The boundaries of the Meatpacking District extend all the way to the edge of Manhattan on the Hudson River — and there is no shortage of neighborhood activity on the water. Today, Hudson River Park covers the neighborhood’s waterfront, with control over the walkways and the now-abandoned piers. Because of the park, the river itself is no longer used for any particular function of the Meatpacking District; rather, it stands as a picturesque background to the activities going on alongside it, such as countless joggers, dog-walkers, and cyclists and special, city-sanctioned events. But in the past, this was different…
The history of the waterfront is marked by its many piers. Pier 54, one of the many Chelsea Piers, made its home in the Meatpacking District and has a rich and prominent history. In the early 1900s, Pier 54, along with the other Chelsea Piers along the Hudson River, were places of arrival for thousands of immigrants coming to New York. More often, however, Pier 54 catered to a richer, more elite crowd: it was one of the main docking places for the Cunard and White Star luxury liners. It was because of these ships that Pier 54 became infamous: the RMS Carpathia, which rescued Titanic survivors, docked there after the shipwreck disaster. Additionally, the RMS Lusitania departed from Pier 54 on what would be its last voyage before being gunned down by German torpedoes, the act that brought the United States into World War I.
Once the Great Depression hit the country, however, the luxurious quality of the pier began to decline; instead, it took on a primarily military use during World War II, providing a place for ships carrying US troops. After the end of the war, Pier 54 and the rest of the piers along the Hudson saw less and less use, mainly due to the rise of airline transportation; in this way, the decline that marked the Meatpacking District as a whole during the second half of the 20th Century can also be seen in the history of Pier 54. Eventually, the pier became entirely dormant. In the 1980s, there were plans to clear out all of the Chelsea Piers, including Pier 54, to make room for an enormous highway (a proposal which Jane Jacobs would undoubtedly disapprove of). Thankfully, this plan did not go through, and a future for Pier 54 was made possible.
By the way… Did you know that Manhattan used to have a Thirteenth Avenue? Built on a landfill in the mid-1800s, this relatively small avenue ran straight alongside the Meatpacking District and pushed the boundaries of the neighborhood even further west against the Hudson. Even at the time, however, the avenue was of little use to most New Yorkers, and it was even quite dangerous at night. A wonderful New York Times article from 1883 called it “a West Side thoroughfare of little account”; its Meatpacking District section was apparently full of lumber piles, trash from the the city dumps, and unused carts full of garbage and miscellany. Furthermore: “At night Thirteenth-avenue [was] a very desolate neighborhood….The police avoid[ed] it scrupulously. The lights [were] few and far between.” (Here is a link to the full article; the wealth of interesting information and the author’s hilariously satiric tone make it well worth the read: http://search.proquest.com/docview/94164076?accountid=12768.)
Eventually, because of a greater need for larger piers on the Hudson, it was decided that the landfill should be removed to make way for these new piers, and Thirteenth Avenue was destroyed. However, there is a tiny stretch of it that still remains today…
The Meatpacking District is the only place in Manhattan where you can still find the last remaining piece of Thirteenth Avenue. There is an area from Gansevoort to Little West 12th called “Gansevoort Peninsula” that extends outward into the Hudson, and here is where Thirteenth Avenue exists today. Alas, the street is not open to the public; rather, it is fenced off in order to house a New York City sanitation facility. Filled with trash and the smell of garbarge, Thirteenth Avenue and the Gansevoort Peninsula are not much different than how they were in the past; they are still far from glamorous. Nevertheless, there are plans for the future to move the sanitation facilities elsewhere and transform Gansevoort Peninsula into a new section of the Hudson River Park. (Jacobs??) Perhaps someday, Thirteenth Avenue will once again be walked on by the casual New Yorker.
As for Pier 54, renovation of the Chelsea Piers began in the 1990s, going hand-in-hand with the gentrification of the Meatpacking District as a whole. Most of the piers, including Pier 54, became part of the Hudson River Park in the late 1990s. Now, because it is technically part of an official New York City park, Pier 54 has seen an increase in casual use. Recently, it has been the home of various concerts, exhibits, movie showings, and, interestingly enough, the Gay Pride Dance. However, when the pier is not being used, its vacant, rusty archway stands bare and alone, an ancient tribute to the rich and varied history of both the Hudson River and the Meatpacking District. There are future plans to clean up the pier, making it more attractive in an effort to encourage more public park use (like what has already been done to most of the Chelsea Piers further north, which now make up an enormous sports complex); however, Pier 54 as it stands today gives a certain character to the neighborhood, adding to the gritty side and balancing out the chic. Should we take this away and make the Meatpacking District even “cleaner”? Or should we rather encourage the historic quality of Pier 54 and the spontaneous uses it provides as a loose space? I wonder what Jacobs, Franck and Stevens, or Zukin might say…
“Chelsea Piers History 101.” Chelsea Piers. Chelsea Piers, 2013. Web.
“Events.” Pier 54. Pier 54, n.d. Web.
“History.” Historic Pier 54. Historic Pier 54, 2013. Web.
“Hudson River Park Act.” Hudson River Park. Friends of Hudson River Park & Hudson River Park Trust, 2013. Web.
“Interactive Map.” Hudson River Park. Friends of Hudson River Park & Hudson River Park Trust, 2013. Web.
Layton, J. Kent. “Pier 54.” Atlantic Liners. Atlantic Liners, 2009. Web.
“Thirteenth Avenue.” Thirteenth Avenue: Structure and Impermanence. Thirteenth Avenue, 25 June 2006. Web.
“A Very Peculiar Avenue: A West Side Thoroughfare of Little Account.” The New York Times (1857-1922): 12. 11 Nov 1883. ProQuest. Web.