Grit and Glamour Rediscovering the Meatpacking District

New Yorkers pride themselves on their ability to appreciate places and things that others often find dirty, oppressive, or just plain ugly. New York City itself is occasionally accused of being all three, yet New Yorkers remain fiercely loyal in defending their city against such slurs–after all, anybody who can’t see the beauty and glamour of Gotham through the haze of pollution, the din of traffic, and the crush of frenzied humanity just doesn’t get New York City. Those who do get it, however, can find beauty in the most unlikely places–and if they can’t find beauty, by heaven–they’ll at least find real estate. Nowhere is this more evident than in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, or MePa, as some brokers insist it’s becoming known. In the last 20 years, the neighborhood has gone from being a no-man’s land of drugs, filth, and abandoned warehouses to being some of the most sought-after real estate in the city.

Carcasses and Cobblestones

The Meatpacking District is a tiny enclave on Manhattan’s west side between the West Village and Chelsea. The area is only four blocks deep, bordered by the Hudson River on the west, 14th Street to the north, Ninth Avenue to the east, and the hard-to-find, hard-to-say Gansevoort Street to the south.

The district’s buildings are large and low–mostly cavernous, late 19th-century warehouses of red and brown brick, punctuated by soot-blackened windows and tangles of ductwork and drainage pipes. High-rises to the north and east cast long shadows across the narrow streets, many of which are paved with cobblestones laid down in the days when dozens of meat-cutting and processing plants were clustered along the Hudson.

From the turn of the century until the first World War, more than 100 meat wholesalers, packers, and cutters worked the district. As time passed, however, the nation’s economy shifted, and the chain of supply and demand that kept the meatpacking plants in business began to shorten. Refrigerated trucking and the further consolidation of the pasture-to-table process silenced dozens of meat-workers. By the late 1960s, the actual meatpacking plants and working warehouses left in the Meatpacking District had declined by nearly half–and the area went from being oppressive and distasteful to being straight-up dangerous.

Though a few dozen wholesalers and a few butcher shops still called the district home in the last quarter of the 20th century, the area’s legitimate activities tended to confine themselves to the hours between dawn and dusk. After dark, an entirely different element took over the narrow, twisting streets. Drug dealers peddled their wares to junkies and low-rent hustlers, and any pedestrian foolhardy enough to venture west of Ninth Avenue did so at their own risk. Far less dangerous, though perhaps no less intimidating to genteel Village dwellers and bourgeois uptown-types in the early 1970s, was the proliferation of transsexual prostitutes and gay leather bars in the area. Between about 1950 and 1990, the Meatpacking District was a place one went to get lost–or to find something not readily available anywhere else.

Couture and Cold Storage

Thus it is perhaps surprising that, in the early ‘90s, a handful of entrepreneurs began trickling past Ninth Avenue and taking up residence amongst the butcher shops. Drawn by the singular nature of the neighborhood, and perhaps smelling money beneath the aroma of aging beef, they began establishing businesses in the wasteland. For a while, the junkies and hookers remained, as did the die-hard, third- and fourth-generation meat merchants, but slowly, as if waiting for a signal that it was back on the map after its century of ignominy, the Meatpacking District began to change its face.

Unlike SoHo to the south, the rebirth of the Meatpacking District was not heralded by a wave of artists hungry for loft space and good light away from the been-there-done-that vibe of the Village proper. According to Edward Ferris of William B. May Company, the urban pioneers in MePa didn’t come armed with brushes and artistic vision, nor were they followed by high-end retailers and upscale bars and nightclubs. They were high-end retailers and upscale bars and nightclubs. Among the commercial newcomers to the district were edgy, fashion-forward shops, art galleries, and restaurants founded by some of the most ambitious entrepreneurs in New York City. More than two-dozen bars, clubs, and restaurant-lounges have dared to stake out territory in the former no-man’s land since the early 1990s.

Hellfire and Helmut Lang

Today, anchored in part by fine-dining fixtures like Keith McNally’s bistro Pastis and venerable neighborhood favorite Florent, MePa’s modest four blocks contain a broadly divergent assemblage of nightlife options serving every taste, from the suave austerity of Fressen, where patrons sip sake and scan the well-heeled crowd for supermodels, to the bombastic frat-party millieu of the infamous Hogs & Heifers, where female partygoers are encouraged to "donate" their brassieres to the collection hanging behind the bar. All points in between are covered as well, from "multimedia lounges" serving progressive hip-hop to underground nightspots so hip and exclusive that they have no names, no signs, and unlisted phone numbers. Most of the older, more ominous clubs are gone, but The Lure and The Hellfire Club still maintain a presence in the neighborhood and offer a glimpse of how things used to be down amongst the grit and grime.

The flurry of new commercial activity in the district has not by any means confined itself to nightlife. Among the new retail ventures occupying space in the area is Jeffrey on West 14th Street, a posh clothier for men and women, carrying the latest couture and footwear from the likes of Alexander McQueen, Helmut Lang, and Manolo Blahnik. Celebrated fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg maintains a luxury showroom here on West 12th Street, and art galleries like the Trans Hudson on West 13th have set up shop in spaces that no one but a vagrant would have considered fit for habitation ten years ago.

In what could be termed the "Reverse SoHo Effect," the insurgence of commercial tenants in the Meatpacking District has attracted a small contingent of full-time residents to the area. There have always been people living in the district, of course–but prior to the very late 1980s and early ‘90s, those who did make their homes in cramped walk-ups over butcher shops didn’t do it to cultivate urban chic or to make a philosophical point–they did it because they couldn’t afford to live anywhere else.

Now, however, that is changing, and changing fast. The people who choose to make their homes above the butcher shops and meat lockers now are as singular a group as the neighborhood they’ve chosen, says Ferris. "What separates the people who have a willingness to consider the Meatpacking District/Gansevoort Market area as a place to live from those who don’t is a sort of Bohemian, cutting-edge sensibility–and a more philosophical attitude toward death." Ferris, who brokers deals in the neighborhood and who lives a block away from it himself recalls a client who refused to consider buying in the district because, she said, she "could not live with death surrounding her" in the form of animal carcasses and the people who handle them.

Regardless of a prospective tenant’s personal philosophy and attitude toward puddles of congealed offal and ooze, the fact of the matter is that there are precious few legal residential spaces in the Meatpacking District itself. The vast majority of available spaces are privately owned and rented by independent owner/landlords. Of the three or four co-ops and condos in the general vicinity of MePa proper, only one–652 Hudson St.–actually overlooks the neighborhood. The Hudson Street building, which converted to a co-op in 1972 and is one of the oldest in the Village, has borne witness to MePa’s changing affect in more ways than one; along with the area’s cultural metamorphosis has come a 150 percent increase in the value of the co-op’s apartments in the last ten years alone. A 3000 square-foot loft that sold for $300,000 to $400,000 in the mid-to-late 80s commands a price of around $2.5 million now, according to Ferris, and other similar spaces in the area are comparable in price to property on the Upper East and West Sides. Forget the gory cobblestones–the numbers paint a very clear picture of how far the Meatpacking District has come.

Gentrification vs. Grit

With reclamation and gentrification come drawbacks, however. For every luxury bar and restaurant that opens, rents go up and space becomes more and more a precious commodity. What few meat wholesalers and long-time residents are left in the district fear for their livelihood as it becomes clearer each year that raw square footage is worth more than raw beef. The people who moved to the Meatpacking District first for its anonymity and affordability are finding themselves priced out of the market and having to navigate through crowds of cell phone-toting socialites and up-towners who’ve come down for a night of pseudo-slumming in one of Manhattan’s few remaining pockets of real urban grit.

James Tumminello, a resident of the Meatpacking District since February of 2000, expresses the sentiments of many who’ve watched the hipster invasion: "I was looking for a place in the West Village that was off the beaten path, but still very accessible from subways–as well as to restaurants and bars. I was also interested in living closer to Chelsea for the same reasons. The Meatpacking District was perfectly positioned, but now there’s no real mystique left to the neighborhood–no edge. Aside from the gritty, unsafe feeling one might get from its external appearance at night, MePa is just as safe and ordinary as any other place in the Village or Chelsea. The trannie hookers have almost all been evacuated. The fetish club Mother closed its doors over a year ago, and the only bikers frequenting Hogs & Heifers on a Saturday night ride ten-speeds, not Harleys."

Though MePa settlers of a certain age and social sensibility might breathe a sigh of relief at not having to navigate through crowds of gender-nonspecific club kids of an evening just to get to their front door, it is with a certain wistfulness that residents like Tumminello recall what the area used to be like, and speculate on what it may become in the wake of Manhattan’s "Disneyfication."

"Everything that originally started the buzz around MePa–the obscurity, the gritty, unpolished atmosphere, the freaks lining up for some club’s theme night–are all but gone," says Tumminello. "What’s left is like a little bit of ordinary SoHo mixed with a little bit of ordinary Village."

Preserve, Protect–and Profit

All may not be lost for MePa’s gritty charms, however. A concerned group of New Yorkers–among them several of the entrepreneurs perceived by some to be driving forces behind the district’s sanitization–are lobbying the city to declare the district’s four rambling blocks an official Historic Preservation District. Such a designation would at the very least protect the area’s old brick buildings and might also bar developers from ousting long-time residents and the three-dozen or so remaining meat packing companies to lay claim to their valuable space. The call to save the Meatpacking District has not fallen on deaf or dispassionate ears; social luminaries like Furstenberg and McNally have lent their names and dollars to the preservation efforts, hosting gala fundraising events and speaking on behalf of the neighborhood that has become their home.

As for how the realtors and brokers feel, Ferris has this to say: "What we’re seeing is the Meatpacking District in transition. They [realtors] don’t really have anything to represent–yet. I think the brokerage community is pretty much waiting with baited breath to see what happens with the efforts to preserve the historical integrity of the area–and that all depends on the zoning commissioner who handles the proposal." There will be a new zoning commissioner with the new Mayor this fall, and it is he or she who will decide the fate of the Meatpacking District.

If the preservationists have their way–and they very well may have it–the wholesale gentrification of the Meatpacking District may be stemmed by the very people who started gentrifying in the first place. "It’s an historically important, very intriguing area–and that’s good reason to keep it as it is," says Ferris. Urban grit saved from sanitization by luxury retailers, real estate brokers, and restauranteurs? The very idea exemplifies another quality possessed by New Yorkers who get it: irony.

Ms. Fons is associate editor of The Cooperator.

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