Monday, March 1, 2010

Meatpacking 1997

In 1997, New York magazine published a 9-page cover story entitled The Wild West, which asked the question, "Can lawyers and club kids and drag queens and butchers find happiness together in Manhattan's meatpacking district?" (Note the lowercase M and D.)

Thirteen years later, we know the answer: No.

Written by Matt Pincus, it's quite a lengthy, detailed article, with lots of photos, and you can read it here via Google Books. It's one of those stories that holds in amber a moment of tremendous change, the kind you look back on and say, "Oh, so that's how it all began." And it was already a few years into the shift.

In the article, a 19-year-old prostitute and neighborhood local named Venus talks about how the coming gentrification had already “messed business up. There are a lot more yuppies with kids here now. I mean, we were here first, but I don’t want to be out here working with kids around.”

According to a meatpacker named DeStefano, the city leaders “don’t have time for us. They want everybody to wear a suit.” And meatman Adolf Kusy said, “The city’s giving us abuse. Greenwich Village is slowly creeping in from the east. Chelsea is coming south. They’d love to turn this into a new SoHo.”

photos: Christian Witkin; Daniela Stallinger

“But,” wrote Pincus, “it will take more than economic and political pressure to wash away the two centuries of blood that meatpackers have spilled on these streets.”

Sadly, he was wrong.

Still, there was a brief moment when it was all okay. When the Calvin Klein models and the interior designers co-existed peaceably with the transgender sex workers and leather boys, who all mixed well with the meatpackers. As one meatguy put it, “We’re unloading pigs, and the gays and whatnot are walking by. This is what makes New York great. I’m sitting in my office at 3 A.M., and the music from Jackie 60 vibrates through the floor, up my chair, and up my butt. It’s a great mix.”

The article notes the neighborhood’s still-thriving eccentrics. Like Andrew Crispo, a bankrupt art dealer acquitted of the Death Mask murder, a “night crawler with a proclivity for S&M.” There was “Gene, a curmudgeonly septuagenarian waitress with an airborne hairdo” and “her own cult following.” And someone called Tiny, “the tranny-chasing midget meat-worker and nightclub fixture.”

It was all there in 1997. A neighborhood still alive, still on the cusp. Apparently, it all could have gone in a very different direction.

photo: Christian Witkin, 1997

The porn industry was also looking to move in at that time. Wrote Alex Williams in a follow-up article in the same issue of New York, the future of the meatpacking district could have gone one of two ways: “It could be the next SoHo. It could be the next Eighth Avenue. The uncertainty is as exhilarating as it is scary.”

People weren’t so sure it could be another SoHo. Tom Duane worried about adult bookstores proliferating here. “How do you ‘gentrify’ a ‘meat market’?” asked Williams, “Who wants to step over bloody cow femurs in a new pair of Manolo Blahniks?”

We now know the answer to those questions, too, but at the time, they didn't have a crystal ball.

Said one meatpacker, “You ever been there at night? That’s not a shopping area. You wouldn’t put a Waldbaum’s there. In one place you get tied up and spanked. In another, you can get punished. That’s a neighborhood for people who are on the edge.”

my flickr, 2010

In 2010, that's no longer true. The meatpackers, leather queers, eccentrics, and transgender sex workers have been banished. Most recently, we saw the city tear down Novac Noury's bizarre funhouse, an eyesore in the Standard Hotel's view.

You know the rest of the story, I don't have to tell it. But just think of what might have been. What if the porn industry had moved in before 2000? What if the armies of Manolos never came marching over those bloody femurs? We might still have a piece of sexy, eccentric, mixed-up New York, right here in Manhattan.

my flickr

Also see:
Lenny in Leather
Men in Leather
Food Fetish Fight
Pigs in Shit


Mykola Dementiuk said...

They cleaned up the Meatpacking district as they did Times Square, the Bowery and the Lower East Side. There must have been some secret plan in all this redevelopment. This was definitely as bad as Robert Moses tearing up the Bronx and making those worthless highways. I can just imagine what the end plan will be. My God, Apocalypse Now...the horror...the horror...

Anonymous said...

"Cleaned up" is different from gentrification. What's happened is just sad.

Anonymous said...

It may have started under Giuliani but it was Bloomberg who set the conditions (and was able to sway with his money those who might have stood up to govt previously) that made it possible.

I used to live near there and it was magical and empty in places but very New York -- I used to bike ride around there. I think what was most important was the influence that area had on what surrounded it - keeping it in check in a sense.

Can any of that feeling, that vibe, the places that allow creativity and eccentricity ("old buildings," as jane jacobs said, allow for "new ideas") that is so New York return?

I was walking in the west 20's over the weekend and the # of parents with expensive strollers and children was astounding. Many of them seemed to be foreigners and yet they lived here clearly.

This is really all bigger than all of us and Bloomberg was the perfect Mayor to push it all through, the representative for the mega wealthy and developers and corporations.


Anonymous said...

For years, I lived south of the district. Early mornings, I would walk and take pictures; they resemble sets from a western movie. J, behind the buildings south of Pastis is the most interesting garden; hope it hasn't been destroyed. Heard about it for years then finally got a glimpse through a gate on Gansevoort.

Goodbye to all that.

BrooksNYC said...

Ha! Mykola, scarcely a week goes by when I don't quote that very line from "Apocalypse Now".

Depressingly, changes in the physical city aren't separate from who we are, what we value. NYC is mirroring contemporary America. What's happening here is happening in every city that was ever eccentric, edgy, or liberated enough to attract those who didn't fit into mainstream America.

Increasingly, our cities are all mainstream....from sea to shining sea.

Of course money has always called the shots in New York, and today's money is bland, soulless, and corporate.

I'd high-tail it to Berlin, but I'm old and poor.

"The horror...the horror"...couldn't have said it better myself.

Anonymous said...

R.I.P, Manhattan

Anonymous said...

I hear you on that "high tail it to Berlin" comment. I'm also old and poor but still hanging on in this new playground of the rich. It's a shame I'm also jobless.

Anonymous said...

It looks like Dubai.

The Takeout Wench. said...

It really does look like Dubai. Wow. What a horrifying thought.

Jeremiah Moss said...

true about Dubai.

what amazes me about this article is that there was actual doubt about the future of this neighborhood. the people in power were actually concerned it might not become what it is today.

today, there is no doubt--only maybe recently with the economic setbacks. but super-gentrification happens. bank on it. the Bowery, "Nolita," the LES, Harlem, Long Island City, Greenpoint, Bushwick...etc., etc.

the idea that "MePa" could have turned into a XXX destination, instead of Dubai on the Hudson, astounds me.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

I actually enjoyed that transitional period when this area had a different identity, depending on the time of day/night. It's really unfortunate that balance couldn't be sustained. I used to live in the area, but feel uncomfortable walking around there now, like an unwelcome stranger.

Ed said...

I agree with all the comments, particularly the first two, also Brooks' and Goggla's.

I also like these neighborhoods during the "transitional" times. What this tells me that you want to be in a neighborhood about two years before New York does an article on it, and leave maybe three years after.

First Times Square, then the Meatpacking District, then the Bowery, then the Lower East Side. The LES cleanup sort of began when they were doing the mopping up in the Meatpacking District. Its interesting that there is now no replacement for these places.

The museums are great, but pretty much I live in New York because I work here. Its just not that interesting a city anymore.

Roberta said...

Dubai on the Hudson indeed! I just finished Lethem's Chronic City and was stunned by how this story accurately chronicles the reality of life in NYC; the Meatpacking District feels borderline surreal to me, and not in a good way. Where's that tiger when you really need him?

Jonathan said...

It's sad that another centuries-old industry is being (has been?) run out of town. Pretty soon no one will actually work in Manhattan; every street will just be a soulless copy of every other street with a string of Gaps, Starbuckses and Duane Reades, all of them filled with tourists visiting an EPCOT-like facsimile of "New York."

We can only hope that the moronic frat boys will one day get tired of their "city plunge" (which will have consisted of living in a bubble-like luxury tower) and pack up their pink polo shirts and their insipid female counterparts, then head back to lesser cities like Boston and Philadelphia.

Clarke Thomas said...

it's quite depressing the lack of gritty-ness that lower Manhattan no longer has. SoHo was great in the mid to late 80s, when it was mostly warehouses with a few art galleries.

Parts of the LES & TriBeCa still offer glimpses of yesteryear, but they're still too clean.

The good is that the petty crime has disappeared, but Manhattan no longer has the charm it used to.

Unknown said...

reading this sends a shudder through me and gives me great sadness. I lived in the wild west, horatio street, for 5 years. 88-93
I loved it, going to hectors/florent for breakfast after clubs, sitting amongst the tranny hookers and bloodstained meatpackers then going home taking the dogs for a walk along the highway to see guys fooling around with each other on the piers. The Heart, spirit and soul of this city has been ripped out. The edgy artiness i moved here for has been sanitized away. After 27 years i feel like leaving i ddid not come here to live in a Mall

Unknown said...

I found this blog after searching for some 1990s NYC photos. I feel like a 4 years later update would be a nice touch to this post.
I currently work in the Meatpacking and can tell you it has been sad to have see it go from cutting edge, somewhat lawless mystical place were openminded people of nyc could go and just party, have fun, be themselves with others who were alike that wold then go eat breakfast next to tranny hookers as described by andrew, all while thinking 'This is why I moved to this place called NYC, mental freedom'.
Now the area has become sterile with Citibike racks, corporate retail chains, street cleaning and no parking rules, baby strollers and tourists of all ages aimlessly walking around looking for a place to have 'cappuccino' or 'beer' while wondering where the Highline begins.
At night time NJ and Long Island 20s years old trash descend to those same streets with woman horribly tightly dressed with tall stilettos, small hand bags, long straight overly dyed hair, trying to walk over the cobble stone streets tripping while their heads are buried in their cell phones and men with too much hair product hollering as they drive by in their BMWs they plucked for a night from their car club.
Manhattan has been dead for several years now. Not the Bowery, LES, Harlem, or any area in Manhattan can reclaim this title of what NYC was about from the 70's through the 90's.
The city has been overran by Vally like personalities who moved to these areas because they heard it was 'trendy', yet have quickly sanitized away the allure these areas had to offer to edgy people looking to escape their daily lives to live freely among fellow part goers.
Statements such as 'tourists visiting an EPCOT-like facsimile of "New York.' and 'My God, Apocalypse Now...the horror...the horror...' are true to the T.
The only ones to never understand where we are coming from are the fresh faces following the masses, looking for that chance to gobble up that expensive apartment that overlooks the Highline so they can post all over social media that they now live in this 'gritty, cobbled stone streets of the Meatpacking that is located in the West Village or Chelsea, right?'.
I wonder why they called it the Meatpacking...