Discover the History of NYC’s Meatpacking District In 24 Hours
By Jeana C. Wiser
When I first moved to NYC, one of the neighborhoods I was immediately charmed by was the Meatpacking District. With its original cobblestone streets (to be more specific, they are technically called Belgian Blocks) and historic buildings, the place teemed with magnetic energy, magic, style, and charm.
This is a place where people want to be -- locals and visitors, alike -- so much so that I would be remiss to not mention that this neighborhood is also one experiencing some of the most intense development pressures, and therefore, skyrocketing rents (the ever-present, double-edged sword of an evolving and vibrant neighborhood).
Despite its popularity and never-ending weekend crowds, this neighborhood is a must-see. It’s a 20-square-block, 24-hour neighborhood on the West Side of Manhattan, flanked by Chelsea Market to the north and Horatio Street to the south. For preservationists and others who feel drawn to places rich in layered histories, the Meatpacking District provides a unique opportunity to engage in the tangible and intangible exploration of an old place experiencing rapid change, in a hyper-urban context.
Inherent to exploring any NYC neighborhood is giving yourself the chance to truly dig in and get to know the place from a variety of angles. Approaching a new place with a critical lens might be a more challenging methodology, but it’s something I like to take the time to do out of respect (and admiration) for the evolution and various versions -- over time.
The Meatpacking District has played a major role in the historical narrative of New York City as one of the first established hubs of activity -- dating back to the early 1800s -- that grew through that century into the meat and food market-filled industrial center that helped earn its current moniker.
Ready to observe, engage ... and learn? Here are some suggestions for how one might experience a day in the Meatpacking District:
In the AM
A couple takes in the view from the High Line.
This neighborhood really comes alive at night -- so the morning (around 10am or 11am) is actually an ideal time to meander through the relatively quiet streets, checking out the fabulous old buildings with all their industrial warehouse-character.
As you wander, do make sure to head down Gansevoort Street to get a feel for how this neighborhood evolved. I would suggest stopping by the historic Gansevoort Marketplace -- recently re-designed to meet the needs and interests of the changing neighborhood, but doing so by leveraging the past.
Did you know:
- Gansevoort Street was originally named after General Peter Gansevoort -- a Revolutionary War hero and grandfather of author Herman Melville (famous for penning Moby Dick).
- By 2003, only 35 of the 250 slaughterhouses and packing plants remained in the neighborhood.
In the PM
Gansevoort Street at sunset
The newly re-imagined High Line, originally constructed in 1934 (at street level), is an excellent place to watch the sunset over the Hudson River. It is a one-mile-long, 35-foot-high, elevated public park whose southern end hovers over the Meatpacking District. With its height and therefore stunning views, plan to arrive at least 30 minutes before sunset to stake out your place. Perhaps grab a coffee at Kava Cafe beforehand.
Did you know:
- The High Line attracts nearly 6 million visitors each year.
- In 2003, the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation (GVSHP) and its Save Gansevoort Market Task Force, along with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (LPC), established the Gansevoort Market Historic District.
There are many glamorous restaurants and bars to choose from when you explore the night life of the Meatpacking District.
At night is when you will truly discover the “new” heart and soul of the neighborhood. Gone are the days of authentic meatpacking, with its associated blood running down the streets of the district, and in its place one will discover some of the most glamourous and interesting restaurants and bars.
For better or worse, the Meatpacking District of today is a very different neighborhood compared to its beginnings; now it’s the place to see and be seen -- especially at night. To that end, there are infinite options for late night dining, drinks, and socializing. Some of my favorites are: Bar Nana, Dos Caminos, El Colmado Butchery, Macelleria, and Spice Market.
Did you know:
- The Triangle Building, at West 14th Street + 9th Avenue, used to have sex clubs in its basement, and the infamous Pope of Pot was once a tenant. Today, the building includes grandfathered residential tenants, art galleries, and upscale eateries.
For more information about the history and evolution of the neighborhood, please visit the following websites:
- Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York -- Meatpacking Before + After
- Meatpacking District Improvement Association
- Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation -- Gansevoort Market
Bonus: Check out this cool project from photographer Brian Rose, who recently completed a photographic study of contrast and comparison in the Meatpacking District as it has transformed over the last 20 years from an open-air industrial meat market to a glittering hub of nightlife and restaurants. Rose originally photographed the area in 1985 and returned in 2013 to document the same street corners.