The Death of New York City's Fifth Avenue

When Charles Dickens toured North America in 1842, the English author—known for chronicling squalor in his own country—found a scene near the water in lower Manhattan that even he struggled to stomach. Rotting houses, low-slung taverns, drunken sailors, loose women, and free-roaming pigs slopped through polluted streets. "Poverty, wretchedness, and vice are rife," he wrote of the area known as Five Points. Behavior was so degraded, in fact, that Dickens questioned whether the pigs "wonder why their masters walk upright in lieu of going on all fours."

Yes, Manhattan may be surrounded by water, but few people over the years would have mistaken it for any sort of island paradise—especially at its aqueous edge. That has recently begun to change, thanks to a series of revitalization projects that are helping New Yorkers forge a new bond with their city's perimeter. But perhaps the most remarkable shift in this relationship has been cultural. For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, Manhattan's elite sojourned, socialized, and shopped in the center of the island—epitomized by Fifth Avenue, which became a corridor of wealth because it stood farthest from the grim and menacing rivers.

Now that old order has been upended: much of Fifth Avenue has become a generic parade of retail shops (Abercrombie, Banana Republic, Tiffany), while the shoreline—especially along the West Side—has become a playground for boldfaced names in search of five-star urban charm. It's a considerable change from the old days, according to Kenneth T. Jackson, a Columbia University historian and editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City, whose own restaurant bill is testimony to the shifting tides at Manhattan's shoreline. At Del Posto, an opulent Italian restaurant a block from the waterfront on Tenth Avenue and 16th Street, he recently spent what seemed like $500 on four plates of spaghetti. "That would be hard to conceive of 25 years ago," he says.

That's because for centuries, Manhattan's far West Side was more seafarers and slaughterhouses than professors and pasta. Its piers were among the busiest in the world between 1840 and the Second World War, while the surrounding area was home to thousands of commercial fishermen, hundreds of abattoirs, and dozens of factories and warehouses. It was the nation's navel, the place where the rest of the world connected to America, funneling inventory to the shops on Broadway and the plush-carpeted drawing rooms along Central Park. By the 1960s, however, big industry had moved away, and the area slipped into the hands of streetwalkers and thieves. Now it has flipped again—this time into fabulous living spaces for the well heeled and postcard-ready parklands for the urban wanderer.

Two public works have contributed to the emergence of what New York Magazine has dubbed the city's "wannabe Gold Coast"—an area bordered by West Houston Street to the south, Hudson Street to the east, and West 20th Street to the north. The first is the $400 million Hudson River Park, which has turned a jagged necklace of piers into a livable strip of jogging paths, basketball courts, and manicured lounge areas from Battery Park City to 59th Street. The second is the High Line, a 1930s-era elevated rail freight line that has since been transformed into a public boardwalk 30 feet above street level. New sections of both were unveiled this year.

But the area's real rhinestones come courtesy of private capital. There's Frank Gehry's IAC Building, a twisting white-glass office for Barry Diller's billion-dollar media company, and Richard Meier's two glass towers on Perry Street, which reportedly inspired Calvin Klein, Martha Stewart, and Nicole Kidman, among others, to plunk down $2,000 a square foot for raw, concrete floors and wraparound views of the leaden, mud-colored Hudson. A few blocks north, the Standard Hotel, which straddles the High Line, offers inspiration of a different sort. With floor-to-ceiling glass windows, the Standard offers High Line walkers below a chance to spy on guests in their rooms—something the hotel proudly touts on its blog, which notes that High Line walkers have "direct views into your most intimate moments." Earlier this year, it displayed signs near construction that promised, "We'll put up with your banging if you put up with ours."

If pigs still roamed the water's edge, they need not wonder any longer: it seems their masters do go about on all fours, after all.