The Meatpacking District is a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Manhattan which runs roughly from West 14th Street south to Gansevoort Street, and from the Hudson River east to Hudson Street, although recently it is sometimes considered to have extended north to West 16th Street and east beyond Hudson Street.
The earliest development of the area now known as the Meatpacking District came in the mid-19th century. Before that it was the location of Fort Gansevoort, and the upper extension of Greenwich Village, which had been a vacation spot until overtaken by the northward movement of New York City. The irregular street patterns in the area resulted from the clash of the Greenwich Village street system with that of the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, which sought to impose a regular grid on the undeveloped part of Manhattan island.
Construction of residences in the neighborhood – primarily rowhouses and town houses, some of which were later converted into tenements – began around 1840, primarily in the Greek Revival style which was prominent at the time. By mid-century, with Fort Gansevoort replaced by freight yards of the Hudson River Railroad, a neighborhood developed which was part heavy industry, and part residential – a pattern which was more typical of an earlier period in the city’s history, but was becoming less usual, as industry and residences began to be isolated in their own districts. In the western portion of the neighborhood, heavy industry such as iron works and a terra cotta manufacturer could be found, while lighter industry such as carpentry and woodworking, lumber yards, paint works, granite works and a plaster mill blended into the residential area. At the time of the Civil War the part of the district west of Ninth Avenue and Greenwich Street and above 10th Street was the location of numerous distilleries making turpentine and camphene, a lamp fuel.
After the Civil War
When development began again after the war in the 1870s, the tenor of the neighborhood changed. Since it was no longer considered to be a desirable area to live in, construction of single family residences was replaced with the building of multiple-family dwellings, and the continued internal industrialization increased. In addition, an elevated railroad line had been constructed through the neighborhood along Ninth Avenue and Greenwich Street, completed in 1869. Additional development began in the 1880s when two new markets began operating in the area. On the old freight yards, the Gansevoort Market (originally the “Farmer’s Market”), an open-air space for the buying and selling of regional produce started in 1879, and the West Washington Market, 10 brick buildings used for meat, poultry and dairy transactions, relocated to the river side of West Street in 1884. By 1900, the area was home to 250 slaughterhouses and packing plants, and by the 1920s, what had been a neighborhood based on mixture of marketplaces became more tightly focused on meatpacking and related activities – although other industries continued to be located there, including cigar-making, transportation-related businesses such as automobile repair, express services and garages, import-export firms, marine supplies, cosmetics, printing and many other. After decades of debate, the High Line elevated freight line was authorized in 1929 as part of the “West Side Improvement Plan”, and the New York Central Railroad completed construction, passing through the neighborhood, in 1934.
Decline and resurgence
The area’s decline began around the 1960s, as part of the general decline of the waterfront area. Containerization of freight; the advent of supermarkets which changed the distribution pattern for meat, dairy and produce from a locally or regionally based system to a more national one; and the development of frozen foods and refrigerated trucks to deliver them were all factors in this, but meatpacking continued to be the major activity in the neighborhood through the 1970s. At the same time a new “industry”, nightclubs and other entertainment and leisure operations catering to a gay clientele began to spring up in the area.
In the 1980s, as the industrial activities in the area continued their downturn, it became known as a center for drug dealing and prostitution, particularly involving transsexuals. Concurrent with the rise in illicit sexual activity, the sparsely populated industrial area became the focus of the city’s burgeoning BDSM subculture; over a dozen sex clubs – including such notable ones as The Anvil, The Manhole, the Mineshaft, and the heterosexual-friendly Hellfire Club – flourished in the area. Many of these establishments were under the direct control of the Mafia or subject to NYPD protection rackets. In 1985, The Mineshaft was forcibly shuttered by the city at the height of AIDS preventionism.
Beginning in the late 1990s, the Meatpacking District went through a transformation. High-end boutiques catering to young professionals and hipsters opened, including Diane von Fürstenberg, Christian Louboutin, Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, Barbour, Rubin Chapelle, Theory, Ed Hardy, Puma, Moschino, ADAM by Adam Lippes, and an Apple Store; restaurants such as Pastis and 5 Ninth; and nightclubs such as Tenjune. In 2004, New York magazine called the Meatpacking District “New York’s most fashionable neighborhood”.
By 2003 only 35 of the 250 slaughterhouses and packing plants present a century earlier remained in the area.
In September 2003, after three years of lobbying by the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) and its Save Gansevoort Market Task Force of neighbors and allies, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC) established the Gansevoort Market Historic District. The LPC granted only part of the group’s request: the new district excluded the neighborhood’s waterfront, and the restrictions associated with the designation did not apply to the 14-story luxury hotel (the Hotel Gansevoort) which opened in April 2004. In 2007 New York State Parks Commissioner Carol Ash approved adding the entire Meatpacking District, not just the city-designated Gansevoort Market Historic District, to the New York State and National Registers of Historic Places. The district was listed on the National Register on May 30, 2007 with 140 buildings, two structures, and one other site included.
Since the historic district was designated, threats to the “sense of place” meant to be preserved have continued to crop up. In 2004, GVSHP led a successful fight against a 450-foot-high proposed tower at 848 Washington Street, just over the district’s border, which would have been permitted by a change in Department of Buildings policy. In 2009, developers proposed a glass-walled office tower and retail space for 437 West 13th Street that was larger than zoning allowed. GVSHP strongly opposed the project, as the sense of openness in the area would be diminished and the low-scale character of the neighborhood would be eroded. In the end, the developers were not granted all of the variances that they had hoped for, but a glass tower will be built. In 2013 the New York City Council approved a plan to dramatically increase the size of the Chelsea Market complex — outside the Historic District, but within the National Register District — without sufficiently protecting its unique retail character, over the opposition of GVSHP and neighborhood allies. In 2014, however — in line with the repeated requests of GVSHP and other advocates — the city’s Board of Standards and Appeals denied a developer’s application for zoning variances to make a planned large building at 40-56 Tenth Avenue (between 13th and 14th Streets) even larger. One visible traditional feature that still remains are streets paved with Belgian blocks, often referred to, erroneously, as “cobblestones”.
A major change in the area was the opening in June 2009 of the first segment of the High Line linear park. A former elevated freight railroad built under the aegis of Robert Moses, it opened to great reviews in the District (and in Chelsea to the north) as a greenway modeled after Paris’s Promenade Plantée. Thirteen months earlier the Whitney Museum of American Art had announced it would build a second, Renzo Piano-designed home on Gansevoort Street, just west of Washington Street and the southernmost entrance to the High Line. This was a turning point in the incredible change experienced by the neighborhood over the first decade of the 21st century, when it transformed from an often empty-feeling manufacturing district to a bustling high-end retail, dining and residential area, as documented by photographer Brian Rose in his 2014 book “Metamorphosis.”