The Meat Market
Developers eye New York City's meatpacking district with lean and hungry looks.
By Will Yandik | Online Only | August 8, 2001
When Florent Morellet opened a restaurant on Gansevoort Street in Manhattan's meatpacking district in 1985, many wondered about his clientele. The "carcass luggers" who began work at 3 a.m. in blood-stained sleeves seemed unlikely patrons, as did the transvestites who paused to check their make-up in delivery truck mirrors.
Beef and pork still ruled the 20 blocks west of Greenwich Village. Developers had somehow forgotten the district, a remnant of old New York trapped in the amber haze of street lamps—a hoof-clopping, steam-hissing, dung-in-the-streets kind of city.
"Despite the gritty elements, the area communicates its own elegance," says Morellet, who co-chairs the Save Gansevoort Market campaign, a group that formed a year ago to acquire city historic landmark status for the district. "I first became concerned when I saw people tearing down historic awnings," Morellet says. "None of us want to see the old buildings replaced with apartment buildings."
Although the district's zoning ordinances generally restrict buildings taller than five stories, the area remains at risk. Since Morellet rolled out his tables 16 years ago, meatpackers have slowly been forced out by urban chic.
Boutiques and bars are more common than rump roasts these days, and the pressure to convert old market blocks into brasseries is severe. Located on the Hudson riverfront, the district's businesses face rising rents as the city plans for a Hudson River Park stretching from the Battery to 59th Street.
The good old days of the bull market
Markets have existed in the district since the 1840s, when Greenwich Village was still rural. In 1884, New York named two acres of land after Gen. Peter Gansevoort, a Revolutionary War hero and grandfather of Herman Melville. (The novelist worked for 19 years as a customs inspector on Gansevoort Dock.) Money from the Astors and Roosevelts converted tenements into warehouses; packaging pork at the turn of the century could be as profitable as oil and railroads.
In 1900, 250 slaughterhouses and packing plants filled the district; by the 1930s, those houses produced the nation's third-largest volume of dressed meats. The city, eager to retain the immediate supply of fresh meat and jobs, subsidized the industry throughout the early 20th century.
Most of the meatpacking district is today dominated by industrial architecture, yet it is not without its gems, including a Beaux-Arts building on Ninth Avenue designed by Boring & Tilton, architects of the immigration station's Main Building on Ellis Island.
Yet Village preservationists argue for historic landmark status on the merits of the meat houses themselves. "Most historic districts celebrate grand residential properties, but New York has not yet celebrated its commercial past," says Jo Hamilton, Morellet's co-chair at Save Gansevoort Market.
Of Manhattan's 49 historic districts (New York City has 79 in all), ranging from Greenwich Village to the 10 tiny Victorian stables of Sniffen Court near East 36th Street, few represent blue collar New York. SoHo and Tribeca, the only other districts with a history of light industry, lack the density and commercial purity of Gansevoort Market, says Hamilton.
Much of the area's architectural purity is the result of real estate investor William Gottlieb, who in the early 1980s bought nearly a fifth of the market area from failing packaging plants and sat on the properties, giving them little more than a coat of paint. "Mr. Gottlieb collected buildings the way some people collect stamps," says Morellet. Gottlieb's reluctance to sell or lease his property, however, buffered the district from development.
Since Gottlieb died in 1999, his sister, Molly Bender, now 75 years old, has inherited more than 100 of the buildings. Despite rumors of generous offers from developers, she has not yet expressed her plans for the properties. Some preservationists point to the property transfer as urgent proof that the district needs historic protection now more than ever.
Not everyone believes historic landmark status will save the district. Joe Nemecek, a third-generation meat man who works at Weichsel Beef Co., doubts preservation will help the area's meatpacking industry, which is struggling as rents rise and trendy nightclubs move in. "Some of the new restaurants don't care if we stay or not," he says, "but they still want deliveries every day. They want their customers to see us coming into their places in our white coats with a fresh pig over our shoulders."
Nemecek, former owner of Adolf Kusy Co. Fine Pork and Provisions, watched his rents quadruple in six months. Recently, he was forced to sell his 75-year-old company to Starwood Urban Investments, a Washington, D.C.-based developer. He estimates that more than 50 meat dealers have been forced out of Manhattan in the last two decades. Although his employer, Weichsel Beef, has occupied the same riverfront building since 1960 and has nine years left on its lease, it is looking at sites in New Jersey in case the rising value of real estate forces them out. "We're a prime target for development," Nemecek says. "We're sitting ducks."
Nearly all of New York's mayoral candidates have expressed interest in preserving the commercial history of the city. Yet some point to plans to move the East Side's 167-year-old Fulton Fish Market from South Street Seaport to the Bronx as proof of the city's indifference.
"It's sad," says Nemecek as he lists the dozens of meatpackers forced to the suburbs. "Someday the only thing left of this place is going to be a little silver plaque out on 14th Street that reads: 'Here stood Gansevoort, the great market that once fed this city.'"
For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.