New York City, known for being a melting pot of different cultures and people, is no stranger to unique neighborhoods rich with significant relevance. Despite the vast number of neighborhoods to choose from, no other neighborhood peaked my interest as much as the Meatpacking District. Known by the official name as the Gansevoort Market Historic District, or the most recent nickname of “Mepa,” the Meatpacking District has quickly transformed itself into one of New York’s trendiest and most expensive areas, yet it has miraculously managed to hold onto most of its original charm.
The Meatpacking District lies just below Chelsea and is roughly bounded by West 16th Street to the north, Gansevoort Street to the south, the Hudson River to the west, and Hudson Street to the east. The neighborhood can be located just as the irregular street pattern of Greenwich Village meets with the grid pattern of the 1811 Commissioner’s Plan. Gansevoort derives its name from the early 1800s, when the street was a Fort controlled by one of George Washington’s officers, General Peter Gansevoort. The area’s distinctive architecture and layout represent the transformation it has undergone from residential, to commercial and industry.
Beginning in the 1840s, buildings were erected as rowhouses and townhouses, with most developing into working-class tenements. Unlike most other neighborhoods at the time, the area consisted of tenement buildings, single-family homes, and industry, proving to be unusual, as mixed-use neighborhoods were rare for that time period. The industry in the area was not always primarily meatpacking; in the post-Civil War era, a variety of businesses flourished including cotton printers, breweries, and woodworking factories. However, the major burst in development did not come until 1880, when the Gansevoort Market and the West Washington Market were developed. These markets dominated the industry in the district, with the Gansevoort selling regional produce and the West Washington Market selling meat, poultry, and dairy products. According to the WPA Guide to New York City, farmers from all over the tri-state region would come to the markets to sell their food as “commission merchants, pushcart vendors, and restaurant buyers [trudged] warily from one stand to another, digging arms into baskets of fruits or vegetables to ascertain quality.” As the markets spurred growth, so did the developments commissioned by the Astor family. These developments, constructed with a neo-Classical style, eventually became prime development for warehouses specializing in produce and meat handling.
The Gansevoort and West Washington Markets proved to be the instigators in the Meatpacking Districts’ future as a major produce and meat-handling neighborhood. Between 1894 and 1910, the Gansevoort and Chelsea Piers were built by the New York City Department of Docks, resulting in even more of an attraction to the area by major distributors of wholesale foods. By 1906 the Manhattan Refrigeration Company operated a power plant and nine warehouses throughout the neighborhood, and had also invented an innovative underground pipe system that could carry refrigeration to many of the businesses in the area. The refrigeration systems and the newly developed docks helped to build the neighborhood into one of the largest districts of wholesale meat, poultry, and seafood distribution. As the district’s industry grew, the need for more warehouse development grew. Unlike most neighborhoods, where residential buildings were torn down when commercial buildings were needed, most of the early residential buildings in the area remained intact and were converted into commercial warehouses. In 1934, the New York Central Railroad’s elevated freeway was completed, improving distribution efforts further and creating a safer atmosphere for transporting meat and poultry to the slaughterhouses. By the end of World War II, the Meatpacking District’s meat and poultry industry had become what the district was known for and was home to about 250 slaughterhouses.
Soon enough, the benefits of the Meatpacking District were overshadowed by newer, more efficient, and more cost-effective forms of distribution. In the 1960s, the shipping industry in the Hudson River ports declined, and by 1979 the Manhattan Refrigeration Company closed its doors. As the 1956 interstate highway system developed the trucking industry, the High Line’s use as a railroad system was discontinued in 1980. Due to the demise of the industry in the Meatpacking District, the neighborhood soon became home to drugs and prostitution. With many empty warehouses and not much patrol of the area, the Meatpacking District became known for its sex clubs and risqué activity. According to an article in Caribbean Posh magazine, the area “was one of the best places to find sin in New York City.” Fortunately for the neighborhood, the city realized the potential of the districts’ location and as a result, combated the major drug and prostitution issues. Karen Lashinsky, owner of a building that was formerly a sausage factory in the district, bought the property in the 1990s with hopes that “the elevator shaft [would] become a sky-lighted atrium, the derelict windows [would] become French doors leading onto a narrow balcony and the shutters restored [would become] reminders of a brick building that started life as a house—and will be once again.” Now, the Meatpacking District is full of upscale properties including townhouses formerly owned by Diane Von Furstenberg, and the swanky Standard Hotel.
Although many of the meat and poultry plants shut down their businesses, the Meatpacking District did not disappear; in fact, it is currently one of New York’s trendiest neighborhoods. According to New York Magazine, the Meatpacking District is “chock-full of hip restaurants, expensive clubs, and paycheck-draining boutiques.” There still remains a small number of wholesale meat companies who operate their businesses within the district (about 30), but “by night, however, the district is transformed, as butchers and meat-cutters disappear, and magazine editors, models, and a stream of Sarah Jessica Parker look-alikes take their place.” The neighborhood houses many of the fashion industries’ greatest, the restaurant industries’ most delicious, and the club industries’ most extravagant. Comparable to Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles, the Meatpacking District is now famous for high fashion. With boutiques such as Stella McCartney, Jeffrey, and Alexander McQueen, the shopping in the area is not exactly suitable for those who do not hold an American Express black card in their wallets. The vibrant nightlife will leave you entertained, but for a steep price. Clubs like celebrity hot-spot STK attract a lively crowd, but a cocktail will set you back at least $15. Due to the businesses that the area has attracted, community leaders have begun to transform the area into a more pedestrian friendly destination. In 2005, the Greater Gansevoort Urban Improvement Project began to address safety concerns of pedestrians, and underwent a project to create a public piazza at Little West 12th Street. According to “Now Chelsea,” the project began as “recognition that the Meatpacking District was moving farther away from its traditional uses and toward a new identity as a center for nightlife and upscale shopping, with all the traffic that accompanies such a change.” The piazza gives pedestrians an area to park their bikes and take a rest on one of the public benches, amidst planters and several art installations.
Although the Meatpacking District has evolved over the past 150 years, the neighborhood still maintains some of its original charm. Aside from the architecture and cobblestone roads, about 30 meatpacking companies still operate their businesses in the district. In 2003, New York City’s Landmarks Preservation Committee deemed the neighborhood a historic district, officially naming it the Gansevoort Market Historic District. In order to maintain the historical quality of the neighborhood, the Meatpacking District Improvement Association was created “to redesign, manage and maintain the public spaces of our neighborhood, while continuing to represent and promote the area’s business interests, produce events and manage a marketing and public relations campaign for the neighborhood.” In 1999, Joshua David and Robert Hammond founded Friends of the High Line, at a time when the High Line structure was in danger of demolition. The organization was able to preserve the High Line as a 1.45 mile-long area of public space. Walking down the High Line on a sunny summer afternoon, you will be hard-pressed to find New Yorkers or tourists badmouthing the public park. Many are impressed by the genius use of green space in the city dubbed “the concrete jungle.”
Before I had the opportunity to walk around the Meatpacking District and experience it for myself, I believed that it would be all glitz and glamour. My picture of the neighborhood was primarily formed from the perspective of the Sex and the City characters. Whether Samantha was bragging about her trendy new Meatpacking District apartment, or the four girls were dining on upscale cuisine at Buddakan for Carrie and Big’s rehearsal dinner, the Meatpacking District seemed like a place for only the rich and the fabulous. While the neighborhood is nowhere short of fabulous, I was pleasantly surprised that despite all of the expensive restaurants and fancy nightclubs, the area has a charm that not many other areas of the city can claim. I feel as if I am transformed from the hustle and bustle of the Big Apple when I walk down the quiet cobblestone streets. There aren’t many places in the world where you can find “Weischel Beef Co.” on the same street as Diane Von Furstenberg’s swanky boutique, but there is also nowhere else in New York City where I would rather spend my time.
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