Now I know it’s true. The toughest travel destination, by far, is the one you know way too well. I’ve walked into the original location of the former Barney’s men’s store in Manhattan on a spring afternoon. Since it’s Saturday, the place is packed, and while I wait in line, I grab for a brochure. I need to know who has removed all the racks of blazers, the displays of ties.
This is New York’s Chelsea, the area where I grew up, and I am home for the first time in years. I look around. Barney’s, for most, meant European suits and stratospheric prices. But my Chelsea neighbors and I knew it when, back when the store was a chronically un-chic stop-off for back-to-school corduroys and jeans. Where is Barney’s Boys’ Town? Where are the manhole covers that used to decorate the walls?
This long-time neighborhood landmark is now “The Rubin.” It is — I can hardly believe this — a museum of Himalayan art.
When it’s my turn to cough up for a ticket, I see that Chelsea residents (from Zip Code 10011) get two bucks off the $7 admission fee. “This is Sixteenth Street,” I say proudly. “I’m from right across the avenue. Just over there.”
The beret-topped clerk looks me up and down and checks my (nowadays Rhode Island) I.D. Full fare. I sheepishly pay up and slink inside. In the lobby, near where sweaters used to be, there’s a softly-lit spiral staircase and lots of relaxing wall colors like blue-gray and avocado green.
“Make Yourself Comfortable,” urges a placard. I wish I could. I want to be at peace with the tapestries and Tibetan paintings on the second floor. According to its plaque, one of the works shows “a snake encircling a caravan of merchants.” I can’t see any snake or merchants, and to me, the whole thing seems suspiciously like an allegory for the death of Barney’s.
Next time I come back here, I resolve, I will demand my discount.
People argue about Chelsea’s boundaries, but most say this: Hudson River to Fifth Avenue, 34th Street down to 14th. I walk west, into the heart of my old neighborhood. Cross-streets near the Hudson used to be a kingdom of car washes and radio-crackling headquarters for New York’s yellow cabs. But here, and over here, I find that these have changed into trendy showrooms of abstract sculpture, minimalist canvases, and crafts.
The Yossi Milo Gallery shares a graffiti-sprayed building with BJ Auto Master Radiator Repairs (“We Do Body Work on Your Front and Rear End”). Nearby, I pass the Anton Kern and Kim Foster galleries wedged in beside a string of loading bays, a Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Manhattan Collision Company garage. “Drivers Wanted,” says a big sign. “All Shifts.”
I end up at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery on 20th Street and have a look around.
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