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, quit the work. It's impossible to say. All we really know is that they're not a part of the High Line views.
Meatpacking Before & After
Life in the Triangle