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Lower West Side Story

Everything SoHo was fifteen years ago -- creative hotbed, destination for the gotta-have-its, quiet streets concealing vast loft spaces and galleries -- West Chelsea is today. And there aren't any tourists. Yet.

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You might say that Donny Deutsch is to the advertising business what Yankees ace David Cone is to baseball, a veteran of New York's go-go eighties who has managed to keep his fastball well into the go-go-go-go nineties. And like Cone, Deutsch -- chairman of the flourishing downtown shop Deutsch, Inc. -- isn't afraid of getting a little creative, of tossing sidearm, if you will, when he squints his eyes, leans in, and fires the pitch.

But today, Deutsch is not going after any top accounts -- say, a Chrysler or a Ralph Lauren. Instead, he's doing a little pro bono work, thinking up a fitting name for his ad agency's new home. Last April, he pulled up stakes on Park Avenue South and headed for the hinterland-on-the-Hudson, a spooky fringe of monolithic manufacturing buildings in West Chelsea with a population you could fit, seemingly, onto a few floors at Bloomingdale's during tax-free week. But that was before open office space in New York became as precious as a rent-controlled two-bedroom apartment. Today, the once-negligible neighborhood stretching from 14th Street into the Thirties and west from Eighth Avenue to the Hudson is undergoing such a swift, and jolting, transformation that a new identity does seem to be in order.

"I heard somebody suggest 'the Midwest,' " Deutsch mentions in passing. "That's so not what it is," he adds, dismissing it outright. Ball one, a knuckler that bounces fecklessly in the dirt. He winds up and delivers another:

"It's kind of cheesy, but what about 'West New York?' "

One problem. There already is a West New York, and it's on the other side of the river -- in New Jersey. High and inside. Ball two.

Undeterred, Deutsch rocks into the motion and hurls yet another.

"How about . . . 'the Lower West Side'?" he says, weighing the options. "You already have the Lower East Side, the Upper West Side . . ."

Deutsch looks into the distance, then turns emphatically. "That's it. That's it." A fastball -- right down the pipe. "I like that. The Lower West Side," he crows. "I want five bucks for this."

The Lower West Side, the West Coast, Manhattan's Left Bank -- whichever label eventually sticks to the Velcro -- is suddenly the most dynamic corridor of the city, a rejuvenated commercial district ablaze with art galleries, hot restaurants, photography studios, and fashion boutiques.

"The Lower West Side. Hmmm -- what would that turn out to be? "Lo . . . LoWeSo. LoWeSi?" says Martha Stewart, who seems slightly skeptical that this rheumy acronym will take. That doesn't mean the Den Mother of American Taste hasn't been charmed -- yes, charmed -- by the neighborhood.

In mid-August, the chairman and chief executive officer of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia signed a lease for 75,000 square feet in West Chelsea's coveted Starrett-Lehigh Building. The 2.3-million-square-foot factory warehouse at Eleventh Avenue and 26th Street is the Chrysler Building of this rugged, broad-shoulders district that's been hulking next to the Hudson since the nineteenth century. Nine miles of strip windows band the nineteen floors of the vintage 1931 Bauhaus-influenced behemoth. Architects consider it a minor masterwork. But up until recently, few A-list tenants did -- which is not to speak ill of the Westway Cone Winding Corporation or the Atlantic Hardware and Supply Company, both of which have resided quietly here for years.

Come March, Stewart's Internet operation and various design-oriented aspects of her business such as photography studios will be steaming into the third millennium at the Starrett-Lehigh. Stewart's impending arrival has truly basted the district with credibility. Blessed with a talent for making lemons not into mere lemonade but into a perfectly photogenic pie capped with an Everest of springy meringue, Stewart is now poised to spruce up an entire neighborhood, casually branding West Chelsea "a good thing" with her very towheaded presence.

Not that Martha doesn't already have company. In the elevators, she'll be brushing cashmered elbows with artist Sandro Chio, who is already splattering acres of canvas in his own vast studios in the building. Ad legend Jay Chiat, best known for squiring Apple Computer into the public consciousness, is newly aboard at ScreamingMedia, an Internet firm headquartered there. With Internet start-ups, cable networks, and ad firms peering into the building's hangarlike concrete interiors almost daily, the building is becoming the platinum address in the neighborhood.

Downstairs, the Chelsea arts scene is pulsing with activity. There are some 100 galleries here now, pushing north past 21st Street, which Paula Cooper pollinated in 1996. (Like Matthew Marks, Cooper has also opened a second gallery in Chelsea.) The giant yellow-brick West Chelsea Arts Building, a vertical art colony on 26th between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, is currently home to Gorney Bravin + Lee, where the likes of Alexis Rockman, William Wegman, and Sarah Charlesworth show. Eschewing his swanky 57th Street address, Robert Miller -- who represents Diane Arbus and Lee Krasner -- has taken half the ground floor. And along with the galleries, of course, come the SoHo-slick watering holes and shops: the restaurants Lot 61 and Bottino, the bar Serena in the Chelsea Hotel, and the Comme des Garçons store with its funky intestinal entrance.

The Lower West Side boom also has a solid southern anchor in the increasingly hot meatpacking district, where Jeffrey, a quixotic mini-Barneys, opened in August and has a throng of people waiting to get in every Saturday morning. In coming months, restaurateur Mark Strausman of Campagna will be unveiling Chinghalle, a quasi-industrial brasserie on Gansevoort Street. Keith McNally, whose Odeon jump-started TriBeCa as we now know it, is finessing his Balthazar follow-up, Pastis, on Ninth Avenue at Little West 12th Street.


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