The photographic artist Efrain John Gonzalez runs walking tours, through the cobblestone streets of NY’s Meatpacking District under the High Line, so that others can relive the days when kinksters and sex deviants filled the streets unabashed and free.
In the mid 80’s the industrial decline and part dereliction of the area officially known as the Gansevoort Market Historic District spawned a home for the BDSM poly, trans, gay and leather underground. Libertine clubs such as Hellfire, the Anvil, Mother and the infamous Mineshaft drew the more extreme to their backrooms and glory holes.
Born in the Bronx, Gonzales moved to Manhattan in 1975 and has documented the evolution of the district through the decades since then. It is a rare photographic archive. “I could show you photographs of the buildings the way they used to exist at night, before they got cleaned up, sanitized, and turned into perfume stores,” he says. “What I do is show a culture that used to exist, that started a lot the S&M groups and organizations,” he says. “It was a community built on people coming together, talking to one another. Now that has pretty much changed.” Some think not for the better.
The history of the Meatpacking District, is one of extreme shifts and in many ways, a stark indicator of what happens when strong socio-industrial forces get to work on a place over a period of time. Saving its location it may well have been flattened at its nadir, but location, preservation and subtle strokes of genius have resulted in a significant transformation in a short period of time. Gentrification, not to everyone’s taste, but certainly tidal in its overwhelming action.
The neighbourhood can be located just as the irregular street pattern of Greenwich Village meets with the grid pattern of the 1811 Commissioner’s Plan. Originally a military Fort, the subsequent mixed use neighbourhood consisting of tenement buildings, single-family homes, and industry really burst into life in 1880, when the Gansevoort and the West Washington Markets were developed. These markets dominated industry in the district, with the Gansevoort selling regional produce and the West Washington Market selling meat, poultry, and dairy products.
Photo: Gansevoort Market circa 1900
These markets were the main instigators in the Meatpacking District’s rise. The Gansevoort and Chelsea Piers were added between 1894 and 1910 and the innovative underground pipe refrigeration system, installed by the Manhattan Refrigeration Company, helped to build the neighbourhood into one of the most advanced and largest districts of wholesale meat, poultry, and seafood distribution.
In 1934, the New York Central Railroad’s elevated freeway was completed, improving distribution capability further – and by the end of World War II, the area had cemented its reputation as THE Meatpacking District, home to about 250 slaughterhouses.
Building the Highline Railway. Picture: New York Historical Society
Photo: Meatpacking heyday
But more efficient transport systems and centralised distribution started to pressurise the district. In the 1960s, the shipping industry in the Hudson River ports declined, and by 1979 the Manhattan Refrigeration Company closed its doors. The evolution of the interstate system and trucking industry saw the demise of the High Line’s use as a railroad system and this was closed in 1980, its last train pulling three carloads of frozen turkeys.
The District’s vacated warehouses and a disinterested NYPD provided a fertile breeding ground for drugs, transgender prostitution and the sex clubs which sprung up giving an outlet to socially taboo activities for the more adventurous or otherwise inclined. But all was not to last. During the AIDS crisis, business literally died off at the leather clubs.
In 1985, the state gave permission to Mayor Koch to padlock all of the city’s gay bathhouses, bars, and clubs where “high-risk sexual activities” were taking place. Hellfire changed it name to the Vault, removed its backrooms and sanitised. Gonzales explains, “You could spank someone, you could fist them, you could jerk them off, but you couldn’t have regular [anal] sex”. City inspectors ventured into The Mineshaft, probably the worlds most notorious members only gay club, and witnessed “many patrons engaging in anal intercourse and fellatio.” The Times reported “sounds of whipping and moaning.” That year the Department of Health closed The Mineshaft for “violating the new anti-AIDS regulations.” It was the first of many such closures.
Photo: Mineshaft Club closed by Department of Health
But vacuums tend to get filled and in the same year Florent Morellet laid claim to the first bit of gentrification by opening his famous French-American diner in a shuttered old luncheonette called the R&L, an after-hours spot for the be-leathered and their acolytes.
Photo: Florent’s R&L American-French Diner. Closed in 2008 after his tenure of 23 years
Lots of empty grimy space is cheap to rent. So in followed the artists. New clubs opened, like the gay Lure, along with part-time lesbian hangout Clit Club, and the weekly party Jackie 60, an anything goes, non-exclusive scene for drag, punk, performance art, and poetry.
Jackie 60, 1998: Debbie Harry to far left
Hogs & Heifers the faux Biker bar came to the neighborhood, attracting celebrities like Brad Pitt, Gwyneth Paltrow and Julia Roberts, who famously danced on the bar and donated her brassiere to their growing collection.
When you look at the history of regenerated and gentrified areas you this pattern repeating. Decline, dereliction, cheap rents with the artists triggering a recolonisation through cool. As a young boy I visited Notting Hill in the early eighties which was going though a similar wave – NOT safe, but colourful and creative – a far cry from the Notting Hill of today with its boutiques and eye watering property prices.
All Saints Road, 1980
A tipping point for Mepa came in 1999. That year, two fashionable restaurants opened in the area, Markt and Fressen. Reviewers initially were not wild about the district’s scent of offal but success followed irrespective. At the same time a group of property owners lobbied for demolition of the High Line, but Peter Obletz, a Chelsea resident, activist, and railroad enthusiast, fought back and challenged demolition efforts in court and the Friends of the High Line was born – culminating of the opening of Section 1,2 and 3 between 2009 and 2014 the now world famous, iconic 1.45 mile public park. Amongst it all this was probably the single most influential architectural intervention and arguably the one bit of genius that sets the district apart from the wannabees.
Highline Section 1
But of all the signs of gentrification, it was Keith McNally’s Pastis (bohemian and unfussy place for the workingman – not) which is most often blamed for the Meatpacking District’s death, or rebirth, depending upon whether you’re wearing manacles or Manolos. The moment the bistro opened in early 2000 it was swamped.
Change followed fast. The majority of meatpacking plants were pushed out. The transgender sex workers were chased out and in moved Samantha from Sex and the City and following her many Carrie Bradshaw wannabes tottering in their Laboutins. You could quickly add two zeroes to the rent.
“Cock a doodle do!” Sex and the City, Season 4, Episode 18. Samantha moves into the district…
The Meatpacking District is a rich urban story of evolution and, in the main, a lesson in how a place and it’s people are subject to the enormous tides of social, industrial and economic change. Amongst all those weight forces, however, there were people of vision who nudged the tiller and helped to create a place that is now more than it would otherwise have been had pure avarice been allowed to take hold. Those who saw a crumbling elevated railway and thought it might be a neat idea to create an iconic public park in the sky. Those who sought and still seek to preserve the district’s architectural fabric, yet understand clearly that a living place is not a museum. That a place needs newness as well as the old and that a building like Renzo Piano’s new Whitney’s Museum of American Art has a place in part of an ongoing evolution.
Renzo Piano’s Whitney’s Museum of American Art
Love it or hate it, what is true is that you can’t try to control forces such as this and hope to retain authenticity. If a place has soul, it surely comes from its social history. The most you can hope for is to help steer progress in some small way and in the right direction through a series of interventions. Placemaking in this context can not be an executed human plan, but more of an exercise in slipstreaming the greater social forces that we humans induce, as our society evolves.