Chelsea, New York City: Present and Past

If you’re familiar with Chelsea, a neighborhood located in New York City, then thoughts of fun and entertainment might come to mind. Once a run down neighborhood, it’s now a trendy hotspot where you’ll find restaurants, clubs, bars, music venues, parks, museums and shopping. When it comes to real estate, it’s a sought after place to live with historic brownstones, luxury high-rises and beautifully renovated apartments.

In the Unofficial Guide to New York City, author, Eve Zibart writes that in 1750, British Major Thomas Clarke bought 94 acres of land in Manhattan and named it Chelsea in honor of the Chelsea Royal Hospital and Old Soldiers’ Home in London.

According to Wikipedia, the area became industrialized in the mid 1800’s attracting many immigrants who took jobs on the Hudson River piers, in factories and in warehouses. Lumber yards and breweries opened up and a freight line went through the area to transport goods. Tenements were built to house new immigrants.

Chelsea, NYC 1879 Courtesy Bedrock Images

Chelsea, NYC 1879
Courtesy Bedrock Images

I recently learned that my great-grandfather, Siegfried lived in Chelsea in the 1880’s. He leased a cold water flat on 8th Avenue between 18th and 19th Street. It was located just three blocks away from the Hudson River and he paid only $12 a month for rent. Cold water flats were apartments which only had running cold water. Tenants would need to heat water on the stove in order to bathe.

The following Chelsea photo is from an area located just a few blocks away from where Siegfried lived.

218-232 8th Avenue, NYC ca. 1900

218-232 8th Avenue, NYC
ca. 1900

It’s been a while since I looked for documents relating to my great-grandfather and I was pleasantly surprised to see that is still adding records for New York City. A search for Siegfried brought up some new information.

Siegfried immigrated to America from Germany in 1872. After arriving, he didn’t leave much of a paper trail behind. The next record that shows up for him was from 1880 when he applied for naturalization.

Naturalization petition, 1880

Siegfried is also found in a few directories living at the same address.

The record that really surprised me was the 1880 voter registration list because this is the same year that Siegfried applied for U.S. citizenship. I didn’t realize that people could vote before becoming citizens during that time period. Siegfried acquired U.S. nationality in 1886. Perhaps he was able to vote ‘with the intent’ of becoming a citizen. This was permitted in at least one state due to a Supreme Court ruling in 1874.

Siegfried may have placed his ballot in a wooden box similar to the photo below. 

Acme Voting Box, 1880

Acme Voting Box, 1880

One final item of interest from this era is a voting ballot which was used during President William McKinley’s election. McKinley was serving in congress while Siegfried lived in Chelsea. By the time he became President, my great-grandfather had already moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

United States voting ballot, 1896

United States voting ballot, 1896

Today, life in Chelsea resembles nothing like it did back in the late 1800’s. But you can still find remnants from the past. There’s even a walking tour of the historic district. For more information, contact New York City Cultural Walking Tours.

If you would like to see more of the New York City 1879 map, it is located here.

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2 thoughts on “Chelsea, New York City: Present and Past

  1. Wonderful post! I am fascinated with NYC history. My son in law lived in Chelsea before he met my daughter. I wonder if he knows its history. And I never knew anyone could vote without being a citizen! Imagine how that would go over with some of the Tea Party folks today….

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