Blood on the Street, and It's Chic
By MICHAEL BRICK
September 11, 2003
Michael Diamond walked past the trucks for Woolco, Sysco and the meat purveyors yesterday as he crossed Little West 12th Street. A famed rap performer and Spiritual Guy, he is the obligatory Beastie Boy on hand to assure the followers of fashion eating brunch at outdoor cafes that they had arrived at the scene of a scene.
It was another day in Gansevoort Market, a neighborhood described by its boosters as "gritty." Though the streets are still cobblestone and in some places covered in the blood of cattle, the century-old meat markets have in recent years lost some ground to other sorts of meat markets:, nightclubs and boutiques patrolled by skinny women and men with expensive sunglasses.
Gritty sells, though. Gritty evokes a New York of gangs and huddling masses, and it attracts filmmakers and clubgoers seeking a veneer of danger. So the owners of disparate businesses in this neighborhood have formed an unlikely alliance to preserve certain parts of the market's appearance. This week, they won designation by the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission for a historic district in an area bordered by 14th and 15th Streets on the north, Horatio Street on the south, West Street on the west and Hudson Street on the east.
The district's borders are a puzzle piece in part because this is a neighborhood where the streets of the old Greenwich Village grid collide at a 45-degree angle with those of the Manhattan grid. The designation requires approval by the commission for any significant alterations to the facades of buildings within the boundaries.
Perhaps the most readily apparent examples of the neighborhood's distinctive architecture are the metal awnings jutting out from the brick facades, put here to provide shade and an anchor for the pulleys that workers use to load carcasses from trucks to warehouses.
"It has a completely unique sense of place," said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, a group that worked to secure the designation. "It's for that reason that it's become popular in recent years. The trick is not to kill the goose that lays the golden egg."
Mr. Berman has found allies in the meatpacking unions and restaurant owners, who have collectively decided that the goose-killers they have in mind are developers of residential real estate.
Already at the spot where the cobblestone of Gansevoort Street meets the asphalt of Hudson Street, there rises a sleek silver exoskeleton with panels befitting a spaceship and balconies too small for chairs, a project of the Hotel Gansevoort Group of Garden City. On the western side of the market, the developer Stephen Touhey has proposed a 32-story luxury building to straddle the old High Line railroad.
The historic designation, Mr. Touhey said, will not affect his plans because his battlefield is at the Department of City Planning, which oversees zoning.
"My plan has always been to build a building that fits in with the historic architecture of the neighborhood," Mr. Touhey said, adding that his plans were changing to build something more like a hotel than a condominium building.
The business owners-cum-preservationists say they do not want people to live here because residents would inevitably complain about the traffic and the noise and the mess that industry produces.
Florent Morellet, owner of the restaurant that bears his first name and a chief campaigner for the historic district designation, conceded that he himself made residential development appealing by opening a French bistro among the warehouses.
"Progress is inevitable," Mr. Morellet said. "What I'm trying to do with this is to try to channel it."
There were no historic districts to channel development and change a century ago, when this district actually was residential. People moved into tenements here in the 1820's to escape epidemics in what was then the main part of New York. The neighborhood shifted to become a market, first for produce and, after the development of reliable refrigeration, for meat. Gansevoort Market became a commercial district, its looks of concern to few.
Walmir Meats is among the meatpackers that still operate here. Its owners and unions joined the campaign for a historic district.
"Nothing ever stays the same," said Raymond DeStefano, shop steward at Walmir for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 342. "But when they're squeezing you out and you could only buy a hot dog in a boutique, that's what it all boils down to."
Mr. DeStefano said that the smell of the block is in his blood and in the cobblestone. He stood under a series of hooks as he said this, and bleeding hindquarters and forequarters swung around his head, producing the smell he spoke of.
Walmir Meats is cold. DÃ©cor is limited to a small plastic cow, picture postcards of skiers and a portrait of Miss September pulling at her teddy as if it is full of sand.
"Once this is gone, this whole block is gone," Mr. DeStefano said.
Signs abound of the delicate balance between true grit and those using grit as a backdrop to underscore their beauty. Across from Western Beef, there is a series of stores each selling the wares of a different Western European designer, with a maximum of five outfits on display in the middle of a wide space, smooth surfaces and inventive lighting. Lampposts jut out from the old brick facades. Four of them atop the Rio Mar restaurant illuminate an outsized billboard featuring a woman standing next to a printed name, offering a pouting glare to the diners across the street as if to say "Look but don't touch" or perhaps "I have recently watched the film `AmÃ©lie.' " It is unclear what the billboard is selling, but the model's clothes are a solid bet.
"The charm is that it's so diverse," said Birgitte West, a vice president of Bodum, a Danish purveyor of household goods that is converting a meatpacking warehouse into a call center to sell fancy kitchenware on the Internet. "It does smell of meat in the morning."
The Meatpacking District has now been granted offical landmark status by the powers that be. But with everything that once made that neighborhood interesting either gone completely or stifled by the tidal wave of bottle service assholes, does the title really matter?