From Offal to Awe-ful: Re-branding the Meatpacking District

Forgive the awful triplicate pun, if you can, and step back in time for just a moment. If we were to take some fashionable New Yorkers from 1986, shove them into a DeLorean, then shuttle them to 2016, can anyone imagine their shock if this were the first thing they saw once they stepped outside?
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"Unlock the experience," it says on a flag attached to a streetlight. And, at the top of the flag: "Meatpacking District".

So is this banner hinting at a certain experience, in a district that is so customarily associated with meatpacking that it serves as its name? What sort of experience can one expect to encounter in a meatpacking district, besides certain lingering, noisome miasma from Upton Sinclair's The Jungle? Does meatpacking in New York smell that much sweeter than Sinclair's Chicago?

Apparently. And just about every New Yorker knows it--as would anyone else who has visited this tiny Manhattan neighborhood overlooking the Hudson, south of Chelsea. Only the unfamiliar would cling to images of discarded boxes, glistening with moist viscera, flies teeming around neglected residual carrion. Such a notion is as extravagant as the prose I used to evoke it. Replace the buzz of insects and rotting meat with the hum of commerce and Patek Philippe. That is the reality of the Meatpacking District today. So flags/banners that tout the "experience" of this district are completely in sync with the mystique it hopes to elicit. And they're everywhere.
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But it wasn't always like this. As recently as the 1950s, this "neighborhood" (if you could even call it that) teemed with slaughterhouses and packing plants, while hosting a variety of other manufacturing-related businesses, thanks to the nearby freight yards of the Hudson River Railroad. As a logistical center, it quite understandably failed to command the high residential real estate prices that one might find in Greenwich Village to the immediate south, instead encouraging the aggregation of nuisance-type uses: distilleries, fuel refineries, and, by the turn of the 20th century, a lively market for the processing and trade of meat, poultry and dairy.

In the 1960s, containerized freight served as the new logistical standard, allowing each hub to serve a greater populace. The new warehouses inevitably required much larger acreage for consolidating and then distributing produce to a rapidly dispersing suburban population. Thus, cheap land near Newark and Jersey City (the Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal) supplanted the Meatpacking District for key operations. Over 90% of the 200+ meatpacking plants left the District, and the area, never high-rent, failed to find a successive industry. It quickly became the epicenter of Manhattan's seediest underground nightclub, BDSM and prostitution scene, which characterized the neighborhood until the late 1990s, when it rapidly evolved into the center for emergent, high-end design. By the early 2000s, even as the stench of semi-processed meat wafted from the doors of the few remaining vendors, the Meatpacking District had turned to the city's most fashionable neighborhood, featuring clubs, restaurants and boutiques characteristically (and predictably) labeled as "edgy"--and steadily climbing rental rates.

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In short, The Meatpacking District now carries the mantle previously claimed by West Village, SoHo, Chelsea, and other neighborhoods that birthed a new phoenix from the ashes of their own desuetude. For the time being, it may be the hippest eight blocks in the Borough of Manhattan, though inevitably it will eventually relinquish its crown and scepter. Until it does, the neighborhood's Business Improvement District (BID) helps foster a spirit of boosterism that the many would argue the neighborhood doesn't need: after all, it already is the hot ticket. If anything, the BID embodies an Icarus-like ambition to promulgate the neighborhood's jurisdiction into territory that never once had anything do due with the wholesale processing and trade of meat. How do we know this? Just take a look at what Google Maps considers the neighborhood boundaries, outlined in red:
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Now compare that to the turf that the Meatpacking District BID claims.
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More than twice the size. And the proof is in the pudding: travel the streets of the periphery of The Meatpacking District, and you'll still see those flags fixed to various streetlights. Like this one:
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The building stock certainly doesn't suggest The Meatpacking District, and most people who live at Horatio and Greenwich Street would identify their low-slung townhomes as a part of West Village. But this Fall 2014 Google Street View of a different corner at the same intersection indicates that The Meatpacking District's efforts to expand at the fringe are ongoing. And it's not just taking place at the border with the West Village. To the north, where the District abuts the Chelsea neighborhood, the same branding efforts appear through flags and banners on streetlights.
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They're everywhere. With the momentum The Meatpacking District has been enjoying for the last two decades, does it really need the additional branding? After all, the tiny neighborhood also boasts the recent relocation of the Whitney Museum of American Art...
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...as well as the southern terminus of the High Line Park, just a stone's throw from the Whitney.
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And, crammed into the remaining space where Gansevoort Street meets the riverfront, a few telltale indicators of the neighborhood's carnivorous heritage survive:
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The transformation of one of Manhattan's least habitable neighborhoods into its most chic is only surprising to those who are unattuned to the interplay between shifting collective tastes and real estate. Like SoHo and many others before it, The Meatpacking District had to sink to unprecedented depths to give it a wide enough berth to rise. For close to a century, it was essentially the crotch of Manhattan, wedged between two mostly residential neighborhoods of West Village and Chelsea, harboring locally unwanted land uses like meat processing, and, eventually, a facility for the Department of Sanitation and a parking lot for garbage trucks. They're still close by.
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In spite of it all, when housing commanded such astronomical prices across most of Lower and Midtown Manhattan, this smelly little triangle became the one place cheap enough to encourage risky enterprise, pushing fashion, studio art, and the purveying of goods to new limits that would be impossible in SoHo because the rent is too dang high. Needless to say, the District's reputation for iconoclasm has outlasted its affordability. It's no cheaper than Chelsea or West Village anymore--in fact, it's probably pricier--but the charm fostered by a tiny neighborhood's rise from underground bondage clubs to gourmet children's food survives...or, at least, that's the mystique all those flags and banners hope to perpetuate.

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The Meatpacking District is the putative center of haute couture in Manhattan at the moment (or at least its cheerleaders assert it to be), but I'm probably showing my own naïveté in making this claim. No doubt, among certain circles of people far more beautiful than I am, the neighborhood is already passé. And in another thirty years, who knows where it will be: Harlem, Greenpoint (Brooklyn) or Jackson Heights (Queens) for that matter? SoHo again? I could attempt a blog article of what I think the successor to the Meatpacking District might be, but it's up to the impecunious bohemians to christen it in an ostensibly organic way--and then for the real estate speculators to capitalize.

Eventually we'll hoist those banners: "Yonkers: Experience and Indulge."

A longer version of this article originally appeared in the author's personal blog, American Dirt. All photos taken by the author.