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March 21st, 2007

THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD, AGAIN!

by Joelle Panisch

STORY BY JOELLE PANISCH, PHOTOGRAPHY BY SCOTT SARGENT

South of 15th Street and west of Hudson lies New York’s famed Meatpacking District. For decades, by day, it has been true to its name- a blue-collar industrial ‘hood where meat and poultry were slaughtered, processed, packaged, and sold. By night the neighborhood, with its uninhabited buildings and un-policed streets, was infamous for having housed the likes of the “morally un-obliged.” Gays, leatherheads, transsexuals, and in general the sexually deviant claimed the cobblestone as their nocturnal freedom land. It was gritty.

But in came Giuliani, and the millennium, and somehow New York changed. No longer an actualization of the proverbial Gotham City, the streets went from mean to… ehh. Out went the grit, up went the costs, and in came the “hot spots.” The affluent, ultra hip atmosphere that first overtook SoHo migrated and with it came gratuitously expensive commerce. Now, while the meatpacking industry dwindles, shops, salons and nightlife flourish, and young wealth overtakes a neighborhood that once was proletariat pure. Such extravagance spurs the question: with the continued influx of upscale culture is there any chance that the Meatpacking District can regain its original charm?

The Meatpacking District, as we know it today, was birthed in the late 19th century. It was in many ways enabled by the investments made by John Jacob Astor throughout the 1800’s. His collection of real estate and his contribution to the building of the Hudson River Railroad in no small way contributed to the industrialization of New York City, and to what used to be known as West Greenwich Village. With incoming freight accessible through train and ferry the district developed as a farmers market. It replaced several other New York outdoor markets whose conditions were so deplorable that in 1877 Scribner’s Monthly wrote, “there are ten public markets in New York City and not one of them is worthy of the extent of business done or deserving of praise on economic or sanitarian grounds.” In 1886 the city opened Gansevoort Market, named after Peter Gansevoort, a famous General in the Revolutionary war and Herman Melville’s grandfather.

Around 1906, with the advent of brine cooling systems and improvements in freight transport, a meat market began in New York. By the 1920’s the industry was up and running and at its peak the district housed over 250 meatpacking plants. As the neighborhood’s “day job” the meat industry has been the sustaining element of the street’s coarse sort of appeal. Carcasses hanging on drying racks and workers in blood stained aprons aren’t unusual sightings. All of this within the area’s classically industrial architecture suggests gruffness. Lofts, warehouses, and “shed-type” market buildings are distinguishable by their metal awnings, low roofs, and evenly spaced supports. Such imagery has become an emblem of the city’s laborious beginnings.

By the 1970’s the neighborhood developed an alter ego. Perhaps it was the visceral karma of slapping and hanging meat all day, or maybe it was just the remoteness of the locale, but the Meatpacking District became a niche for many of New York’s underground subcultures.

Old fashioned prostitution gained notoriety for its new, transgender twist. Fetishism was welcomed inside the district’s many nightclubs. Overt sexuality reined. And though some hetero places popped up and there were occasional lesbian parties, the scene catered mostly to gay or bi men. The Zoo, Mineshaft, Anvil, the Manhole, Cell Block, Assterick and Alice and Wonderland were among the brilliantly kitschy-named gay fetish clubs to arise. These were infamous establishments where the naughty could “do” the naughty. And it’s rumored they all did.

Aside from copious amounts of S&M, the era will be remembered for its part in the Gay Rights Movement. Before the AIDS awareness of the early ’80’s created a backlash, such unapologetic homosexuality was a defiant stance and ignited debate about the constraints of nuclear family values. Participants ignored any suppositions of sexual morality and through their indignation sent a fierce message of opposition against confining structuralized norms.

In about 1980, in the wee hours of the morning, Florent Morellet stumbled into R&L diner. He loved the joint. Four years later it was up for sale and in 1985 the French-American fusion restaurant opened. The decor, with the original metal paneling begs retro-bistro-hip. It was the cool kid on the block before the block was cool. Its opening marked the starting point of the Meatpacking District’s transformation.

Come 2007 and the seedy subculture has long scattered. Standing now is an ubercool, sanitized version of nightlife.

It’s not that it’s completely different, but there is a lot less of what once defined it. Florent still stands but it’s no longer the lone diner. Its neighbor to spots de jour like Vento, Pastis, and Buddha Bar. Only 25 operational meat plants remain. For now most of the architecture still retains its original unassuming charm; however, it’s now littered with high-end eateries and shoe stores. It seems that the area has lost its individuality and has become a clone of much lower Manhattan, an extension of SoHo, Tribeca and Nolita. Even Alphabet city and Hell’s Kitchen, once notorious for their battlegrounds, are now on their way to trendy.

There’s no denying the pleasantness of the newly revamped streets. Though easily romanticized, old New York definitely was not easy. However, geniality in New York doesn’t come without sacrifice. 1,000 Stella McCartney stores won’t bring back the “trannies.” By definition gentrification propagates a decline in minorities and cultural distinctions. The carnal vitality that once lured the outlawed is now replaced by luxury and indulgence. Like most struggling artists or writers in the city, we can’t afford to dine at Spice Market twice a week. Walking along the cobblestone streets one must wonder when everything became so sterile, so expensive and so mainly Caucasian. The neighborhoods are beginning to feel oddly privatized. The lack of affordable housing has now forced an actual distance between the classes. It seems that Manhattan has become solely for the rich, while servicemen and wage earners have moved to the outer boroughs. On the surface these trendy, new neighborhoods may be aesthetically pleasing, but the loss of the city’s diversity is far too hefty a price to pay.

What’s really frightening is that likeminded youth are being absorbed into a pool of vanity and consumption, and further perpetuating the economic gap. At increasingly younger ages children are becoming enthralled with glamour and possessions, and beginning to believe that such entitlement is okay. These overindulged kids turn to twenty-somethings, and while nightly sipping on $12 cocktails they are forgetting to secure the foundations of our politics. The Meatpacking District’s focus clientele now consists of the beautiful, the fashionable, and the wealthy. And though their social intentions may not be malicious, such blanket selfishness could prove dangerous to our cultural psyche.

It seems that the Meatpacking District’s future will be greatly decided by the success of The High Line project. The plan to convert the deserted elevated railway that ran along the western edge of lower Manhattan into a sparkling fresh public park was green-lighted in 2005. This is a project of some merit, but its allure will undoubtedly increase pedestrian traffic and tourism, and the opportunity for profit. With heightened stakes, further development is brewing.

At an estimated cost of $200 million dollars a new Whitney Museum will be opening at Gansevoort and Washington. The bloated plans suggest that it will take a massive 15,000 square feet of Meatpacking territory.

There is a glimmer of hope. Through the efforts of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation in September 2003 the Gansevoort Market district was deemed Historic. This allows it greater zoning protection and any major architectural changes will have to be approved by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Even with all the effort to preserve the Meatpacking District’s character, the outlook is grim. In the end it’s not the young scenesters’ greedy self-applauding that makes this neighborhood feel so victimized (though some might disagree), but it’s the fact that it no longer has an identity of its own. It has become a name on a list of lost neighborhoods, gentrified and homogenized into a blur of consumerism and elitist drab. And though New York may keep on kicking without a gritty underbelly, it’s hard to say if the diversity can live on amidst the rising cost of real estate. What a shame.

If there’s a lesson we can learn from the loss of this district, it is that it only takes one “quaint” cafe with oversized and overpriced lattes, only one bitchy boutique with handbags that retail close to double your rent, and only one prophetic gay lounge to get the socialites and wannabes a-flocking.

ILLEGAL BILLBOARDS: WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP

In the GVSHP’s attempt to police the Meatpacking District it has been keeping an eye out for the increasing appearance of illegal billboards. The Society continuously surveys and reports all sightings to the City, urging prompt removal of the signs. Though some violations throughout the city have been addressed, many, especially in the Meatpacking area, have not. The Society has recently brought to our attention two new billboards, believed to be illegal, that are presently being erected above Hotel Gansevoort on Hudson and Gansevoort streets. According to the GVHSP’s bulletin, they reported the signs in mid-January and were assured by the Department of Buildings and the Department of City Planning, of the prompt examination of their legality. However, the billboards are being raised right now, and the Society, along with the Journal’s support, urges the City to act immediately. Keep in mind that the erection of these billboards is extremely destructive to the integrity of the neighborhood. They litter not only the architecture, but distract from the history and original decor that give the Meatpacking District its charm. Want to help? The GVSHP suggests calling 311 and reporting the illegal billboards at 651 Hudson Street. You can also email the Department of Buildings Commissioner, Patricia Lancaster, at PatriciaL@builfingd.nyc.gov.
For more information go to www.gvshp.org

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