Since the 1890s, a verdant stretch of New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood has been home to a majority of the city’s flower wholesalers–middlemen between the growers on Long Island and retailers all across the Metropolitan area. But like many of the city’s industrial districts, gentrification and rising real estate prices have pushed floral merchants out over the past decade. In The Floral Ghost, a new art book out from Planthouse Gallery, author Susan Orlean and artist Philip Taaffe pay homage to the diminishing flower district with an essay and accompanying silk-screen illustrations.
In its heyday, the flower district–which runs along Sixth Avenue between 26th and 29th Streets–was dominated by family businesses that transformed sizable storefront spaces into lush mini-urban jungles. Retailers would come from as far out as Pennsylvania and Massachusetts to the plant-lined streets to barter over bales of locally grown pink magnolias and freshly cut chrysanthemums. But after 1995, when local zoning laws started to allow residential building, rents in the area rose astronomically, pushing flower merchants out to the suburbs. Where once there were more than 60 flower wholesalers, there are now 32, according to the New York Times. Today, while you can still visit airy warehouse spaces packed tightly with towering trees and leafy foliage, the district is a shell of what it once was.
Orlean, who penned the bestselling book The Orchid Thief (later turned into the 2002 Spike Jonze film, Adaptation) has long been a patron of the shops that make up NYC’s flower market. In 2014, she was approached by Planthouse to contribute an essay to a publication they were putting together mark the gallery’s eviction from their home in the flower district. Now in book form, the essay is accompanied by the lovely silk-screen monotypes by Taaffe, who is known for his colorful paintings that often have floral motifs.
In Orlean’s essay–the only other time she’s written about flowers since Orchid Thief–she vividly remembers her first visit to the flower district, back when commerce was still in full bloom. “I do remember the shock of seeing this quiver of greenery on the gray Manhattan sidewalk, not displayed as decoration but as product, as merchandise,” she writes. Taaffe’s graphic illustrations of colorful yet fading flowers depict the ephemeral nature not just of plant life but also of parts of the cityscape.
Though the flower district isn’t dead yet, it’s no longer as dense a stretch of urban greenery as it once was. Through The Floral Ghost Orlean seeks to preserve the memory of the neighborhood as she once knew it. “We all become sentimental about places which hold specific memories for us,” she tells the New York Times in a recent article about the book. “New York, in many ways, used to be a place where things were made; and now, increasingly, it’s a place where things are bought.”
The Floral Ghost is available from Planthouse Gallery for $22.
Artwork © Philip Taaffe. Courtesy Planthouse Gallery.