Amid the jarring jumble, Chelsea is the most misleadingly labelled neighbourhood of them all. It sounds like London, looks like Peewee's Playhouse (Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory), and has become the standard toward which all other New York neighbourhoods presently aspire.
Fifty years ago, Chelsea was the place where Sarah Bernhardt, Edith Piaf and Dylan Thomas liked to linger when they dropped into town, but by 1978, it was known primarily as the district where Sid Vicious murdered Nancy Spungen, and where, on another occasion, Joni Mitchell wrote the sappy ballad, "Chelsea Morning". The contrast survives today in a place where after-hours bondage clubs and cheery, fetish-themed family restaurants (one offers "public humiliation" on the menu) rub elbows with new art galleries and sandalwood-scented boutiques stuffed with enough beaded lampshades and tasselled cushions to fill the boudoirs of 10 Lillie Langtrys.
Lately, the two elements have harmonised, producing a dreamy film set - half dungeon, half Fortnum's called "Chelsea Market", a damp and cavernous old building that has been gutted and redecorated, fitted with glazed cement floors, rustic brick walls and an arcade of old-fashioned stores: a butchers where the meat looks like it was happy before it was killed; a dairy with milk in glass bottles and cartons of fresh fromage blanc; a bakery with a window that lets you watch smiling bakers knead focaccia; a wine cellar; and an organic fruit and veg store. The Chelsea Market, which opened in May, is the first indicator that the new, improved Chelsea may stick around for a while, as natives no longer need leave the area to forage.
Chelsea sprawls over 40-odd blocks between 10th and 6th Avenues, between 23rd and 14th Street - not quite midtown, not quite downtown - in other words, terrifically convenient for people who work in midtown and play downtown. In the 20-year wake of Nancy's sad demise, Chelsea shrugged off its coke-fed jitters and began hoovering up two groups of New Yorkers for whom life is a scavenger hunt, dedicated to amassing more museum- quality food, furniture, and people than anyone else: wealthy, industrious, pleasure-seeking gay couples and wealthy, industrious, pleasure-seeking straight couples with children. Spend a day lunching on 8th Avenue, dropping in on the From-Here-To-Eternity retro lounge called Candy Bar, or the toyboy-crammed nursery sofas and armchairs of the Big Cup coffee house, and you will meet endless pairs of dashing, craggy featured men, dressed either in short-shorts and chains or linen suits and white bucks.
Move east, toward the constellation of home-furnishing stores such as Bed, Bath & Beyond (the size of a small planet ) and you will see the same couples strolling in the gutter, making way for the regiments of prams and their Lycra-clad owners that fill the sidewalks, parading like Russian tanks on May Day. Indoors, the less-encumbered short-shorts shoppers dart among the Babar and Madeline set, snatching up choice objets before acquisitive parents can reach them. Move west, toward the river, and you hit the gym called the Chelsea Piers (the size of a medium planet) where Chelsea's residents, gay, straight and undecided (anyone under 12) co- exist in endorphin- enhanced athletic bliss, golfing, bowling, mountain- climbing, swimming, and playing volleyball.
On second thoughts, New York's Chelsea may seem to have more in common with its London counterpart than the other neighbourhoods do - if one only takes enough Ecstasy.