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Last of the Pack: Inside the beefy heart of the Meatpacking District

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meat Photo Credit: amny

amNewYork goes inside the vanishing world of the meatpackers -- and the hip neighborhood that has blossomed around it -- in Thursday's City Living. Pick up a copy that features extensive photography by amNY photo editor RJ Mickelson, who enjoyed unfettered access to the remaining meat operations. See the paper now by clicking HERE. Scroll to pages 22 through 27. Read the stories below.

 

From tiny cooler units to vast warehouses, the meatpacking operations on Manhattan's West Side once numbered in the hundreds. Today, fewer than a dozen butchering businesses share the Belgian-block streets with some of the city’s trendiest clubs, restaurants and galleries.

“The meat business,” said third-generation meatpacker John Jobbagy, “will be what it is now, at the very most.”

A new neighborhood

The transformation from bustling market to ultra-chic neighborhood began in the 1970s with nightclubs, sex clubs and the residential conversion of a historic building, said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation.

By 2003, when Michael Angelo began discussing a lease for his Wonderland Beauty Parlor, change was well under way.

“It was really at this moment in the Meatpacking District where everybody was figuring out what it was going to be. Pastis was here, Jeffrey was here, Florent of course was always here, and outside of that I think the neighborhood was still pretty bare bones,” said Angelo, who became enamored with MePa in the ’80s, when he described it as being “legitimately cool.”

Hector’s Cafe opened in 1949, when the only cool things around were meat lockers. In seven years, meatpackers went from generating 60 percent of Hector’s business to 10 percent, said manager Nick Kapelonis.

The Standard Hotel towers above Hector’s, and some meat plants that were open a few years ago await retail revivals.

“There are some wonderful galleries, stores, restaurants,” said Berman. But some changes “are disconcerting and have pushed out wonderful longstanding businesses that really defined the character of that neighborhood for so long. It's an ongoing struggle."

The preservation of the original buildings through landmarking has in part given retailers opportunities for unique spaces -- massive display windows, large sidewalk awnings and airy loft spaces, for instance. Helped by the opening of the High Line park, the neighborhood has thrived during what has been a difficult time around the city. “We seem to be very robust and there's a lot of exciting stuff on the horizon,” said Annie Washburn, executive director of the Meatpacking District Initiative

Meatpackers innovate

Today, the meatpacking survivors — clustered and protected in a city-owned co-op under the High Line — make a go of it by cultivating niches, said George Faison of DeBragga & Spitler. DeBragga figured its future rested in dry-aging high-quality beef, hand-cut by skilled artisans and sold to the city’s top restaurants. “So it saves the jobs of these men, it saves our company,” Faison said.

Washburn praised the way DeBragga has retooled its business. “They've created a real boutique meat facility that's about more than just meatpacking. ... It’s really an artisanal aging facility."
 
Long-time meatpackers cite complex reasons for the district's collapse: Tough regulations that required costly plant upgrades, landlords who insisted on short-term, ever-costlier leases, big, mechanized packing operations that undercut profit margins in New York.

Before it was ‘cool’

Crippled by a range of forces, the plants little by little disappeared. And, “little by little, it became cool,” Jobbagy said. "Cool if you weren't down here, the people who work here and have been here for years have a different perspective. We don't buy into the hip, cool, trendy thing because we see it in a different light," he said.

Carlos Alameda, a supervisor at Weichsel Beef, starts his shift like most meatpackers -- in the dead of night. A 20-year veteran, he recalls the days when one could quit his job and find another one across the street. The business' future, he admits, scares him, but as for the job?

"I tell you, not for nothing, it takes a lot to wake up at one o'clock in the morning, man. But it's my living, it's my life," he said.

***

Neighborhood timeline

1851: The city acquires Astor family property, underwater and off Gansevoort Street, to consolidate downtown markets.

1884: Market opens between Gansevoort and Little West 12th streets.

1887: Meat and poultry are added to the district with the West Washington Market.

1900: About 250 meat plants and slaughterhouses thrive in the area.

1934: High Line is completed, originally going as far south as Canal Street.

1949: City builds Gansevoort Meat Market co-op, which survives.

1970s: Club goers mix with meatpackers overnight as a dance, drug and sex scene emerges in the neighborhood.

Late 1970s: Manhattan Storage Warehouse converted to West Coast apartments.

1985: Renowned gay club Mineshaft is shuttered.

1985: Florent restaurant opens, popular with club kids.

Late 1990s: Jeffrey New York leads the way for the arrival of high-end clothing boutiques.

1997: Chelsea Market, built in a former Oreo cookie factory, opens.

1999: Restaurateur Keith McNally opens Pastis restaurant.

2001: About 36 meatpackers remain in the area.

2003:  Part of neighborhood is landmarked.

2004: New York magazine declares it the city’s “most fashionable neighborhood.”

2007: Apple's MePa store opens.

2008: Whitney Museum announces plans for a MePa annex. Florent closes.

2009: First part of High Line park opens. About eight meatpackers remain.

***

Voice of the neighborhood

Annie Washburn, executive director, Meatpacking District Initiative

“The way the new businesses moved in and put their fingerprint on the historic buildings is kind of a magical element of the neighborhood.”

Andrew Berman, executive director, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation

“The fact that the majority of the buildings have been preserved holds out some hope that the continuing evolution of the neighborhood can still hold a connection to its past.”

Robert Chopak, head butcher, DeBragga & Spitler meatpackers

“You’re in the Meatpacking District, it’s almost like being in Hollywood. They’ve made this area so glamorous now. “

John Jobbagy, owner of J.T. Jobbagy meat company

“You miss the activity. You miss the culture. You miss the commerce — the other companies being here.”

George Faison, partner and chief operating officer, DeBragga & Spitler meatpackers

"The neighborhood wants us to stay, just because we’re good citizens. We open early; we keep an eye on what’s going on.”

Carlos Alameda, supervisor, Weichsel Beef

“Now this area is so rich, everybody’s left, everybody’s gone. They’ve gone to Hunts Point. They’ve gone to the Brooklyn market. The real estate is so ridiculous down here.”

Michael Angelo, owner Michael Angelo’s Wonderland Beauty Parlor, recalling the neighborhood as a teen

“The West Village was so cute and so pretty and you would just turn this corner and all of a sudden it was like big and open and lots of light in the sky.” 

Donna Cleary, artist with show at Leo Kesting Gallery

“You walk around here, it’s this really hip crowd. Everybody’s dressed up to the nines and it goes all night long.”

Clay A. Wright, studio proprietor, Design Within Reach

“I feel out of all of our neighborhoods in the city, it still has a little bit of grit … a little bit of that flavor.”

***

Explore the neighborhood yourself with this walking-tour guide from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. Get it HERE.

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