Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Meatpacking Prostitutes

Before the Meatpacking District was a glitzy and hollow shopping mall, it was the stroll for countless transgender sex workers. Invisible to many, eradicated fast, those girls can now be seen in the work of two photographers recently come to light.

Jeff Cowen has a collection of five prints in the New York Historical Society's library, taken in the 1980s, showing the working life of the Meatpacking District's sex workers. For more, there is West Side Rendezvous, a book of photos by Katsu Naito, all portraits of the sex workers taken in the early 1990s.


photo: Jeff Cowen

Both artists' photographs show a lost world, desolate streets at the psychic edge of the city, where no one went unless they were looking for something a little bit dangerous. That began to change in the early 1990s. The gay sex clubs had been shut down during the peak of AIDS hysteria, the meatpacking plants were closing, and artists were moving in. No one seemed troubled by the sex workers--some residents felt protected by them--until the tide turned.

In 1992, Hogs & Heifers came to the neighborhood. The faux redneck biker bar immediately attracted celebrities like Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow. Relations between Hogs and the local working girls were not so hot. When two of the bar’s regular guys were beat up and cut by a group of transgender sex workers, reportedly after they called the girls “niggers” and threw a bottle at them, Hogs owner Alan Dell told New York magazine, “I pioneered this fucking spot. There was nothing here before me… It’s a war zone. There’s nothing I’d like more than for the police to deputize me.” Dell explained how he liked to aim a spotlight on the sex workers from his Bronco, saying, “You flash anything on them and they run like cockroaches.” 

The trans girls were afraid to go by Hogs at night. Said one, “They threaten us all the time... It used to be safe for us to come down here and make a living—now we’re losing business.”


photo: Jeff Cowen

By the summer of 2000, the Meatpacking District was just getting fashionable enough that Sex & the City's Samantha moved in. Immediately, she began fighting with the transgender prostitutes noisily throwing shade and kiki-ing outside her windows. Of course, the working girls had been there first, but like many entitled newcomers to gentrifying neighborhoods, Samantha wanted the old-schoolers out.

Over a breakfast of egg-white omelettes, she complained to her cackling friends, “I am paying a fortune to live in a neighborhood that’s trendy by day and tranny by night!” The ugly jokes ensued, the usual “half man, half woman,” “chicks with dicks” commentary.

By the end of the episode, however, Samantha was throwing a rooftop party for the working girls, with Carrie serving a pitcher of “Flirtinis,” and everything was going to be just fine—for Samantha and her pals, anyway.

Just as it did on Bleecker Street, the TV show helped bring a flood of Carrie Bradshaw wannabes to the area, bobble-headed young women tottering over the cobblestones in their Manolos and Jimmy Choos, slipping in the blood and fat. The transgender sex workers were quickly pushed out--by NYPD harassment--and the real-life Samanthas got a good night's sleep.


photo: Katsu Naito

Where did they go, all those working girls? Some no doubt were murdered, as marginalized transwomen too often are. Others found other strolls, in more dangerous neighborhoods. And some, I'm sure, went "legit." It's impossible to say. All we really know is that they're not a part of the High Line views.

Also see:
Meatpacking Before & After
Meatpacking 1985
Meatpacking 1980s
Life in the Triangle



36 comments:

Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

It was nice to be taken by the hand and led into a empty warehouse around 14th St, the traney doing what she had to do on her knees and me looking down on her. At times that was the best sex I'd ever had, I still remember it fondly. Wish that had never changed but it did...

Anonymous said...

My kids went to nursery school on Horatio Street. In about 1999 one mom didn't bring her child's stroller inside for drop off, and came out to find a "girl" walking down the street with her possessions in the stroller. (It was returned.)

We didn't see many of them out during the daytime but I'd rather see blood-filled gutters and tranny girls than what's there now.

John K. Friedman said...

It pains me to read that Hogs & Heifers' Dell was so against the working girls in the area. I lived around the corner (well, 2 corners -- Hudson x 12th & Jane) in 1992 when H&H opened. No one went in the place for something like the first 6 months (except me, a couple of regulars from the old Village Idiot (from whence H&H was spawned if I remember correctly) -- then suddenly it went nuts. I guess I drank there regularly throughout the bar's first 2 or so years until it became insufferably yupp'd up. But I was a regular from day 1 and spent some time drinking and sitting with Alan and his wife, Michelle, in those early months. The topic of the stroll never came up as far as I can remember (it WAS 20 years ago). The only thing I can imagine is that perhaps his uptown clientele started complaining. The girls never bothered the H&H clientele or staff to the best of my recollection either.

Pauli said...

Cracked me up.

JAZ said...

Jeremiah - beautifully written and absolutely spot on. Alan Dell is typical of establishment owners that take advantage of an area's grittiness to find a spot with dirt cheap rent, and then declares war on the very grittiness that allowed his space to even exist. And the fact that he sees himself as an urban pioneer is as hilarious as it is pathetic. A douchebag owner ensures a douchebag crowd, and Hogs & Heifers certainly doesn't disappoint.

And "bobble-headed" young women might be the most perfectly fitting description I've ever seen for the type you describe - empty, plastic, mass produced carbon copies looking to spend.

Aaron Tsuru said...

Wow, amazing write up! Thanks so much.

Anonymous said...

just to quote Brian Rose

So much has changed in the meatpacking district and the adjoining gallery area of Chelsea that I hesitate saying anything at all. What was once urban desolation is now the epicenter of fashion and art in the western hemisphere. The High Line is no longer a rusting hulk, but… I’ll let you fill in the blank. I love it–it’s a perfect conjuncture of preservation and contemporary architecture. I hate it–it’s too crowded much of the time to be enjoyed. But what can you do? This is New York. You cannot live here if you cannot abide change.

Anonymous said...

It's an interesting and informative article on the area, but I am left wondering do we really somehow miss this? The area was unsafe for most, as were many other areas. I am all for preserving the character of the city, but some aspects really do not warrant preserving.

Pat said...

Sharon Stone in "Basic Instinct" as Catherine Tramell in the Meatpacking 1992 years before Samantha!

onemorefoldedsunset said...

Jackson Heights has quite a lively scene.

Iceberg Slim said...

These gals have more class and real than the Carrie Bradshaw or her wannabes. Plus, these SATC wannabes are more of a prostitute than these gals. At least these gals know that they are. The SATC wannabes pretend to be otherwise and are just delusional.

Yvonne B said...

Some of these girls might have went to South Charles Village in Baltimore, if they are still alive. I have trouble with my memory, can't remember the past too good. Hope some of these girls made it and are doing good. I just remember it was always so cold when I was there.

Unknown said...

I'm not sure. I like the term "AIDS hysteria." I think there was plenty of reasons to be hysterical about AIDS by the time they closed The Mine Shaft and the other sex clubs over there. I went to high school on 18th and 9th in the mid-1980's so I remember this era well.

Anonymous said...

Glenn Close's character in Fatal Attraction, Alex Forrest also lived in the Meatpacking District, in The Anvil Building.

gabriel said...

What a beautiful post -- thanks for this.

Pat said...

@Anonymous 9:28
You are right, that was Glenn Close as Alex Forrest who lived in the Meatpacking in "Fatal Attraction", not Sharon Stone as Catherine Tramell in "Basic Instinct." "Fatal Attraction" was 1987, even more years before Samantha.

Gojira said...

Back in the 1980s, when I was training to get a Class 1 tractor-trailer license, my instructor took me here for hands-on lessons; in the afternoons it was quiet and almost empty, and a novice learning the realities of piloting an 18-wheeler didn't have to worry about killing anyone in the street - mainly because, like so many swaths of NYC at that point in time, there was no one around. It was heavenly.

Anonymous said...

I worked doing outreach there...condoms and bleach kits. My kid was confirmed at St.Bernard's and my dad was buried out of Reddens. I sometimes shopped at Western Beef and took car service home to IPN. Ordinary people, living ordinary lives.

Anonymous said...

JAZ--Agree with you so much about the Dells of the world being parasites on grit. Describes the process of sucking it out exactly right.

Sinestra said...

Great photos, showing a pride and humanity of the "ladies of the night". I like what Iceberg Slim said.
This was the nightlife district too- clubs up and down the west side coexisted with these gals.
Favorite memory: leaving a nightclub still tripping on whatever drugs and walking upon this scene on a snowy Easter morning, 3 whores nothing but wearing fur vests, panties and high heels running from their pimp, cursing him and jumping into a powder blue Cadillac that sped off.
Memories of a Vanishing NY indeed- I miss those days and the strong sense of place, where you'd shake your head and say "Only in NY..."

Anonymous said...

Love this! I often wondered where these ladies went to conduct their business when the Meatpacking became the horror show that it is now. I think there are some areas in the Bronx where this sort of business has picked up.

Anonymous said...

I like this blog a lot and love reading about NY history, but I really cannot abide the idea that prostitutes and urban desolation are good for anyone. Throughout this piece, you lament that there are no longer desperate people in the Meatpacking district exposing themselves to disease to turn a buck in depressed city.

Meatpacking doesn't have to be the sanitized mall it is now, of course, but getting nostalgic over THIS? Really? Just because we're at one end of the spectrum now and find it boring and flavorless doesn't mean that the polar opposite is a better option, especially here. You cannot let the nostalgia override all common sense.

Jason said...

Let's not kid ourselves here though. The ladies amd gents that worked the streets lived an extremely dangerous and tragic life there. Though it is almost certainly not the case, i hope they somehow mase it out of that life instead of relocating to amother corner.

My best friend in the early 90's was a gay hustler often working the street in the area near the stonewall. He was at too many times raped, beaten, arrested and many more horrible things while out there. And like everyone else out there it was to feed a crack/heroin addiction.

This is one bit of "authentic" NY I can do without. Longing for businesses or buildings is fine and I do the same. But reminiscing about other peoples pain is not right.

Michelle Dell Ramsey said...

Jeremiah, this is Michelle Dell, widow of Allan Dell and still owner of Hogs & Heifers Saloon in New York and in Las Vegas. It was interesting for me to read your comments on Hogs & Heifers and caused me to reflect a good deal about the last 21 years. It saddens me that you seem to carry so much venom for my business and so I would like to share some thoughts and facts with you. To being with, I am a 3rd generation New Yorker, born and raised in the West Village in New York City by my single mom. My mother opened her first restaurant when I was 8 years old and bought all of her specialty meat in the Gansevoort Meat Market. I was raised in the industry and worked for her in a number of job capacities beginning when I was 8 years old. I spent a good deal of time in the Meat Market as a child with mom when she was shopping there. She owned a Cuban restaurant called Sabor on Cornelius Street and made a mean roast suckling pig. The suckling pigs were bought at Adolf Kusy Fine Pork and Provisions. Years later when Hogs & Heifers opened in 1992, I became friends with Joe Nemecek, whose father ran it before him and passed it on to Joe. Joe's two sons were the same age as I was when I first started going to the meat market, and they would come in to the bar during the morning hours of the day and play pool while they waited for their dad to close up shop next door. Joe and I are still friends today. I remember the Anvil, The Manhole, The Vault, the fetish clubs, Jackie 60's, The Clit Club, The L.U.R.E. to name just a few and we always loved the fact that our business was in the midst of so many alternative lifestyle establishments that rebelled against the mainstream and came to life in the off hours while the rest of the City slept.

Michelle Dell Ramsey said...

Hogs & Heifers has never been a faux anything. It was, is and always will be a genuinely gritty gin mill with cheap drinks and a great jukebox that has always been filled with handpicked music selections and classics that your grandparents would remember. Should we have turned away the celebrities and the press? Who is anyone to begrudge others success that is hard earned and has stayed true to it's core blue collar and local customer base always, regardless of the influx of tourists and wealth. Allan and I were thrilled to be part of such an eclectic neighborhood that operated 24/7 and he was much kinder and more generous than you will ever know. He talked a boastful and tough game, it was part of his PT Barnum act, but he was a thoughtful and caring man who helped out many of the street indigents & workers of the night. He was not an angel but a Douchebag Jaz? Really? Did you know him, did you ever have a conversation with him? Yes, there were some run ins with the Trannies who were not always so warm and friendly themselves. Allan's real issues with the trannies began when I was verbally accosted by them on a daily basis on my way to the bank. Allan did not like them propositioning the bars customers on the corner right in front of the bar so he would tell them not to work there; and he did have a high powered light that he would use to brighten the shadows when a tranny hooker would be giving a blow job in our side door exit way, but with that exception he did not run around the neighborhood making life miserable for the tranny hookers or interfere with their doing business. Certainly my husband could be a huge prick and was a serious drinker and often a jerk when drunk and there is some truth in every story, but to quote newspapers as accurate and factual is a bit naïve, given the historical sensationalism that the press thrived on and continue to thrive on today. Yes, my managers throat was sliced open by a tranny prostitute and he almost died. Allan and his cronies were rough and tumble, no doubt, and often rude, I cannot argue here, but "nigger" was a word Allan expressly hated. A man showed up at Hogs & Heifers once wearing a shirt that said "white power" on it and was promptly denied entrance and told never to return. Allan was so distressed over that shirt, rightfully so, but it bothered him for days. It is extremely unlikely that such a word would have been part of the hostile exchange that resulted in my rushing my manager to the hospital. Regardless, slicing someone's throat, within millimeters of their jugular, is hardly warranted over a verbal insult or slur of any sort. It is a shame that you appear to condone such an action and so easily dismiss it as acceptable based on hearsay and "legend".

Michelle Dell Ramsey said...

Allan and I loved the grit of the Meat Market and as a born and raised New Yorker, I couldn't agree more that New York has become a cookie cutter concept city that lacks the edge, diversity and personality of days gone by, but isn't this the case every where in our country? To essentially say that the coming of Hogs & Heifers in 1992 was the beginning of the end for the Meat Market is a bit severe. It's like saying Odeon was the beginning of the end of Tribeca or that Raoul's was to blame for the gentrification of SoHo. Hogs & Heifers couldn't be further from a gentrified business and it was a good 8-10 years after H&H opened before any real signs of gentrification crept in. As for opening a business in a neighborhood off the beaten path with cheap rents, that's the way most young people get started in business. We were not wealthy elitists capitalizing on the blood, sweat and tears of others hard work. Rather we were young, hard working, hands on operators who cared a great deal about the neighborhoods we worked and lived in. As for caring about the history of the neighborhood and fighting to save it from mass gentrification and residential encroachment, I can only say that Florent Morellet, Jo Hamilton and me formed a committee called M1-5 in the late 90's and we fought very hard for several years to fight off the gentrification of the Meat Market. I do not recall you or any other of the commentators of your blog, as being a part of that effort. It is always easier for people to jump on the band wagon of negativity instead of committing to the arduous task of working towards a common good. I have always had a deep love and respect for the diversity of the Meat Market and I miss the neighborhood it once was. Allan was a pioneer for sure, on many levels, as was Tom McNeil from the Village Idiot and to thumb your noise at that is ignorant and short sighted. You know one side of a story and seem to believe there is no other.

Michelle Dell Ramsey said...

This November Hogs & Heifers NYC will celebrate it's 21st birthday. I am proud to say that there are customers today who were customers in 1992 when the bar first opened. Unlike John K. Friedman, they did not abandon ship after 2 years when Hogs & Heifers became hugely popular, but rather shifted their visits to the coveted Sunday and Monday nights or daytime hours where old school ruled and friendships that have lasted 2 decades were forged. Not a single Hogs & Heifers bartender has ever been a bobble head, a bubblehead maybe, but never bobble heads. I am proud to say that the women who have worked for Hogs & Heifers over its 21 years are some of the most amazing, eclectic, well educated, cultured, open minded, hard working, vivacious, intelligent, funny and responsible women I have ever known and it has been and is an honor to work with them. I cannot defend everything Allan Dell ever said or did and would not try to, I can only say that your view of the history of the Meat market and the big bad wolf, Allan Dell and his evil empire Hogs & Heifers is lacking in accuracy and shy of a full picture by 90% of the pie. Hogs & Heifers Saloon NYC has raised a minimum of $20,000 annually, with some years upwards of $50,000 or more, to support local charitable organizations, many of them for children and families in desperate need. It has been a home and support system for the lost, forlorn, wacky, weird and outrageous and those who live on the fringes of society since its doors opened in 1992. It has always been an outpost for the outlaw in all shapes and sizes, just one that happens to be cool enough and fun enough for the mainstream to dig it as well. So as we come to the 21st year of business at Hogs & Heifers, we pay homage to the Meat Market of the past, and everyone who has a story to tell of their time spent, or singular moment that shaped our history. We survived the sudden and heartbreaking passing of Allan Dell in 1997, the "No Dancing" Task Force raid years, the loss of Restaurant Florent and Dizzy Izzy's, The Clit Club, the L.U.R.E., Robert Isabella, the changing of Washington and of 14th Street West of 9th to two way traffic, costly shut downs during 9-11 and recently Sandy, the onslaught of real gentrification and commercialization, and the destruction of the US economy and countless close calls in between. Pabst Blue Ribbon is still $2.00 and you can still shoot pool for $1.25. There are still countless classics on the old school jukebox and bar regulars who have worked in the neighborhood since before we opened. As for the Tranny Hookers, what can I say, Time Square is now Disneyland, Bleecker Street is now Marc Jacobsville, the East Village, Tribecca, the West Village and even Hell's Kitchen are high rent neighborhoods. Welcome to New York, the city has been changing since it began and will continue to change long after we are gone.

Yvonne B said...

You are quite right Jason, it was a very harsh life for some back then. While I don't reminisce about other people's pain, I do reminisce about my past and even though there was pain in my past, it was my past and my life I look back upon. I take the good and the bad as part of my life and try to think it wasn't all that bad. I knew some girls back then that died of aids cause of their life style. While I don't reminisce about their choices and what they did, I do remember the times we talked to each other, I enjoy that I knew them, even if it was for a short time. I look back in my past and want to remember everything, the good as well as the not too good. But my memory is very bad lately and I need sites like this to help me remember. Thanks Jason, you are right in what you say, I have nothing against what you said.

Jeremiah Moss said...

Michelle, I have no venom for Hogs and Heifers. I understand you taking issue with "faux," and that may or may not be the right word. The fact is, the bar did play a role in the changing of the Meatpacking District, just as Florent did, and it attracted celebrities, which always pushes forth gentrification. Those quotes are all from New York Magazine.

Jeremiah Moss said...

here's the link if you'd like to read the original article: http://bit.ly/1boSEd3

Anonymous said...

Yvonne, my comment was not directed to you at all. Your comment was one of the compassionate and thoughtful ones. I was referring to the comments implying that the prostitution scene there was amusing to them or just more of that ol' fading NYC charm. Anyone who has known a girl or boy who was forced into it at 12 years old would see it differently.

Just wanted to clear that up Yvonne. I'm in agreement with you.

Jeremiah Moss said...

Anon, my issue here is that the trans sex workers were treated like a nuisance by the newcomers, and by the police who worked for those newcomers. They were pushed out of an area in which they were part of the ecosystem, and they were pushed to places more dangerous, more marginal.

Also, I don't see sex work as an automatic evil. Many trans women who are unable to do "legit" work, due to discrimination and other issues, have successfully used sex work as a means to an end--to pay for surgeries, as well as rent, etc.

Ideally, sex work (performed by consenting adults) would be legal, and therefore potentially safer for those practicing it.

laura r. said...

michelle del ramsey: i enjoyed reading your history. as a 4th generation ny'er (yr 1900, lower east side), i understand your frustration. people only see part of the picture, it's usually from the perspective of moving to NY when they left college. few on this blog have any historical sence, & have no idea of who you are. in behalf of jeremiah, he did get his info from NYmag. maybe they were 1/2 correct, the celebraties brought the developers. (its not your fault).

Anonymous said...

Well can't say I miss these people. But yea, it's just a low and degenerate as it was 35 years ago. These STD'd up club goers and crappy attitudes are probably worse. LMAO. When I enter the Meatpacking these days I call it the dimension of HELL. LMAO>

Jarred Dickerson said...

I grew up on 15th street in the 70' s and 80 ' s and the meat packing was always where the tranny street walkers were. On the other side of the Chelsea projects is where the straight ones were. We called it shop rite. Miss those days, miss that New York. To hamodginiz d now.

Anonymous said...

I remember in the 90s there was always a huge biker sitting at the door to h&h .bouncer I guess .the trannies never went near that place .they would be around the corner .they were never out in the daytime..you were going to the bank at night?