Meatpacking to Chicpacking
The Meatpacking District earned its name when it began developing into an industrial center in the early 1800s. By the turn of the 20th century, rows of open-air meat markets, pork and veal packers, meatpacking plants, lumberyards and tenements lined the cobblestone streets. Rumor has it there was even a “Cow Tunnel,” though the exact location changes depending on who you hear it from. The neighborhood also became known for drug sales and prostitution, a far cry from the Meatpacking District of today. “If you had said 20 years ago that the Meatpacking District is going to be a cultural hub, people would have looked at you like you were in some kind of beef-induced overdose haze and you had lost your mind,” said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn in a seven-minute mini-documentary called “The Meatpacking District: Past Present Future”.
Nightlife came to the Meatpacking District in the 1960s, when some of NYCs first underground gay clubs and the (now closed) 24-hour French-American diner, Florent, opened, attracting a subculture of clubbers and artists. Since Florent was one of the only eateries around, (and open 24 hours), it became a major attraction to the night crowd. In 1999, restaurateur and cultural trendsetter Keith McNally opened the wildly popular french bistro Pastis, which became the go-to for fashionistas, jet-setters, neighborhood brunchers and the post club party set. Already a hot spot, Pastis became instantly famous after making a cameo on Sex and the City. The restaurant remained an anchor for the ever-evolving neighborhood until it closed for renovations in 2014. The fate of the iconic restaurant remains unknown, though allegedly will reopen once renovations are complete.
Seeing the popularity of the neighborhood as it became a cultural locale, developers flocked to the area through the 1990s to construct office lofts and high-end retail spaces. “I’ll never forget when the neighborhood started to transition,” said Michelle Dell, owner of Hogs & Heifers Saloon, “with the women rolling around in their Jimmy Choos and their Guccis, kind of slipping and sliding in these streets that were covered in this thin film of meat sludge.”
According to the New York Times, the neighborhood is on the cusp of another transformation. Samsung is moving in to a six-story flagship building at 837 Washington Street, and developers are working on some new, glassy office towers. On May 1st, the Whitney Museum of American Art’s new building will open along the High Line, attracting more tourist traffic. In an effort to become a more modernized neighborhood, the Meatpacking District may be compromising its historic character. “This next stage of its evolution to a high-end office district I fear will make the meatpacking district feel even more indistinguishable from Midtown,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “It’s going to have a huge impact on the market,” said Steven Rotter, a managing director at Jones Lang LaSalle. “A lot more companies are going to see that this is a great place to work now.” The narrative of the Meatpacking History may have begun quite differently from other neighborhoods, but the tendency towards constructing naturally lit, glass-facade, luxury buildings is blurring the neighborhood lines.