuel Manolo and his two fellow barbers are snipping away in the misleadingly named New Barber Shop on Ninth Avenue near 19th Street, the talk, by turns in Spanish and English, ranges from baseball to politics. On a recent Saturday, it settled on Fulton Houses.

Eddie Andujar, a longtime Fulton Houses resident who worked as a groundskeeper for the project for 25 years, said that it had been beautiful until about 1990, but had gone downhill since. ''Because of the drug dealers, it's very dangerous over here at nighttime,'' he added.

There have been two homicides at Fulton Houses since late January, the police said, but neither was thought to be drug-related. ''Crime in the 10th Precinct has declined dramatically in recent years,'' said Deputy Commissioner Paul J. Browne. ''The Police Department pays close attention to conditions there and responds accordingly.'' Since 1993, robbery in the precinct has dropped 74 percent and felony assault 53 percent.

Near the spinning barber pole, George Weaver, a 30-year-old Fulton Houses resident in a faded Million Youth March T-shirt, awaited his turn in Mr. Manolo's chair. Mr. Weaver, who recently received an associate's degree in business administration from Monroe College in the West Bronx, said he wished the Housing Authority would screen prospective Fulton Houses residents more thoroughly. ''People from shelters don't necessarily have a sense of community,'' he said.

To illustrate his idea of how a community should work, he nodded toward Mr. Manolo. ''He always encouraged me to stay in school every time,'' Mr. Weaver said.

Mr. Manolo, who has lived in Fulton Houses for 40 years and cut hair for just as long, grinned. ''I took a picture of him the day he graduated from college,'' he said proudly as Mr. Weaver climbed into his red leather chair. With that, the courtly barber took a straight razor and ran it gently across Mr. Weaver's Afro, which fell in leisurely dark clumps onto the worn linoleum floor, mingling with the blond hair and eyebrow trimmings snipped from the customer in the neighboring chair.


Photos: FACES AND PLACES -- Ninth Avenue at 17th Street, top, shared turf of the Maritime Hotel and Fulton Houses; the lanterns of La Bottega, above left; the lively scene at the Park restaurant, above; and reconnecting at the New Barber Shop, left. (Photos by Above and center left, Michael Falco for The New York Times; center right, Angela Jimenez for The New York Times; bottom, Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times)(pg. 8); BITS OF LUXURY -- Rich and poor rub shoulders on Ninth Avenue, where patrons at La Bottega restaurant, above left, have a view of Fulton Houses, a public housing complex. (Photos by Above, Michael Falco for The New York Times; below, Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times)(pg. 1)

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A133885341