A small huddle of cobblestoned streets on the western edge of downtown Manhattan located about halfway between the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels symbolizes the fortunes of NYC, a city in which the only constant is change. The Meatpacking District was first a native American trading post, then a military fort, before it became the center of meat purveyance in the late-1800s. Gansevoort Plaza’s confluence of four streets was home to the hustle and bustle of butchers in white coats, like immigrant Philipp Ottmann who brought his family’s meat cutting skills from Southwest Germany and set up business at 1-5 Little West 12th Street, next door to what is now the Gansevoort Hotel. French restaurant Bagatelle, which has locations in Saint-Tropez, Mykonos, London, and St Barts stands in the spot of Ottmann’s business today, and accommodates sleek, well-heeled urbanites who spill out of town cars. Back then the zone’s higgledy-piggledy streets, unusual in Manhattan’s grid layout, were filled with trucks being loaded with chops, smoked hams, loins to be delivered to the nation’s hotels, restaurants and airlines. At the turn of the century, 250 businesses made it a major meat hub, now there are less than ten.
Becoming New York City’s most fashionable neighborhood
As the meat industry consolidated in massive plants in the midwest and other parts of the country, this Manhattan neighborhood endured several decades of decline, becoming a gritty warehouse outpost frequented by sex workers and drug dealers. Nightclubs catering to a gay clientele sprouted up providing recreation for a community under siege by the AIDS epidemic. A period of gentrification in the 90s brought high profile glamor, casting the area as a playground for the cosmopolitan-sipping, designer-shopping foursome from the groundbreaking HBO show, Sex & the City. The district’s 14th Street corridor boasted an international roster of luxury labels to rival Paris’s rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, London’s Bond Street or Milan’s Via Montenapoleone: Alexander McQueen, Moschino, luxury boutique Jeffrey, and Stella McCartney who chose it as the location of her very first store. After dark a flood of nightclubs welcomed globally renowned DJs and swanky restaurants installed top chefs to feed Anna Wintour and Sarah Jessica Parker.
In 2004 it became a landmarked district, and New York Magazine called it “New York’s Most Fashionable Neighborhood.” Five years later its appeal was elevated, quite literally, when the Highline, a greenway erected along a disused overhead freight rail line, was opened to the public.
But in the decade that followed its fashionability began to tarnish as glamorous tenants moved out. Manhattan’s shiny new Hudson Yards was getting all the attention and it lured fashion PR agency KCD from its Meatpacking home in 2018. Milk Studios which had been hosting fashion events since Calvin Klein first showed on the runway there in 1998 moved on when Google bought the building in 2019. The aforementioned designers had gone too, although Zimmerman, Hermès, Loro Piana remain. But Diane Von Furstenberg is fashion’s doyenne of the Meatpacking District. Her West 14th design headquarters are right above her flagship store and a gallery space, and her backyard is the 250 million dollar passion project she backed with her husband Barry Diller, a green space built on Pier 55 overlooking the Hudson River, named Little Island, which opened to the public last month.
The 2015 opening of the Whitney Museum brought international tourists to the area seeking art over accessories, and lifestyle retailers emerged such as Restoration Hardware, Apple, Tesla. Its once-glittering 14th Street is currently occupied by more practical apparel purveyors, Patagonia, Uggs, Lululemon, but a large proportion of the spaces stand empty, To Rent posters plastering the windows. The pandemic’s effects have hit Manhattan retail harder than perhaps anywhere else in the country given the city’s astronomical rents. It remains to be seen how this chameleonic corner of it, historically associated with innovation, industry and it-purses, will emerge.
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry