Washington Street — © Brian Rose
It was the winter of 1985, and I was casting about for something new to photograph. I had completed projects on the Lower East Side and Central Park, and later that summer I would begin shooting the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, a project that would continue to occupy me up to the present. For reasons I cannot recall, I walked over to the west side with my camera and spent several days photographing the meatpacking district. I began from the West Village, the scene above relatively unchanged today. The yellow and black sign warning illegal parkers that the air will be let out of their tires remains attached to the wall of the building almost 28 years later. In 1985, David Dinkins was running for Borough President–he would later become mayor.
Washington and Gansevoort Street — © Brian Rose
In the morning the meat packing district was a vast open air scene of carnage. Sides of beef were hung from hooks that slid along overhead conveyors. Men in bloodied white coveralls grappled with the carcasses. By mid morning the hubbub of the city’s meat market subsided and the cobblestone streets took on a look of abandonment, astonishing in the heart of such a great metropolis. As evening approached another kind of meat market took over–this one human trade–as prostitutes prowled the empty streets, many of them transvestites, overly tall females tottering about on high heels, while men in black leather sought the anonymous doors of sex clubs.
Gansevoort Street — © Brian Rose
In 1985 a restaurant called Florent opened on Gansevoort Street. For years it was a late night destination for the downtown social set, gay and straight alike. It was hard to find, and took a certain fortitude to navigate the urban hell/paradise surrounding it. It was not expensive, but for me, blowing all my money on 4×5 film, on a whole other plane of existence. You can see it on the left, the glowing neon florent in the window. A website with the sign still glows on the Internet here. A recent article about the former owner Florent Morellet is here.
Washington and Little West 12th Street — © Brian Rose
If you look up some of the business names, you see that many still exist, like J.A.W.D. above, operating out of the Hunt’s Point market in the Bronx. That’s where most of the distribution of meat, fish, and produce is handled for New York in modern refrigerated facilities. The red door to the left of the truck was the entrance to the Mineshaft, probably the most infamous of the men’s sex clubs that dotted the meatpacking district. It was closed later in the fall of 1985 at the height of the AIDS crisis.
Washington Street — © Brian Rose
The entrance to the Mineshaft in the winter of 1985.
Little West 12th Street — © Brian Rose
In 1985 the high line was a nameless unused rail viaduct that ran down the west side of Manhattan all the way into the West Village. It cast ominous shadows over streets and vacant lots. The elevated rail line once served the docks and factories lining the Hudson River. It replaced the tracks that ran down the middle of Tenth Avenue–Death Avenue it was called back then. The picture above was taken where the beer garden of the Standard Hotel now is.
Washington and West 13 Street — © Brian Rose
The desolation of the meatpacking district by day was profound, but many parts of lower Manhattan were also quite empty. Things were changing, however, and the Soho gallery scene was already well established, and Tribeca was beginning to take off. Nevertheless, in the winter of 1985, the meatpacking district slumbered undisturbed through the daylight hours.
Washington and West 13th Street — © Brian Rose
Just as in the loft neighborhoods further downtown, there were artists living and working above the meat market below. A telltale sign were the gas heating units that looked similar to window air conditioners. If you didn’t have much money you only ran these for part of the day, and I remember visiting some pretty cold lofts in those days. The other thing that made the meatpacking district less attractive for living was the stench of the meat businesses–it permeated everything.
West 14th, Hudson, and Ninth Avenue — © Brian Rose
Ninth Avenue — © Brian Rose
The parking lot above is the present location of the Hotel Gansevoort.
West 14th Street — © Brian Rose
The “apple” store on 14th Street.
West Street and Tenth Avenue — © Brian Rose
The Liberty Inn shared its odd shaped building with the Anvil, another of the neighborhoods sex clubs. The Anvil is long gone, but the Liberty lives on as a rent-by-the hour hotel.
Tenth Avenue and West 17th Street — © Brian Rose
So much has changed in the meatpacking district and the adjoining gallery area of Chelsea that I hesitate saying anything at all. What was once urban desolation is now the epicenter of fashion and art in the western hemisphere. The High Line is no longer a rusting hulk, but… I’ll let you fill in the blank. I love it–it’s a perfect conjuncture of preservation and contemporary architecture. I hate it–it’s too crowded much of the time to be enjoyed. But what can you do? This is New York. You cannot live here if you cannot abide change.
Even as the money sloshes through the streets of the meatpacking district, we are reminded of our fragile hold on this island as the waters of Hurricane Sandy flooded the couture shops and art galleries along the Hudson. Our ultimate fate may yet be determined by the melting ice of Greenland.