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The Sinking of 22nd Street

Art and commerce underwater.

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A photograph being removed from 303 Gallery, Chelsea, October 31.  

Twenty-second Street between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues grades downward. Last Wednesday, the residual high-water mark graphed the extent of the damage. Near Tenth, it was at your ankle. Toward the middle of the block, it hit your shin, your thigh, your waist. As you approached Eleventh, it passed your chest until it was at your armpit.

“It was surreal,” said a resident who watched the Hudson arrive. “One minute the street was dry, the next it was a full-on river. Our doorman couldn’t get to his car on the street fast enough to drive it away.” The water flowed over the block-long 7,000 Oaks installation, by Joseph Beuys—slabs of rock planted next to trees—and it entered the galleries and shops, drowning gowns and paintings.

This is where Chelsea gentrified. It was the first big art block—pioneered by Dia and Matthew Marks, settled by major galleries (Sonnabend, PaceWildenstein) and high fashion: Balenciaga and Comme des Garçons opening stand-alone stores. Plus the High Line, the condos, Linda Evangelista and Kate Winslet. For a decade, it was where one-percent money came to play.

On Wednesday, the block was loud with generators powering pumps. Hoses snaked from basements, spitting water into the street, where trucks awaited refugee art. Employees of the luckier galleries—basementless, farther from the river—swabbed floors and scrubbed walls. At Dia, building manager John Sprague had disassembled the large Thomas Hirschhorn sculpture on display and moved it upstairs, so the gallery’s damage was limited. But for galleries below street level, the water that rushed in didn’t leave.

At 525, the gallerist Andrew Kreps stood in the basement, water to his shins, and pointed a flashlight around what looked like an abandoned mine shaft. “It’s beyond comprehension,” he said, dazed. “It’s an epic loss of stuff.” At D’Amelio Gallery next door, hundreds of dyed, odd-shaped pieces of velvet, part of a large installation, were drying out on cardboard flats, salvaged from the basement. “Half our storage is down there,” Chris D’Amelio told a claims adjuster from Dewitt Stern Fine Art Insurance who had stopped by. “It’s a pretty bad situation.” The adjuster told him to “make a list of everything, the stuff that’s gone, the stuff that’s okay.”

The fashion shops remained brand-vigilant. Comme des Garçons kept its doors closed; outside Balenciaga, a publicist stood sentry. A clutch of stylish workers wheeled garment racks hung with plastic bags full of clothes toward a truck. “Balenciaga is below grade and basically a giant, 4,000-square-foot swimming pool,” a neighbor said.

But Balenciaga is owned by the Gucci Group, with its corporate coffers. Not everyone is so fortunate. At the tiny Newman Popiashvili gallery, steps below the street, the scum line ran right through the paintings that still hung on the wall. A woman standing in the gloom cried when asked whether the gallery had insurance.

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