Finding France (and Remembering Summer) in West Chelsea

As I write this I am listening to the winter wind howl through the trees of Sunset Park and summer seems very distant. How sad that I have been meaning to write this entry since then! But to follow-up on my entry about my favorite block of the Flatiron District, I wanted to write about one of my favorite walking routes through West Chelsea. Since I am an irrepressible Francophile, the places that caught my eye focus on France, but there’s so much to be had in this district. And the best part is, so much of it is eye-catching you don’t have to buy it to enjoy it!

Wild Grasses on the Highline in August

The Highline Park is a far west, obvious place to start. Inspired partially by the Promenade Plantee in Paris, this revamped elevated rail line has been celebrated since it’s open a few years ago. It’s a wonderful place to go in any season and I love the combination of art, architecture and native plants.  I love running my hand through the grasses and smelling a meadow in Maine instead of New York City. I particularly loved Valerie Hegarty’s painting on display. The interplay between human creation and nature’s will speaks volumes about city life and American art history.

Valerie Hegarty's painting, city, and wild grasses- a perfect juxtaposition.

If you exit the Highline on 20th street you will soon pass the Episcopal Church’s General Theological Seminary, which looks like you have just stepped into the English countryside (okay, I am also a bit of an Anglophile). You will also walk along a historic block of row houses which were partially conceptualized by Clement C. Moore, who is more often known for writing the Night Before Christmas (I have a family connection to this beloved American poem too, because apparently he composed it while visiting my ancestors at Constable Hall in Upstate New York) .

General Theological Seminary is a sanctuary in the city.

Historic West Chelsea.

On the corner of 9th avenue and 20th street is La Cafetiere, a boutique full of French kitchen and homeware goods including glass and earthen ware, table linens, and decor items. The shop is attractively laid out, the staff friendly and the experience so transporting that I bought my mother a linen chicken that was one sale without twice about how ridiculous I would look in the airport check in.

An inviting, open door to La Cafetiere

If you didn’t find exactly the French decor item or linen you were looking for at La Cafeteire my other favorite shop to drop into and browse is Les Toiles du Soleil, located at 19th street between 7th and 8th avenues (closer to 8th) which specializes in Catalan fabrics from the south of France. They sell fabric by the yard as well as items that are sewn in-house.  I got a pair of Espadrilles here on sale at the end of the summer which have been loath to leave my feet since. I also got fabric to make cushion covers for my living room chairs, a beautifully colored iPad case for my mother, and a chic apron for my father. The owners are two of the nicest French people you will ever meet and if you speak French they will engage you in the kind of friendly banter that is usually only encountered in an un-snobby, out-of-the-way Parisian boutique.

Aprons and Esparilles at Les Toiles du Soleil

Fabric by the yard and handmade items at Les Toiles du Soleil.

To end this wander maybe you are in want of some caffeine? The best place in the neighborhood to go for that is Cafe Grumpy, which is not Parisian, not Londoner, but New York. And wonderful with a menu of artisanal, single origin coffee to select from, individually made drinks, organic milk, and sweet staff members (and hello, they have a Park Slope location since 2009! Well, maybe I don’t have to mourn leaving Chelsea after all!).

One of the talented baristas at Cafe Grumpy.

A perfectly made iced Americano. Summer in a glass.

A Block of the Flatiron on a Snowy Day

While I love the Flatiron building for its iconic New Yorkness I’ve never though much about the neighborhood. Working near there for a year now I’ve been meaning to write about my discovery of the square block of West 18th and 19th streets between 5th and 6th avenues. The places on the avenues I could do without, but once you step off of them there’s a wealth of interesting and surprising places to behold. I’ve been meaning to write about this little block for quite sometime, but now that I’ll be leaving my job in Chelsea next week to go back to working in Brooklyn I decided to take a walk on a snowy lunch and enjoy these places one more time.

City Bakery Pretzel Croissants: Worth the Price.

Nearly every Friday morning (and other mornings too) around 11 my stomach starts to rumble and often I give in to the temptation to reward myself with a crispy, yet chewy, salty and delicately buttery Pretzel Croissant from City Bakery. Home to unique, delicious, heavy on the butter and also on the wallet backed goods, City Bakery is famous, but somehow I had never really paid attention to it until I started working in the area. They are known for their hot chocolate, but I will warn you: it’s a meal in itself. Choose wisely: pretzel croissant OR hot chocolate. And I just got word today they have started to make chocolate croissants again after four years of not. It looks like I might be leaving the neighborhood just in time!

Paper Presentation is located just a few steps closer to 6th avenue from City Bakery. It runs the length of the block between 18th and 19th streets, so it’s also great to wander through and avoid elbowing through the crowds on 5th or 6th avenues. All kinds of great things: stickers, paper plates, cards, envelopes, handmade folders and portfolios, supplies for crafting and scrapbooking… I could look in here all day.

Note card dispaly at Paper Presentation

Seals at Paper Presentation

If you’ve crossed through Paper Presentation to West 19th street you can easily find my two favorite stores, almost facing each other. On the south side of the street is a store on the second floor with big, wide windows: Idlewild Books. I was delighted to discover this cozy, welcoming bookstore devoted to travel books, foreign books in translation, and books in French, Spanish and Italian. They also offer language classes and will order you any books they don’t carry (and possibly offer you a discount on it!). I would go here and browse the shelves when I was feeling particularly homesick for Paris. Granted, you might pay a bit of a mark up for a Livre de Poche, but that price is worth it for a little bit of escapism.

Idlewild Books, where I buy more books in French than I can ever possibly read.

Speaking of escapism of another kind, on the north side of West 19th street is Bottlerocket Wine and Spirit. They have an excellent selection of wines organized by region, cooking taste, price and other themes. The staff will never look down their nose at you. The best part is that even if you choose the lowliest $9 bottle of red wine they cheerfully print out tasting notes for you. I feel like I enjoy everything I buy there more because it’s just such a pleasant experience!

Even Bottlerocket Wine and Spirit's facade is inviting

There’s many other delights tucked into these streets, most notably the Japanese answer to Ikea, Muji, and the chidren’s book emporium Books of Wonder and the Cupcake Cafe, but I will leave you to discover them. However, if Paper Presentation didn’t provide what you were looking for there is also A.I. Friedman for office supplies, framing, art supplies, and office furniture.

Pantone color storage boxes at A.I. Friedman

A collection of stylish desk lamps

Finally, though it takes you a little off the block, for that perfect accessory you are looking for, cross 6th avenue, walk down to 17th street and pop into Pippin Vintage Jewelry. They also have a tiny house behind their store full of vintage home goods. You will feel like you’ve stepped into a fairytale cottage in the middle of Chelsea.

Pippin Vintage is tempting and very reasonably priced!

And what to wear for a walk around the block in the snow? A girl detective outfit, legwarmers and high heel boots, of course.

Snowy day girl detective

Aiko Nakagawa at Joshua Liner Gallery

Art work by Aiko Nakagawa
Originally uploaded by killerfemme

Aiko Nakgawa is an artist about town (I suppose quite literally, since she is a street artist as well as making works of fine art like the one pictured here). Sometimes I wonder when she has time to paint, especially as she has been having so many awesome shows lately. I was lucky enough to be invited to the opening of the group show she is part of, “Locked and Loaded” at the Joshua Liner Gallery in Chelsea. This is the gallery’s inaugural show and includes work by other artists such as Crash One, Shawn Barber, Kenji Hirata, Jessica Joslin, and Tomokazu Matsuyama. Much of the work in the show was too slick for my tastes (I think Aiko Ishigawa, a new writer friend, called it the “Juxtapoz style” in reference to the magazine). I was quite taken, however, by the acrylic painting “3Rip Horse” by Tomokazu Matsuyama, the delicate yet creepy sculptural constructions of Jessica Joslin, and of course, Aiko’s work. I love how her large canvases look like work that has been put up on the street and had layers of wheatpasted fliers and other artwork put up over it. Her paintings and stencil work has texture that keeps you engaged in looking, while their graphic boldness immediately catches the eye.