New York is a city of contrasts: home to old money and young ambition, where the blinking neon signs of Times Square glow over brownstone apartment blocks from the turn of the 20th century, and monuments commemorating the great and good of American history watch over the steady development of more modern memorials at Ground Zero.
As Frank Sinatra advised us so many years ago, you can ‘make a brand new start of it – in old New York’; and never has this melding of past glory and present enthusiasm been so evident on the streets of the Big Apple than today.
When Joshua David and Robert Hammond started a community movement to preserve and redevelop New York’s old West Side freight railway in 1999, they couldn’t have known what impact it would have on the local community, or the collective conscience of the city as a whole. Thirteen years later, what was once a disused railway line is now a cultural hub running through the heart of some of New York’s most desirable districts.
From the time it was built in 1929 at a cost of US$150 million, until it was abandoned in 1980 after delivering a final haul of frozen turkeys, the High Line made the streets of Chelsea and the West Village safer by clearing the streets of the dangerous freight trains that delivered cargo to the factories and warehouses of the Meatpacking District.
After it was abandoned, nature slowly began to make its claim on the rail line – the wind and birds dropped seeds from other parts of the city, which sank roots into the disused tracks, eventually turning them into an untamed wilderness 30 feet above the city. The High Line was a secret garden that not many people knew about, but when word spread that the line was going to be demolished in the ‘90s, the opposition that rose up was extraordinary.
Not long after Friends of the High Line was established in 1999, its list of supporters included New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and current US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Hollywood actors Edward Norton and Ethan Hawke, and personalities from the world of arts and design including designer and long-term resident Diane von Furstenberg, whose new six-storey headquarters on 14th Street in the Meatpacking District stands adjacent to the line.
The DVF HQ – a 19th century warehouse converted into a high design flagship store, creative studio and museum – was described by New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission as a “new model of adaptive reuse for the city” when it opened. Today, passers-by walking along the High Line can almost peer into the glass-encased rooftop penthouse studio known as ‘the diamond’ and see the designer at work inside.
By 2004, the High Line was being hailed as the most important urban regeneration project New York had seen since the opening of Central Park in 1857. The plan was simple: to create a ribbon of green that would provide New Yorkers with a space to escape the city and reconnect with nature; a space for cultural events, exhibitions and performances; and a place that might one day attract international visitors to a new and exciting city landmark.
Like all of the great creative projects happening in New York today, the finished product is the result of a collaboration between several operations.
Until very recently, the Meatpacking District at the southern end of the High Line was not a place tourists would visit – and certainly would never venture to after dark. Its poorly-lit streets and the warehouses attracted vermin of all sorts. But the actions of a handful of people had a lasting impact that effectively saved the old neighbourhood.
A government task force led by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani went about cleaning up the streets in the late 90s, and today it’s the hottest part of town – a magnet for the city’s social elite, Hollywood A-listers and well-informed international visitors, who prowl the enclave’s trendy boutiques during the day, and its trendy bars
and clubs at night.
Rarely has the opening of a new hotel had such an impact on a neighbourhood as that of The Standard in late 2008. Sandwiched between über-trendy Chelsea and the residential West Village, it seemed inevitable that the Meatpacking District was on course for gentrification eventually, but in the first decade of the new millennium, investors thought entrepreneurial owner Andrés Balazs was putting his neck on the line when he decided to build a luxury hotel in the run-down neighbourhood.
The Standard is an imposing glass and concrete block cantilevered over the southern end of the High Line. You enter through a yellow doorway that leads into a casual lobby where guests relax in sunken leather armchairs. Next door, The Standard Grill, by chef Dan Silverman, serves New American cuisine across several different dining areas.
Outside, the Biergarten is one of the area’s most popular watering holes. Rooms and suites have superb views north to Chelsea and along the High Line, or south to the West Village, both sides looking out onto the Hudson River and the Meatpacking District below.
The most talked-about venues within the hotel are on the top floor – one hedonistic and sexy, the other suave and sophisticated. The latter, the Top of The Standard (by invitation only), is one of the city’s coolest nightspots, home to private parties and intimate live performances from the likes of Florence and the Machine.
The other venue, decorated all in black leather, is home of Le Bain, the eponymous plunge pool that is the centre of the party. In a bid to control some of the debauchery for which the venue became famous, The Standard partnered with Quicksilver to create a range of swimwear, which is now sold from a vending machine outside the club – one of many collaborations the hotel’s desig team have joined forces on.
The stairwell leading up to the sun deck is covered in graffiti by contemporary Japanese artist Aiko. Downstairs, The Standard Shop features a range of bespoke items created in partnership with other collaborators; art works and snow globes from Japanese artist Tomokazu Matsuyama; contemporary arts and lifestyle magazines; vintage clothing and even a range of adult toys.
It even has cool neighbours. The Whitney Museum of American Art (currently celebrating its 2012 biennial), whose Upper East Side location has attracted visitors since 1966, announced that it would open a second outpost on the plot of land adjacent to The Standard, at the junction of Washington Street and Gansevoort Street, effectively bringing uptown, downtown when it finally opens in 2015.
The regeneration of the Meatpacking District mirrors that of other nearby areas like TriBeCa (Triangle Below Canal Street) and SoHo (South of Houston Street). The latter – once a run-down, low-rent quarter popular with artists in the 70s – is now one of the city’s busiest neighbourhoods and still home to a number of artists’ galleries, as well as wall-to-wall retail boutiques, gastro-pubs and trendy restaurants.
This newfound popularity sent rents sky high, but at the same time attracted some of the country’s top hotel companies to the neighbourhood, including the new Trump SoHo, boutique hotel The James with its stylish air, and the ultra-cool Mondrian SoHo, a magnet for stars and local personalities.
The latter – a glass tower created by Barry Rice Architects and H. Thomas O’Hara Architects – occupies a low-key block at Crosby and Grand, close enough to the action to make it popular with the fashion and Hollywood crowds but far enough away to escape bustling SoHo.
The interior design, by Benjamin Noriega-Ortiz, was inspired by Jean Cocteau’s 1946 film Le Belle et la Bête, and features a dramatic blue and white colour scheme throughout. As it’s the tallest building in the neighbourhood, the 270 rooms and suites look out over amazing views of Manhattan, with the Empire State Building to the north and the new World Trade Centre to the south.
The evolution of New York’s colourful neighbourhoods is not limited by existing nomenclature, and new quarters seem to pop up all the time, using the city’s unique system for naming neighbourhoods based on their geographical denominators defining new enclaves.
Other “new” districts include NoLIta (North of Little Italy) – famous for vintage stores, pop-up markets and speak-easy style cafes and restaurants – and NoMad (North of Madison Square Park). The latter is established enough that there is an outpost of the extremely cool designer Ace Hotel and new boutique NoMad Hotel, but still new enough that several New York residents in Greenwich Village had never heard of it.
NoMad was one of the first parts of the city to have electricity running to its buildings and was once the centre of New York’s music and hotel scene, with properties like the iconic Breslin Hotel (now the Ace), which counted stars including “Diamond Jim” Brady – the inspiration for Marlon Brando’s Guys and Dolls protagonist – among its regular guests.
Its latest incarnation, the super-trendy Ace Hotel, has its own line-up of celebrity followers, with A-listers including Liv Tyler, Michael Stipe and Josh Hartnett among the celebs spotted here. Take a seat in the lobby, dubbed the Living Room, and you’ll realise that this isn’t your regular hotel lobby.
Looking around, you’ll find a cross-section of society types seated on the casual sofas and armchairs (all vintage or ‘reclaimed’), lounging at the bar or nestled under an old American flag draped on the far wall. Some come for the much talked-about cafe Stumptown Coffee Roasters, which has a queue spilling out the door at all hours, and recently partnered with Danny Meyer’s new farm-to-table restaurant, Untitled, in The Whitney Museum. Others come for April Bloomfield and Ken Friedman’s Michelin-starred restaurants – The John Dory and The Breslin.
But many just come to be a part of the action. The Ace, it seems, is everything that modern upscale New Yorkers aspire to. The style is one of measured restoration – original elements are mixed with new touches, and the guest rooms are individually designed, musically-inspired loft apartments decorated with original artwork from more than 90 different artists on the walls. When the new owners embarked on an 18-month renovation, architects discovered the original moulded mosaic floor buried under two inches of concrete.
Other special touches include refurbished Polaroid cameras from Impossible Project in each room, which guests can use for the duration of their stay; boxing gown/hoodie-style bathrobes from Canadian menswear designer Wings+Horns; and custom-made Ace Hotel Epiphone guitars.
“The idea is to work with partners that can do amazing things better than the hotel would if we did them ourselves,” says cultural engineer Jou-Yie Choo. “There is no such thing as a quick buck anymore, so people are looking inward and taking the time to do things properly – artisanal products, distilling, coffee roasting and so on. Entrepreneurial pursuits are strong. On the consumer level, there is so much product out there that people look for transparency. When you buy something, you want to know who made it and where it came from.”
This sense of reconnecting with the history of things and looking back to a time before mass production, when everything from what we ate to what we wore was produced by artisans and craftsmen, seems to define New York today. Call it respect for authenticity, call it romanticising the past, or call it an evolution of taste – the old ways are back in fashion, and there seems to be no stopping them.
Mondrian SoHo - 9 Crosby Street, New York, NY 10013`
Tel: +212 389 1000
Ace Hotel- 20W 29th Street, New York, NY 10001
Tel: +212 679 2222
The Standard - 848 Washington at 13th Street, New York, NY 10014
Tel: +212 645 4646
The James Hotel New York 27 Grand Street New York, NY 10013
Tel: +212 465 2000