Last winter, when photographer Brian Rose shared his shots of the Meatpacking District in 1985, I begged him to go back and take "after" photos of the same shots. I guess a lot of other folks begged him, too, because the man has done it. The result is, as expected, amazing, a vivid look at the old world and the new, 1985 versus 2013.
all photos by Brian Rose
The old world was meatpackers. In 1974, there were 160 businesses handling meat on those streets. Under metal awnings, sides of beef hung on hooks, dripping blood and fat onto the sidewalks, where men in red-smeared white smocks toiled in the pre-dawn dark.
The old world was underground BDSM sex. In the 1970s, gay leather clubs opened shop—The Anvil, The Spike, The Hellfire, and The Mineshaft, whose dark corners were brought into the spotlight by Al Pacino in William Friedkin’s 1980 film Cruising.
The old world was transgender sex workers. The cobblestones were their stroll. They worked in packs for safety, took coffee breaks at Dizzy Izzy’s bagel shop (since 1938), bought their outfits at Lee’s Mardi Gras, a store that catered to crossdressers. The Meatpacking District was the muddy edge of Manhattan’s universe, and nobody much cared what happened there.
During the AIDS crisis, business plummeted at the leather clubs as regulars got sick and died off. In 1985, the state gave permission to Mayor Koch to padlock all of the city’s gay bathhouses, bars, and clubs where “high-risk sexual activities” were taking place. City inspectors ventured into The Mineshaft and witnessed “many patrons engaging in anal intercourse and fellatio,” and heard “sounds of whipping and moaning,” reported the Times. (After reviewing the inspectors’ report, Mayor Koch said, “It's tough stuff to read. It must be horrific, horrendous in its actuality to witness.'') That year the Department of Health closed The Mineshaft for “violating the new anti-AIDS regulations.” It was the first of many such closures.
That same year, Florent Morellet opened a French-American diner in a shuttered old luncheonette called the R&L. Florent became a sensation, an after-hours spot for the leathermen and trend-seeking slummers alike. Morellet credits his restaurant for bringing "the first bit of gentrification to the area."
In the 1990s, rent was cheap, and in came the artists. New queer clubs opened, like the gay Lure, along with part-time lesbian hangout Clit Club, and the weekly party Jackie 60, an anything goes, non-exclusive scene for drag, punk, performance art, and poetry. Hogs & Heifers came to the neighborhood, attracting celebrities like Julia Roberts, who danced on the bar and donated her brassiere to their growing collection.
It was the beginning of the end.
A tipping point came in 1999. That year, two fashionable restaurants opened in the area, Markt and Fressen. Reviewers were not all gung-ho for the idea of fine dining on streets that reeked of blood and rotting offal. At the Post, Steve Cuozzo wrote, “Take the Meatpacking District--please. The streets smell like one big pancreas.” But the smell of money was also strong.
Next came the high-fashion retailers and the Friends of the High Line. Then it was Keith McNally’s Pastis, the restaurant often blamed with the greasy old Meatpacking District’s death. The moment the bistro opened in early 2000, people were lining up to get in. McNally claimed that Pastis would be “bohemian and unfussy, a kind of workingman’s place.” It was decidedly neither.
From there, the floodgates opened and the old world quickly came to an end. The meatpacking plants were pushed out. The transgender sex workers were chased out. The rents shot from $400 to $40,000 per month. Florent's old building, once the R&L Luncheonette, just sold this week for $8.6 million.
Brian Rose's photos tell the story of the Meatpacking District's massive shift, one photo pairing at a time--from quiet to crowds, low-rise to high-rise, rusted awnings to fresh coats of paint, meat houses to high-end boutiques, clunkers to luxury cars, poultry trucks to artisanal ice-cream trucks. Visit his website to see much more.