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Travel Stories

Urban Walks - West 20th Street, Manhattan


Reflections in a store window at W. 20th & 9th Ave

Recess on the High Line

On display at Three Tarts
by Melissa Cicci

[Part of a recurring series on urban walks - from Early Summer 2010] Discovering the tiniest slice of Manhattan is not unlike Horton discovering the Who. An entire world can exist on a relatively microscopic speck of this 13 mile-long island. Sometimes a single block will yield unexpected appeal and be rich in history.

Such was the case recently when two girlfriends and I met in Manhattan for a long-overdue reunion. One early morning, we headed west on 20th Street. Destination: the High Line, just beyond 10th Avenue. The long-derelict elevated rail line on Manhattan’s west side has been re-imagined as an urban park - but more on that later.

On this mid-May day, the humidity hovered around 80 percent and the skies threatened rain. Optimistically, we set out without umbrellas, operating on the theory that if one carries an umbrella it certainly will rain. Theory disproved once again.

When a light mist turned into a proper rain, we sought refuge at Three Tarts, a bakery and boutique at the corner of West 20th and 9th Avenue. A jewel-box of a store, Three Tarts is the love child of three pastry-chef friends, plus one. A glass bakery case entices with lemon-coconut yumballs, lavendar geleé jewels and orange-blossom fruit dainties. We ordered lattes and cappuccinos and browsed the shelves stocked with carefully sourced gifts. None are necessities - more items that one would buy for a friend – and none "made in China."

As the rain eased off, we crossed 9th Avenue to discover an eclectic Manhattan block, West 20th between 9th and 10th Avenues. The north side of the street is anchored by the rear gardens of the General Theological Seminary. A tall wrought-iron fence borders an expansive green lawn. At this time of year, cascading roses in reds, pinks and pale orange trail from the iron. Founded in 1817, the General was the first seminary of the Episcopal Church in the United States. The campus of the General also houses the Desmond Tutu Center and The Center for Peace and Reconciliation. The Center brings together secular and non-secular scholars for discussion of issues surrounding peace and reconciliation.

The land which the General occupies, and much of the surrounding area, was once part of an estate owned by a Mr. Moore. As in Clement Clarke. Yes, that Clement Clarke Moore, of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas fame. A plaque along the street commemorates Mr. Moore and credits his family with giving this area its well-known name, Chelsea, after their former estate.

If the lush peacefulness of the General is ethereal, the cacophony from the Secret Garden Pre-School across the street reminded us that this is a living neighborhood, rich in families, history and elegant 19th-century row houses. We decided quickly to check the real estate listings after our walk (we can dream!). A line of row houses across from the Seminary are set back 10 feet from the street, creating an English-like streetscape. It's believed that the setback was part of an agreement between Clarke Moore and a local developer.

In more contemporary history, author and beat poet Jack Kerouac lived on the block for a few months in 1951. Legend has it that he wrote his seminal On the Road during that brief stay on West 20th.

As we neared the end of the block, the rain disappeared and the sun returned, willing us to climb the stairs at the High Line's 20th street entrance. The High Line was built in the 1930s to lift freight traffic off the streets of Manhattan's gritty industrial area. Nearly a half century later, trains stopped running on these elevated tracks. In 1980, a non-profit, Friends of the High Line, formed to preserve the rail line. Park construction began in 2006. The first completed section, from Gansevoort Street (in the Meatpacking District) to 20th Street, opened in 2009.

It's an escapist pleasure to walk above the noise and traffic of the streets below. Sunlight glints off the Hudson River. Xeric plantings, ample seating, and thoughtful use of reclaimed materials lend a responsible vibe to the Park. On any given day, tourists, locals, and school children on recess enjoy spending time a little closer to the clouds.

If You Go:
The nearest subway stations to this block of West 20th are at 23rd & 8th Ave (C, E lines) and 18th & 7th Ave (IRT, 1 line).

For pleasant and affordable accomodations in the area, check out the new Doubletree Chelsea, on 29th between 6th and 7th Avenues. This newly built property is set back from the street, providing one of the quietest hotel stays I've had in the city. The young staff is extremely friendly.

Three Tarts, 164 9th Avenue (at 20th Street), 212.462.4392
General Theological Seminary, 175 9th Avenue (at 20th Street), 212.243.5150
High Line, entrances at Gansevoort Street, 14th, 16th, 18th and 20th Streets
Photographs by Melissa Cicci

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