Bel0w: use the slider to move between the two images. On the left, is a picture from the railroad and Nabisco days, the right is from the present day

In 1890, an Irish Catholic lawyer in Chicago helped form a conglomerate of 40 bakeries into the American Biscuit and Manufacturing Company. He was a well-educated man (Harvard Class of 1863) and his natural feel for law fueled his rise as a star lawyer. Little did Adolphus W. Green know that he would abandon his promising career for a cracker and cookie company, one that would go on to revolutionize the food industry. It would also influence the fall and rise of one of New York’s oldest neighborhoods.

The American Biscuit and Manufacturing Company was not alone. It turned out, a year earlier, eight bakeries in New York City had merged into the New York Biscuit Company. Under the leadership of William Henry Moore, it soon took on more bakeries, eventually totaling to 23. They chose to house the consolidated bakeries under one roof: a 6-story Romanesque-revival style complex taking up the whole block between 9th and 10th Avenue, from 15th and 16th Street in Chelsea. Conveniently, right through the middle of 10th Avenue ran the Hudson River Railroad. This provided the bakery easy freight access as it joined the industrial development that the railroad spurred up and down the line. 

The respective successes of the New York Biscuit Company and American Biscuit and Manufacturing Company put the two on a collision course. The rivals did the only thing they knew: they merged. The National Biscuit Company was born in 1898. While Adolphus Green took over the National Biscuit Company, Moore moved on. He’d later help create many more companies, most famously turning Carnegie’s empire into U.S. Steel. 

Green was far from done. He quit law to oversee the rapidly growing company. He dropped products and shut down 31 of the 114 bakeries to focus on one thing only: a 5 cent soda cracker with a lighter and flakier consistency, with packaging that prevented it from becoming soggy or stale. Late in 1898, the National Biscuit Company released its first product: the Uneeda Biscuit. America was introduced to this product by an unprecedented advertisement campaign. The National Biscuit Company spent $7 million over 10 years to promote their product. It did not take long for it to catch on. Sales eclipsed 10 million biscuits per month within the first year. America really needed a biscuit.

“Lest you forget, we say it yet, Uneeda Biscuit”

National Biscuit Company, the first to go on a multimillion-dollar ad campaign

To satisfy the increased production, four additional buildings were built alongside the existing New York Biscuit Company complex. Two buildings focused solely on Uneeda Biscuits. While the company took off, it remained laser-focused on its core products. It rolled out the Nabisco Sugar Wafers in 1901, Nabisco coming from National Biscuit Company. This name would later grace all of its products. Soon enough, Nabisco produced hits such as the Fig Newton, ZuZu Ginger Snaps, and Barnum Animal Crackers were released; and in 1912, the Oreo biscuit was invented at the Chelsea Factory. 

The same integrity and attention to detail that made Adolphus Green a successful lawyer made him a good leader for the company. The growth of Nabisco along with New York’s prominence moved the company headquarters from Chicago to New York and prompted an expansion of their Chelsea factory. The company architect, Albert Zimmerman, worked with Green to design an innovative expansion of their complex. In 1913, the 11-story building between 10th and 11th Avenue from 15th to 16th St. was finished, built atop landfill. It was the largest bakery in the world and the anchor of the neighborhood.

Green’s decency ensured that workers had a clean, safe work environment, where they were served hot meals for 11 cents. Employees could make product suggestions, with roughly half of them tested. No children were employed in the factory either. However, it was not all fun and games at 10th Avenue and 15th Street; strikes happened, unions were forbidden, and wages remained low. Though Green died in 1917, his company’s success continued. The company began exploring beyond cookies and crackers, into pretzels, ice cream cones, and dog food. But the company still had a penchant for crackers: it rolled out the Ritz cracker in 1934.

Looking east on 15 St. at the sky bridge circa 1932

Just like their products adapted to the times, their buildings did as well. The National Biscuit Company continued its takeover of West Chelsea, integrating the neighboring American Can Company building (a company William Henry Moore helped create) into their complex by building a pedestrian walkway. In all, 17 buildings compromised the National Biscuit Company’s Chelsea factory complex. With the limited speed and capacity of the street level freight tracks on 10th Avenue (not to mention its nickname of “Death Avenue” and employment of the “West Side Cowboys”), the West Side Elevated Line was built in 1934. It was built to go straight through the Nabisco Factory, making its products even more easily loaded up and transported away. 

But by the 1950s, there was a huge shift. Railroads were in a downward spiral, with trucks becoming the primary method of shipments. But Manhattan wasn’t a particularly convenient location for these trucks. Preservatives also made products last longer, meaning factories no longer had to be close to the markets they were selling too. There was no more room for expansion, plus New York City was an awfully expensive place to have a huge industrial factory. Why not move out to the suburbs of New Jersey? That’s what the wealthy white families were doing anyways, and Nabisco followed suit. And in 1959, the Chelsea factory was shut down. Thousands of jobs disappeared. Soon enough, the industrial west side of Manhattan hollowed out, and the West Side Elevated Line was brought down with it. Once the “lifeline of New York,” carrying millions of tons of crackers, cookies, and meat from the Meatpacking District, parts of the elevated line came down in the 60s, with the final train in the 80s.

Both the Nabisco Factory and the train line were abandoned. Without them, the neighborhood died. No one knew what to do with such a giant, empty factory or a useless elevated track. Crime and gang violence that had riddled Hell’s Kitchen spread southwards to this area. Drug dealers, prostitutes, and rats took over the area. AIDS hit the LGBTQ underworld in the Meatpacking District particularly hard. Hardly anyone lived or could live in these ruins of New York’s industrial past. 

In 1990, Irwin Cohen purchased the former Nabisco Factory in all its glory. The building itself had seen three brutal murders in its basement and was in a dilapidated state. Despite all the doubts, Cohen had a vision for a multi-use building for up and coming companies, anchored by a food hall. Seven years later, Chelsea Market opened.

Meanwhile, the West Side Elevated Line was the eyesore of the area. Calls for its full demolition were gaining steam. Peter Obletz, a rich railroad enthusiast and Chelsea resident, challenged proposals to demolish the elevated tracks and wanted to reestablish train service. It was extremely unrealistic. But the tracks’ proximity to Hudson promoted the growth of wild green on the tracks. This, along with a similar project in Paris, sparked ideas about repurposing the viaduct into an elevated park, and a group called the Friends of the High Line was formed in 1999. Even then, it seemed such a far-fetched idea, and in one of Rudy Giuliani’s final acts as mayor, he approved the demolition of the former freight line. 

The High Line in 2000. Credit: Joel Sternfield

As the group pushed the repurposing of the elevated line, the Chelsea Market thrived. An emergent LGBTQ community formed in the area, fleeing rising housing costs in Greenwich Village. Art galleries popped up throughout the area, and trendy stores descended upon the neighborhood. Change was coming, and the Friends of the High Line began to garner more and more support. After a design contest (proposals included a mile-long lap pool and a roller coaster), the idea of a linear greenway park was selected as the most desirable, sensible idea. In 2006, construction began on the High Line; in June 2009 the first phase opened to great fanfare. The industrial land once surrounding the Hudson River Railroad had been transformed.

Both the Chelsea Market and High Line were revolutionary repurposing projects overcoming massive obstacles. Not only did it spark a nationwide trend of food halls and elevated parks; the West Side of Manhattan would never be the same again. Nearly 15 million visitors from across the world come to Chelsea Market and/or the High Line every year. The Whitney Museum returned downtown in 2015 to the southern terminus of the High Line; the Hudson Yards development, the most expensive real estate development in U.S. history, is at its northern terminus. Construction cranes rose throughout the neighborhood by the dozens. To top it all off, Chelsea Markets was acquired by Alphabet, Google’s parent company, for $2.4 billion.

But has all the change been good?

In 2013, then unknown mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio spoke of “a tale of two cities.” His rallies against rising income inequality surged him to the biggest landslide victory in nearly 30 years. West Chelsea epitomizes this divide. It also reveals the challenges that the city faces in the coming years. The rezoning of the area in 2005 has brought a boom in newly built posh, luxury residences. Some penthouses, including one designed by Zaha Hadid, top out at over $50 million. Despite this development craze, or perhaps because of it, the area has lost more rent-controlled apartments than it has built. Housing costs and land values have gone through the roof. Locals and long time businesses are getting pushed out for ritzier ones. The diversity of the community is disappearing, along with its art galleries. 

Through a viewpoint on the High Line at 26th St: on the right, Avenues, a for-profit school w/ global campuses. Straight ahead, the Chelsea-Elliott Houses, a public housing project.

The stark inequality of the area, even between one side of a street versus the other, has inspired a 2015 documentary film. In Class Divide, director Marc Levin tells the story through the children. A for-profit private school, Avenues: The World School, with campuses across the globe and a tuition upwards of $56,000, has settled down on one side of 10th Avenue; on the other side, 2,400 low-income residents reside in the Chelsea-Elliott public housing complex. None make anything close to $56,000. The Fulton Houses, another public housing complex a few blocks south, has another 2,160 residents. Both are crumbling and in desperate need of renovation. Costs to fix them are estimated to exceed $340 million. The city wants to demolish/renovate the current buildings in phases. Each current resident is guaranteed a renovated or newly built unit. Buildings will be made up of 70% market-rate units, the revenues of which will pay for affordable units, which will make up 30%. However, residents are rightfully nervous about the demolition of their homes and distrust private developers. This has become the flashpoint of local politics.

Neighborhoods change, but perhaps no place in New York City has seen so much of it in so little time. Yet, what has remained constant is the impact of two landmarks: the former Nabisco Factory, the heart of Chelsea’s working-class past, and the West Side Elevated Line, which brought jobs and goods to the area. No one predicted the success and change that Chelsea Market and the High Line would bring. The hyper-gentrification that followed has certainly made the streets safer and more desirable. District schools are improving. Compared to children from public housing projects in poorer areas, they have a better chance at the American Dream. However, growing anxiety has unnerved families, who cannot reap the benefits of an improved neighborhood if they cannot afford to live in it, and therein lies the ultimate concern for the future of West Chelsea, and the future of New York.

Next, read about the Tale of Two Cities: How New York City became one of America’s most segregated or take a look at our feature on the West Side Cowboys in Manhattan’s Wild, Wild West

For more on the High Line, Livin’ the High Line has an interesting blog.

Kai Oishi

Evolution of NYC